Pig intestines with chili peppers
Southern China is a part of the world where over 200 days out of the year is spent under the clouds and high humidity. People here eat extremely spicy foods because it makes them sweat and expel toxins from their pores. It's more of a lifestyle than a style of cuisine. Babies start eating spicy as soon as they're off milk and the elderly scoop spoon fulls of pepper into their bowls and eat it like rice. Right about now you should be thinking of how tourists can handle the spice. Some like the challenge, most breathe fire like a baby dragon from the Game of Thrones. Worry not! The Chinese government already made plans for you! The restaurants are instructed to place as little chili peppers as possible in their dishes so they're more toned to the tastes of foreigners so that they're not receiving complaints left and right. But that's not for me. I enjoy sampling foods of all kinds and am willing to risk my internal organs yelling at me at night. Just between you and I, the odds of getting a stomach virus is probably higher in one of New York's Taco Bell than at a road side food stand in China that cooks their food over a blazing fire.
Preserved duck eggs in pepper sauce
We're provided three meals a day and time in-between sightseeing to shop around and sample local foods. I remember clearly our first and last night of the tour in Hunan's capitol of Changsha where we ventured off a few blocks from our hotel to a quiet street with restaurants lined up. The first night we went into this corner restaurant that was opened 24 hours which offered a large variety of noodle dishes, rice dishes, and many hot pot choices. My group of six people sat down and ordered a little off of each category on the menu to sample the cuisine that we've never had in our lives. One of the dishes I can describe to you is, practically, peppers marinated in pepper oil with grilled peppers on top sprinkled with sliced peppers for seasoning. It wasn't until I took my chopstick and tossed it around in curiosity that I found sliced chicken underneath. Prior to my trip, I bought an 8-pack of tissues bundle from a Target back home because I knew that
Marinated pigs feet
90% of restaurants in China do not hand out free napkins. I was ready for that. What I was not ready for was that I was probably going to use half of my tissue rations on my first night in China. On the count of three, I was ready to eat a slice of chicken that was under all of that pepper. I slowly counted...
Check one, two. Check three, four. Everything is still in place and my forehead isn't flowing like Niagara Falls. Rather than a full blown wave of spicy like you would expect after sampling foods in the Americas, the spicy here is a soothing spicy where it's released in multiple waves even after you've swallowed your food, increasing in intensity after each bite of food only to be soothed and settled by a bite of fluffy white rice or a cup of local dark tea. In New York, there's an Indian restaurant in the lower east side called Brick Lane Curry. The restaurant currently houses the world's hottest curry. I sampled this curry during a friend's birthday and I came out of the restaurant like I accidentally fell into the Hudsen River. But this cuisine, this local contraption of a blend of five peppers and chili oil was not as hot as I expected. My definition of comfort food changed that instant. No more fried chicken and biscuits with a cup of sweet tea from southern USA, no more waffles, and no more corn on a cob. This was a wake up call. This Hunanese cuisine warms the heart and soul as it disgests in your stomach.
Stringed beans stir fried with fatty beef
There is no substitution to experience. I've had Hunan cuisine in New York and i've heard and fantasized about the heat of the peppers ever since I was told about them. I was book-prepared for handling this experience. I went into the restaurant with my checklist of what-to-do's and tried to go by the textbook. I was ready to fight a gun and knife battle with the peppers.
Today, Hunanese food has welcome me with open arms. Embracing my friends and family - it has forever made a mark in my hearts as one of the most flavorful foods that i've ever tasted.
I apologize for going off in a tangent with a story, but this was something that could not of been easily explained. I guess the moral of the story is that you cannot judge a food by its condiments.
"If it looks good, eat it." - Andrew Zimmern
I ate it.