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Haunting Hunan

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I spent the weekend in western Hunan reuniting with 36 people I worked with for two years starting 20 years ago. All but one, 龙丽花 lóng lì huā, I hadn’t seen for 17 years.  I last saw her ten years ago. One other, 舒晶 shū jīng, with whom I have kept constant contact but not actually seen, helped me organise the visit in secret. No one else knew I was coming. In fact, I had told Long Lihua that I couldn’t come. Most didn’t even know I am still in China.


I arrived at my local station around 00:20 in order to catch the 1:00 train northwards travelling overnight to Hunan, with an advertised arrival time of 9:15 am. Shu Jing was to meet me.


When I arrived at the station, armed with my sleeper ticket, I found that the train was running 5 hours late! Station staff advised that I change my ticket for a different train, which I did. The problem was that there were no sleeper tickets available on the new train. All I could get was a seat. I had no choice, really. They refunded the difference and gave me my new ticket.







The second train was only 1½ hours late, then I had a miserable night, unable to sleep and very uncomfortable. Somehow the train managed to make up for the late start and we arrived on time. I was met as planned and we hopped into a taxi to the hotel where I was to stay and where the reunion was to take place.


They had set up a reception desk in the hotel lobby and around half of the people I had come to see were there. When I walked in there was this moment of confusion, stunned silence, then the friend I had lied to about not coming ran towards me and threw herself into my arms with tears running down her face and across her smile. It was the best welcome I’ve ever had. Then the others also welcomed me less physically, but no less warmly. They were around 20 years old when I met them; now they are verging on, or already are, 40, though few of them look it. Long Lihua is the one on the far right.




Throughout the morning people arrived in trickles as their trains or buses got in from all over China. One woman had come all the way from the USA. We sat around chatting, reminiscing and eating water melon until finally it was time for lunch.




Lunch we had in the hotel dining room. By that time, the group had swelled to enough to require three banqueting tables.


Western Hunan, known as 湘西 xiāng xī, where I was and where I lived for two years - twenty years ago, is a wild mountainous area full of rivers. It was one of the last areas “liberated” by Mao’s communists and was largely lawless until relatively recently. It has spectacular scenery.


Hunan is known for its spicy food, but Xiangxi is the hottest. I always know when I am back in Hunan. I just look out the train window and see every flat surface covered in chilis drying in the sun. Station platforms, school playgrounds, the main road from the village to the nearest town are all strewn with chillis.






The people there consider Sichuan to be full of chilli wimps. I love it. When I left Hunan I missed the food so much. So I was looking forward to this. It did not disappoint.


So Saturday lunch in next post.

Edited by liuzhou formatting (log)
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Saturday Lunch


In random order (which is how they are served).



Celery, Carrot, Nuts and Day Lily



Pork Hock Meat with Chili, Garlic and Coriander



Beef with Chili



Bamboo with, you guessed.



Pig Liver and Goose Liver with Chili Dip



Two Beans with Chili



I'm told this was some kind of mixed offal dish. It wasn't awful. The white blobs are quail eggs.



Steamed and Fried Shrimp



Pigs Ear with Red and Green Chili (The best dish of the meal, in my opinion)



Duck with, er Chili





Steamed Turbot with Soy Sauce (oh - and some chilis)



Out of focus Greenery



Steamed Buns




coming next - Saturday dinner.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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26 minutes ago, liuzhou said:



Celery, Carrot, Nuts and Day Lily


liuzhou, I'm so sorry you lost out on your sleeping arrangements on the train for seemingly little compensation for the difference between the experiences, and so glad you seem to be having a great time with your old friends anyway. You are a trooper. 


Do you know what the nuts were in the photo I quoted from you? They don't look like peanuts, hazelnuts or macadamias. I'm out of ideas. Some sort of exotic Chinese nut I will never see in person? One inquiring ingnoramus would love to know.


Everything from the food to the company looks so terrific. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us, and I hope you have got your sleep schedule steered back to an even keel.


At several of the authentic Chinese run Chinese restaurants here, the dishes are also served randomly, whenever they are ready, I'm guessing. This causes some, I think, unnecessary scathing reviews from U.S. natives who are not used to that idea, and do not appreciate the bounty before them.


So glad you had fun in spite of the rocky start to the trip, and eagerly anticipating more installments.

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Saturday Dinner


Following an afternoon which the team very happily spent playing the sort of silly games which they played when they were just kids and first came together; and eating more water melon and beautiful, sweet yellow peaches which are a speciality of the area, we relocated to this restaurant for dinner.





Yellow Peaches


Again in random order



Loofah with garlic



Bitter Melon with Chili



Fish Stew with, yep, you got it!


Pork Carrot and ...



Pickled Daikon Radish (This was also served at lunch, butI forgot to mention it)



Fried Peanuts with Dried Fish (what I call minnows)



Winter Melon with



Dry Pressed Tofu with Hunan Larou (Bacon) and...



Cabbage and ...



Steamed Buns with Pickled Vegetables



The star of the show - the best duck I have ever eaten. Laden with chillies and a deep, deep flavour. Ginger, soy sauce, garlic and a touch of magic.


Next: Sunday Lunch and Dinner



Edited by liuzhou Punctuation (log)
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37 minutes ago, Thanks for the Crepes said:


Do you know what the nuts were in the photo I quoted from you? They don't look like peanuts, hazelnuts or macadamias. I'm out of ideas. Some sort of exotic Chinese nut I will never see in person? One inquiring ingnoramus would love to know.



I know it doesn't look like it in the image, but they were cashew nuts. This is a very common combination of ingredients here - not only in Hunan.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Sunday Lunch


We had Sunday lunch in the hotel again, so inevitably there are some overlaps/repeats - but if it was good first time round - and it was - we weren't complaining.





Beef Hotpot



Mixed Vegetables with



Black Chicken (Silkie) with



Stewed Chicken



Steamed Shrimp



Dry Fried Green Beans with Minced Pork and



This is some kind of aquatic plant. The locals called it "seaweed" but Hunan is landlocked and hundreds of miles from the sea, so I am sceptical. It was good though.



Pork, Celery and



Stir Fried Carrot Slices with



Roast Duck



Turbot again - no complaints



These were fun! Grade 1 Shiitake mushrooms.



Except, they aren't mushrooms at all! They are steamed buns. Sadly, in my view, they were filled with sweet bean paste. A spicy duxelles or similar would have been perfect. But they amused us.




Coming next: Sunday dinner.

Edited by liuzhou typo (log)
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So if you grow up in Hunan and don't like chillies, do they throw you out? :D


Those steamed buns are really clever. All looks delicious.

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After lunch, there were a few speeches including one from me, then things started getting rather emotional. It suddenly struck me that it wasn't just me they hadn't seen for 17 years - many of them hadn't seen each other. For three years, they worked closely together on a fairly stressful project, lived together, then went their own ways when that was over. Tears were shed that night 17 years ago when it came to an end.


Now most of them have families of their own, but the tears came flooding back on Sunday afternoon. Again, they don't know if or when they will see each other again. Wine had been consumed and they had been up half the night talking, so perhaps their emotions weren't totally under control.


The official organised reunion was over and people began to drift off. We all checked out of the hotel as we had to, but one room was kept on for another 12 hours to allow those people still waiting for their onward travel to hang out. For the first and probably only time in my life, I got to hang out in a Chinese hotel room with 16 Chinese women!




Slowly, in ones and twos, people left to catch their trains. planes or buses. I was staying one more night, but moved to another hotel nearer to the train station, more convenient for an early departure in the morning.


That evening, I had dinner with the people who still live in that town, so didn't need to make any real journeys. This meal was taken in a restaurant specialising in organic and "healthy" food.


I forgot to take my camera or a notebook, so these pics are from my cellphone and what remains of my memory.



This is one of my favourite Hunan curiosities. It is simple coriander/cilantro stems fried with chilli. Utterly delicious



Dried tofu with



Roast pork with flat bread, cucumber and scallion. A Hunan version of Beijing Duck!



Can't remember - some kind of vegetable



Cauliflower with






Fish Stew with



Cabbage with



As you can see, these had nearly all gone before I noticed them. Preserved egg (century eggs) with green chilli. These were possibly the hottest thing I have ever eaten and I ain't no chilli wimp.These gentle, beautiful women had scarfed nearly the lot before I got into them. They were killers! But delicious.



Winter Melon



Potato with


Did I mention that they like their chillies there?


In fact, the local women are known throughout China as 湖南辣妹 hú nán là mèi, which has two meanings, as can an English translation. The literal meaning is "Hunan Hot Sister", often rendered as "Hunan Spice Girls", with "hot" meaning spicy, but of course with the same innuendo as English.


After dinner, Long Lihua and another colleague took me on a tour of old haunts. I visited my old apartment and some other hangouts, then returned to the hotel. Next morning, Long Lihua and her husband picked me up and took me to the station to catch an early train back home. At least, it was scheduled to be early (07:00), but was an hour late. Normal. Again, it made up time and arrived on schedule in Liuzhou. By 4pm I was home.


It was an utterly wonderful weekend. Exhausting and emotional, but wonderful. It only took 15 minutes with those lovely people for it to seem like only a few days had passed, not decades.


I still feel kind of happily overwhelmed.


And very happily overfed!




Edited by liuzhou Correction and clarification (log)
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1 hour ago, Tere said:

So if you grow up in Hunan and don't like chillies, do they throw you out? :D


Those steamed buns are really clever. All looks delicious.


The Hunanese grow up on chilies in their mothers' milk. I doubt that anyone who really dislikes them would survive beyond childhood!

Yes, I loved the idea of the shiitake steamed buns and so did all my Hunanese friends who were as surprised by them as I was.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Thanks so much for sharing not just the meals but the whole emotional experience.  A weekend to remember for sure. 

Edited by Anna N (log)
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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Great food and experience, thanks for sharing. OMG, all those chillis, pass me the yoghurt ! 

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1 hour ago, Anna N said:

Thanks so much for sharing not just the meals but the whole emotional experience.  A weekend to remember for sure. 



They gave me two years which I will never forget, but they capped that with this weekend. I'm looking forward to the 40th anniversary!

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Oh Liuzhou, I almost feel like I went along with you!  I'm SO glad you had such a great time.  The food looks amazing.  I am getting to be more wimpy in my old age, but I would have gladly scarfed down many of those dishes.  I, too, loved the steamed "mushroom" buns.  


Now, you catch up on your rest young man!

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5 minutes ago, Shelby said:

Oh Liuzhou, I almost feel like I went along with you!  I'm SO glad you had such a great time.  The food looks amazing.  I am getting to be more wimpy in my old age, but I would have gladly scarfed down many of those dishes.  I, too, loved the steamed "mushroom" buns.  


Now, you catch up on your rest young man!


Thank you, but I think "young" left the equation!

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What a wonderful trip, thanks so much for sharing it. The food looks fabulous.

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Everything was overwhelming beautiful (including your lady friends), but those little shitake mushrooms buns were works of art! The level of detail was such that I was wondering, 'isn't it rare for raw vegetables to be served unadorned in China. Why are they serving a plate of mushrooms like that, even as perfect-looking as they are?' I agree a duxelles filling would have brought them even further into the sublime.


Thank you so much liuzhou, for taking us along with you. Your time and effort are very much appreciated. Hope you have a chance to rest up and get plenty of sleep.

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What a lovely experience for you and the ladies.  Must have been magical.

the food looks beautifully but oh my goodness those chilies.  I just cannot imagine eating that many.  I do like spicy foods but krikee that just scares me and my digestive track.:(

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Let me add my thanks to all the others.  It was an amazing trip for us all.  

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