書湘門第 (Cafe Hunan)

All it took was one bite of food. One single bite, and I was convinced I was going to have an exemplary meal at Cafe Hunan.

It was not something extravagant or flamboyant – rather, it was just a humble dish consisting of slippery slices of pork belly and dried tofu, stir-fried until the fat melts and everything is properly caramelised. But here’s the thing, this particular dish brought me back to China, back to the days when I would frequent tiny, hole-in-the-wall Hunan joints with my father in Shanghai. It is quite difficult to phrase it in text, but this particular dish just tasted authentic. It tasted exactly like something you would find in Hunan, and when a restaurant serves up food tasting exactly of what you would find at its country of origin, you know you are in for a treat.

Pork belly with dried tofu
Slippery slices of pork belly with dried tofu in a feisty, fiery sauce – Pork Belly with Dried Tofu (HK$78)

Authenticity is good, and everything from Cafe Hunan screams “authenticity” with block capitals. From the interior decor, cleverly designed to mimic a retro Chinese manor, with grey walls and wooden panels, to the staff and their rich Chinese accent, everything is exactly as you would expect if you hopped on a flight and landed in Hunan.

Then, of course, there is the food. Hunan, or Xiang cuisine is one of China’s eight great regional cuisines (If you ever have the time, run a quick search on China’s regional cuisines. It is fascinating observing how climate, location and culture shapes food). Unlike Cantonese food, which is refined, subtle and delicate, Hunan cuisine is unashamedly brash and fiery, full of fire and heat from all sorts of spices and chilis. You would not be too incorrect in thinking that Hunan cuisine is similar to Sichuan cuisine, cut from the same metaphorical culinary cloth – after all, they both share the same love for chilis and DEFCON-1 levels of heat. But there is more depth Hunan cuisine; the flavour of smoke is often utilised, and more often than not, you will discover a funky, sour element in a dish, be it a dash of vinegar in the sauce to cut the richness, or  in the form of some musky pickled chilis or greens to give the dish a proper spanking. In fact, I will go as far as to suggest that pickles and other fermented goodies are almost a must in any proper Hunan dish, and that the culture utilises acidity better than any other region in the vast lands of China. So, if a Sichuan meal – such as the one in the mighty Qi – is like getting pummelled in a 12 round boxing match against Mike Tyson in his prime, a great Hunan meal is more like a sparring match against a Tai-chi master, more subtle and delicate, yet indomitable all the same.

Stir Fried Baby Lotus Roots with Chilis
All freshness and crunch – Baby Lotus Roots with Chilis (HK$65)

With the pork came some delicate baby lotus roots, the colour of ivory and enamel, flash fried in a hot wok with a boatload of fresh bird’s eye and sour pickled green chilis so that the delicate vegetables preserve their natural freshness and crunch. It is a masterclass on balance, on how to juggle strong flavours so that all the elements on the plate remains harmonious. There is just the right amount of acidity to tickle the palate, and just enough heat to make a single bead of sweat drip down your back.

Fish Head with Chilis
A magnificent fish head, butterflied, swimming in a fiery bath of chilis – Fish Head Steamed with Diced Chilli Peppers (HK$148)

Then the piece de resistance arrives in the form of a fish’s head, as large as a child’s torso. It is butterflied and steamed under a blanket of diced red and fermented green chilli peppers in a savoury, oily broth. Feel free to dig around for chunks of beautiful, buttery cheek meat, or scrape off slivers of skin and dredge them in the fiery sauce, but the real gourmets know that the prime stuff is what’s hidden inside the cranium of the fish. Go on, be bold and stick your chopsticks inside! Search every nook and cavity carefully and you will be rewarded with soft, creamy brains and cartilage with the consistency and wobble of custard. Then there is the sauce, so powerful it hollers and screams. The red chilis provide intense searing heat and saltiness, while the fermented, funky green peppers knock you sideways with a strong, acidic punch. Resist the urge to lap up the sauce, and instead, ladle it onto rice or noodles once the last bits of the fish are picked off. Trust me, you will thank me for this little tip. If the thought of ingesting fish brains and other wobbly bits of an animal makes you feel squeamish, you are forbidden from ever reading this blog again. Go away, shoo! For all good things are wasted on you.

Food this good normally come with a hefty bill, especially since Cafe Hunan has been recommended by the Michelin guide for consecutive years. But instead, Cafe Hunan is an absolute steal. Regular stir fried dishes are no more than HK$80 (The smokey pork belly with dried tofu costed only $68, while the baby lotus roots are only HK$58). The fish head, as big as an apocalyptic beast? Yours, for only HK$148. As you walk out of the Cafe Hunan, you will realise that the shirt on your back is drenched, and that you really need a cold drink – ideally an icy cold Tsingtao – to soothe your tongue. Heck, you might even have crippling stomach pains the following morning. But I guarantee this, you will leave Cafe Hunan a very happy man.

Cafe Hunan, Shop B, G/F, Koon Wah Building, 420 – 424 Queen’s Road West, Western District

*Other branches of Cafe Hunan can be found at Wanchai and Olympic City