Hunan at Home

Last March we took a one-week trip to Los Angeles. Our goals were three: see friends, have fun, eat well. The first two were easily achieved, but the last required some research and prep. Luckily there were resources aplenty, and so we were able to build each day’s adventure around a meal. There was a day of biking along the beach in Venice followed by dinner at the lovely Gjelina. There were hikes in the Hollywood Hills, cocktails at the bizarre Whitehorse Inn at the Super 8 Motel, and delicious Matt Groening-approved Thai food at Jitlada. And there was a 3-hour drive to the just-out-of-the-box suburbs of San Gabriel, California, for some truly mind and tastebud-blowing food at Hunan Mao.

The great restaurant critic Jonathan Gold had written about Hunan Mao the week before we arrived, so we knew that his review was, well… gold. And because there were hiking trails in abundance in neighbouring Pasadena, we were able to make a day of it and not feel so guilty about spending half our gas budget getting out there.

The restaurant’s signature dish (as with many Hunan restaurants) is steamed fish heads in a startlingly beautiful and insanely spicy broth, and when the waitress saw us walk in, she made some assumptions that were both right and wrong. Yes, we had read the Jonathan Gold review and had made the trek from Los Angeles because of it, but no, we were not there to sample the fish heads. What we had come for was the house-smoked Hunan ham, which we were soon to discover, was served with our choice of vegetable. Having never tried it, we chose the salted turnip.

tumblr_inline_mqfzwoe0ZO1qz4rgpAs you can see from the picture to the left, the ham and turnip dish was loaded with all manner of chilies, but what you cannot see, is the plethora of Sichuan peppercorns hidden just under the surface, and the smoky richness of the ham that resonates on the tongue despite the heat.

We rounded out the meal with what seemed like an insurmountable plate of dry crispy lamb ribs (it was not) and a cool, balancing plate of sliced cucumbers with sweet red peppers and shiso leaves. Perfect.

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For weeks afterward we spoke of this meal and longed to return, but knowing that this would not likely occur any time soon, we decided on the next best thing: to try and replicate the meal at home.

The first step was finding some kind of equivalent to Hunan Mao’s house-smoked ham. This was no easy feat, but after a few failed attempts, we stumbled upon the smoked pork chops at Porc Meilleur. Though nothing can truly compare, these impart enough of the required flavour and texture to make them an acceptable substitute.

The second step was to purchase some sichuan peppercorns, a variety of hot chilies, and salted turnip, which is easily done if you have an Asian market nearby.

Once you have the ingredients on hand, the preparation of the dish is incredibly simple:

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One bag of salted turnip is enough for four people. Empty the bag into a bowl and cover the turnip with cold water. This is a very salty dish, so rinse the turnips well, then drain them and put them aside.

If you cannot find salted turnip, it is possible to use fresh, but the process is a more time-consuming and the turnips never quite attain the perfect texture. Still, if you peel the turnip, shred it, salt it, leave it, and then wash and wash and wash it until the amount of saltiness is tolerable, you will have something equivalent to the store bought variety shown here.

Buy one pork chop for each person. Cut as much of the meat as you can from the bone, trim it of fat, and slice it into strips or bite-sized chunks. Put it aside.

Slice an abundance of scallions, like three to four bundles, and have them standing by. Do the same with a bunch of garlic–maybe one large clove per person.

When you’re ready to go, pour some vegetable oil into a hot wok. When it begins to smoke, put on some protective glasses or make sure you are standing a few steps back from the stove, and dump in as many sichuan peppercorns and red chilies as you think you can handle– I was making this dish for four, I would use at least a tablespoon of each, but you can err on the side of caution and add more later if you need to.

Stir them around a bit, then keeping the heat on high, add the garlic, and then the pork and the turnip. Keep moving the food around the wok so that the peppercorns and chilies have a chance to mix and mingle with the turnip and pork. Despite the salt reduction techniques mentioned above, you may want to season the dish with a little soy, and then brighten it with a splash or two of sherry vinegar.

As a final touch, add three quarters of the scallions and toss into the mix. The remaining scallions can be used as a garnish when serving.

Though I wasn’t able to get a good picture of the home-made Hunan ham, the cucumbers pictured below were a successful recreation of Hunan Mao’s dish, but using mint instead of the harder-to-find shiso. Sliced thicker than those pictured above, they were tossed into the hot wok after it was wiped clean and oiled, then quickly sautéed with the red pepper and mint leaves. The dish was done in about three minutes.

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This weekend, we are going to prepare the meal again, and this time, will add some crispy lamb ribs to the mix. With any luck, I will have photos, and something soon worth writing about.

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