In the vastness of China, Hunan lies in the southern central region, south of the massive Dongting Lake (Hunan literally meaning 'South of the Lake'). Home to Chairman Mao and a whole generation of well known soldiers and communist revolutionaries, Hunan's cuisine is considered to be as gutsy and bold as its history.
Like its neighbours Sichuan and Guizhou, Hunan was also an early adopter of South American chillies in its cooking in the early 17th century. A region of bold spicy tastes, the food is however not all mind-blowingly hot - it also imaginatively varied, and quite distinct from other regional cuisines of China, including slow-cooked stews, steamed or pickled vegetables, smoked meats and zingy stir-fries.
My introduction to this sophisticated cuisine was via the chef and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, in her 'Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook - Recipes from Hunan Province'. The British authority on the cooking of Sichuan and Hunan provinces, she also works as a food consultant and is behind the menus for a group of three Soho restaurants - the upmarket Barshu, serving Sichuanese food, as well as its sister restaurants Ba Shan and Baozi Inn, specialising in the cuisine of Hunan and the street food of northern China respectively.
Inspired by Fuchsia's heart-warming memoirs, and day dreaming of grand far-flung holidays to China, I made my way to Ba Shan in Soho's Romilly Street. If, according to ancient Chinese beliefs, you are what you eat, I can see no better way to learn more about the Hunanese than by sampling their local dishes.
On the corner of Frith and Romilly Streets in Soho, Ba Shan is, like Dr Who's Tardis, deceptively sized. A series of interconnected rooms over two floors give a reasonable capacity, while feeling intimate and buzzing. The decor is elegantly simple, with plain cream walls, slate floors, and dark wood Chinese panelling.
Koi, the restaurant manager, gave us some useful recommendations on the menu, including the popular Hunanese appetiser "smacked cucumbers with chopped salted chillies" (£5.90) which had a firm kick of heat balanced by the refreshingly chilled cucumbers. I also enjoyed it as a palate cleanser between main-course dishes.
The first of a series of main courses was a dish of deep fried prawns in fish fragrant sauce (£16.90) - plump prawns in a crispy coating, with a slightly salty, sweet, sour and spicy sauce. Perhaps a misnomer, "Fish fragrant sauce" contains no fish, but rather refers to the seasoning traditionally used in Chinese cooking to flavour fish - a combination of garlic, ginger, spring onions, and pickled red chillies - rather like a Chinese equivalent of the French mirepoix. The sauce is also used to accompany a variety of vegetable dishes, most notably aubergine.
As Hunan's most famous (or infamous) son, Chairman Mao's eponymous red braised pork (£8.90) is unsurprisingly one of the most popular dishes at this restaurant, and that is what we ordered next. Generous cubes of pork belly were slow-cooked in a rich velvety broth flavoured with star anise and cassia bark, Shaoxing wine and soy sauce, and were utterly delicious.
Dry wok dishes were also highly recommended, so next up was beef brisket with smoked bamboo shoots, green and red chillies and soy beans (£12.90). A rich, meaty and hearty dry wok dish with a crispy soy bean garnish, this was a wholesome course unlike anything I had tried before.
Pork is the most popular meat among the Hunanese, but it is the smoked variety for which the province is renowned. So to accompany our main dishes, we ordered dried yard-long beans with Chinese bacon (£9.90). This was a dish of crunchy beans, their flavour and texture enhanced by the drying process, with a rich smoky, salty flavour from the bacon.
For something other than meat or vegetables, I have a tofu dish whenever I can, and Peng's bean curd (£8.90) was my choice on this evening. This was a generously portioned dish of deep fried tofu, with minced pork and fermented black beans. The tofu had soaked up myriad flavours of soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, chillies and sesame oil.
This meal was unlike the familiar but delicious Cantonese fair I am used to, but then, why shouldn't it be? China is such a vast and varied country that we shouldn't limit our view of its cuisine to the Cantonese, Dim Sum and Sichuanese dishes we know and love in the UK, just as there's more to French food than Moules Marinieres and Croque Monsieur.
If travel opens the mind to different ways of thinking and living, it should also be a means to discover new cuisines, ingredients and flavours. For me at least, curiosity of the palate and the mind are closely linked, and this meal has inspired me to travel to China and learn more about the regional flavours of this fascinating country.
24 Romilly Street
Tel 020 7287 3266
To learn more about a variety of holidays to China visit the Cox & Kings website here.