In the midst of a recent lunch with Ben from Chowtimes, he brought up a new project he was about to launch. He calls it “The Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine” or 8GTCC. Essentially, Ben and three other extremely well-versed Asian food-lovers are undertaking to discover and present all eight Chinese cuisines to his readers. Through a series of dinners at various venues in and around Vancouver, Ben, fmed, Dylan and Keev hope to shed light on the traditions, history and vast scope of Chinese fare. Obviously, this is not an easy task but the team Ben has assembled is more than qualified. I am truly honored to be involved at the outset of this unique quest.
Click here for an in-depth introduction to Hunan cuisine from Chowtimes .
Recently, Ben invited me to take part in a luncheon at Alvin Garden with the crew to discuss and set-up the first dinner. Of the eight cuisines, Hunan was chosen to be the first in the series. In all of the GVRD, Alvin Garden offers, I’m told, the best of Hunan’s fiery cuisine.
If you are a follower of this blog, you know I am a lover of all hot, spicy and chilified foods. I’ve been known to complain about bland, unseasoned dishes and rave about full-on, in-your-face heat. I maintain a larder stocked with a variety of dried chilies, Habañeros included. Yet, with all that bravado, something about Alvin Garden scares the heck outta me! Most of the fear is based in reports from co-workers who had eaten there…tales of dishes with such intense heat that only a rare few will venture back. Fear not, though, good reader! The heat is only one element; a bright backdrop to a delicious and extremely varied cuisine.
Upon my arrival, fmed and Dylan were waiting patiently. They had already ordered Hunan Pickles as an appetizer. The small plate of chili-laden, crunchy vegetables just sat there, almost menacingly. It was nothing like I’d ever seen…practically glowing with an intense heat. Who were these freaks? What was I getting myself into? After the introductions and pleasantries I hesitantly picked up my chopsticks and plucked a pickled carrot. That single morsel burned and burned and burned. Then I had another, and another after that. After a dozen or so bites the heat levels out and awakens the palate for all the flavours to come.
The region of China that Hunan province is situated in is blessed with a huge variety of fresh ingredients due to its rivers, lakes and valleys. Therefore, Hunanese meals contain a rich diversity of vegetables and proteins. Due to the high humidity, spicy foods are laid on early in the meal to open pores and cool down over-heated diners. In a nice contrast to that chili heat, mild yet flavourful soups are on offer, as well.
The Pork and Ginger Soup was the perfect counterpoint. A rich, well made broth spiked with large chunks of ginger and tender pork made an excellent second course.
The next plate was unlike anything I’ve ever ventured to try before.
Pork Heart with Five Spices. This is a deep, rich and intensely flavoured dish. If anything, the flavour and texture was more like beef. By now the heat factor has been mitigated…no longer an issue. Not being a big fan of organ meat, I had a couple of bites and checked heart off my “to try” list.
Stir-Fried Garlic Bolt with Hunan Smoked Pork. Translation: Garlic stems and peppers fried with Chinese bacon…really excellent Chinese bacon. This dish is a perfect example of balanced Hunan cuisine. The fiery peppers are available for the taking, if you so choose. The rest of the plate is crunchy and smoky, full of flavour.
Taro with Hunan Chili. I must say, I’m not a big fan of taro…except in Wu Gok. This dish, for me, was a bit heavy on the starchiness. The pickled chilies didn’t quite have the sourness I had hoped for. Perhaps if the taro was cut smaller and was more able to absorb the chili oil…
This final dish was, for me, the highlight of the day. Hunan Style Braised Pork or Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork. This is said to be Hunan-born Mao Zedong’s “brain food”. Chunks of pork belly are braised in Shaoxing wine, chili, star anise, cinnamon and ginger until melt-in-your-mouth tender. I’m not a huge fan of Chinese-style communism but I’m more than willing to accept an invitation for dinner!
During our meal, fmed stated that this was his favorite Chinese restaurant in all of Vancouver. I must admit I was taken aback by such a bold statement. With the sheer vastness of excellent Chinese food available, I felt it was near impossible to pick out a single restaurant. When I asked him why this particular place stood out, his answer made perfect sense. He said, approximately, “This is the one restaurant that makes no apologies for its food and won’t change it, no matter what.” Enough said.
This coming weekend fifty or so diners will converge on Alvin Garden to experience the unabashed flavour of great Hunanese cuisine. I, for one, cannot wait.