Midnight Mao-Rauder: Hungry Dan vs. Hunan Heat

Culture, Travel | by Dan Shapiro
Posted: December 5th, 2008 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
  Hungry Dan takes on spicy Hunanese food Hungry Dan does Hunan, the home of China’s fieriest revolutionary and some of its spiciest cuisine. Has the Hungry One met his match? Fresh off the plane at Hunan's Changsha Airport, I grab my luggage and proceed outside to battle the swarm of taxi drivers offering extortionate rates into the city center: 200, 180, 150, 125, 110 RMB, it's settled. I'm probably paying double, but it's pissing rain and the hunger pains are corroding my stomach lining and killing my ability to think clearly. My mission is brief and the objective simple: Eat the spiciest food Hunan has to offer. Of China's eight famous traditional cuisines, Hunan's Xiang ranks only slightly behind Sichuan in terms of spiciness, though many claim the difference is mere semantics. Regardless, this is exactly the sort of conclusion I desire to draw for myself. A glance at my cell phone reveals that it's 10:33pm. I've been fasting since lunch, determined to fill myself with hot chili peppers and intense spices. I ask the driver if there is a food street where I can sample traditional Hunan fare. He quickly replies that Pozi Jie (Pozi Street) is the very place I'm looking for, and I immediately tell him to change my destination from the hotel to Pozi. Spicy beef, chicken, pork, spinach, cabbage and tofu play the stars in this Hunanese dish Now it's 11:10 and I'm alone after dark in an unknown city, my mood deteriorating due to this self-imposed famine. The promise of spicy treats is the only thing keeping me from violently scarfing the first plausibly edible thing I see, spiciness be damned. Luckily, a short walk from Changsha's main drag leads me to the warm glow of Pozi Jie's many restaurants, the beacon of my salvation. Convinced that all of these eateries will have similar menus, I dart into the first establishment, Re Lu Liu, and hastily order a bottle of local beer. I also summon the waitress and request that she immediately serve the most authentic Hunan dish while I scan the menu for additional selections. I'm not sure if she's confused by my request, surprised that a foreigner is able to speak Chinese or simply frightened by the sight of my giant moustache and pale skin, but it takes her a minute to process, and then explains that the most authentic dish is a combination of spicy beef, tofu, chicken, cabbage, pork and spinach. Sounds excellent. Bring it on. Hunan spicy potatoes The urgency of my order is apparent and the waitress quickly returns with the first dish. I quickly place a hefty order, enough to feed an entire family, to cure my hunger-angst. Spicy meatballs, kou wei xia (spicy crawfish), beef and peppers, hot potatoes, chao doufu (spicy stinky tofu) and hot eggplant should be enough to ease my desperation. A few locals stare in amazement, astounded by the size of my order, unaware that I am indeed Hungry Dan; they also might be sizing me up, mistaking me for a culinary terrorist, unshaven as I am with my winter-time turban still intact on my dome. Still, one brave man approaches me with a bag of some sort of dried fruit, smelling quite similar to the Skoal or Kodiak I used to pack into my bottom lip as a teen. He explains that all the men in Hunan chew this bing lan or drop it in their glass of beer. When in Changsha . . . Spicy crawfish Hunan-style My dishes arrive and I attack the cuisine with ferocity, disregarding the reality that every plate is doused with red peppers and intense spice. Perhaps the bing lan has made me a bit high (I'm told that there's some sort of drug-like effect, but I'm not sure which strain), but I feel very little effect from the spice. Then it happens. Suddenly, my tongue is on fire with no place to hide—the burning roof of my mouth offers no relief. I nervously look around the table and snatch the bucket of rice, piling the white grains on my taste buds to absorb the worst of the heat. Minor freak-out averted, the beef and peppers are clearly the spiciest of the bunch, but still nothing on my plate instills anything like fear in me. So I ask the waitress if there is anything that is hotter and she explains that everything on the menu is pretty much of equal level on the spice-o-meter. Hunan beef and peppers Stuffed, drunk and possibly a bit stoned from the bing lan, I check the clock on the wall: 12:30. I've put a solid dent in every dish, and even I am impressed by my own level of consumption, though I'm also a bit worried about how my gut will hold up in the years to come with the gradual decline of my notoriously speedy metabolism. I motion for the mai dan (check), pay my RMB 240 and make my way onto the slick cobblestoned streets of Changsha, perhaps descending the very same steps that the Chairman himself took decades ago while planning his ascension to revolutionary glory, a little dosed, perhaps, on bing lan. After a long day spent sightseeing around Changsha and playing a brutal rock-and-roll set at the 4698 Livehouse, evening two of my culinary expedition leads me directly back to Pozi Jie for another round of fire, sweat and spice. Less anxious and frantic than the previous night, I meander around the lane, perusing various windows, attempting to make a more informed and rational decision about where to dine. Hunan spicy pork mix I glance around and finally decide that Wenji Siheyi Laodian is the ideal destination: the patrons all appear to be enjoying their food, the décor is casual but clean and the steam emanating from several dishes is irresistible. I begin again with a beer and spicy mix. Ordering something quick always eases my growing hunger and relaxes me enough dissect the menu. Hungry, but less hungry than the day before, I settle on some spicy rib meat with peppers and hui guo rou (fatty, double-cooked pork). The neighboring tables are all rowdy with excitement and I consider recommending some bing lan to mellow their mood, but before I even have an opportunity, my waitress returns. The rib meat is an instant classic, so tender the fibers dissolve on my tongue and spicy enough to instantly clear my nasal passages. The hui guo rou is less satisfying, rather too lean and the meat too chewy. Hunan spicy hui guo rou While Wenji's dishes are definitely tasty, I feel under-whelmed by the level of spice. I glance around the table and suddenly know what I have to do. There's a certain amount of glory that results from sacrifice and my masochistic nature decides to make its presence known, the devil on my shoulder egging me on to "eat the chili, eat the chili, eat the chili." Exclusively for the readers of ChinaTravel.net and the growing legions of Hungry Dan-o-philes (really just for my own personal death wish), I take a quick swig of brew, breathe deeply and wolf down the spiciest chili pepper available. Hot chili challenge play-by-play " . . .as;lkhasfgakhgfsdlkea;akfkjgiiewiwosd;lkzjdfsg . . ..;lsjgh;slkfhpeow;lkhsef;kghs . . ." Hungry Dan suffering from Hunan chili fueled on-tongue nuclear meltdown Without a doubt the hottest thing I've ever had in my mouth. Spice so intense that all I can do is cry and dart for the rice bucket. Pain so intense, rational thought is impossible; tears and runny nose, tongue so inflamed I'm unable to properly close my mouth as saliva drips out my mouth. There is no doubt now that my mission is complete. While I may permanently lose my sense of taste, burning off the sensitive buds that allow me to enjoy the very food I love, I have, at least, achieved the very thing I set out to discover. I wipe the sweat from my brow, imbibe another bottle and wonder how I'll ever top this gastronomic adventure.
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