Hunan chicken is a spicy dish of chicken and vegetables popular in Chinese-American cuisine. It is based loosely on the cooking style of the Hunan region of southeastern China, particularly along the Xiang river; most experts concede, though, that there is no single chicken dish from this region so popular as to warrant such a universal name. In the West, particularly in the United States, Chinese food has become quite standardized, however, and “Hunan chicken” is a typical preparation in many restaurants and take-out shops in these places.
Hunan chicken is a stir-fry dish, which means that it is prepared using a wok over very high heat. Cooks add raw chicken to the wok once it is smoking hot, then stir rapidly and constantly until the meat is cooked through.
One of the most defining characteristics of this type of chicken is its thick sauce, which is typically made by combining fresh ginger, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar. Spices like red chili peppers, garlic, and scallions are usually included as well. Cooks typically marinate chicken pieces in this sauce for several hours before cooking, and most will add more as the dish is being prepared. Most people will also add cornstarch during this phase to help the sauce thicken and really adhere to the chicken.
The type of chicken used can be a matter of some controversy, at least among Chinese food aficionados. Many people argue that bone-in chicken pieces — drumsticks, for instance, or wings and thighs — are more authentic. These pieces can be harder to eat, however, particularly when presented as a stir-fry. Many restaurants and commercial ventures use boneless chicken chunks, usually from the breast. This may be less traditional, but usually proves more popular with consumers.
Most of the time, Hunan chicken is served over white rice with vegetables, particularly broccoli and onion. Cooking the vegetables alongside the chicken allows their flavors to influence the sauce, but this isn’t always necessary — the vegetables can be prepared separately, which makes them crisper and helps them retain their own texture better. It is usually more efficient to cook everything all at once, as it saves time and requires fewer tools, but the taste is often improved when the ingredients are kept separate. A lot depends on the individual taste preferences of the chef as well as the space and time available.
Where to Find Commercially
Hunan chicken is usually a staple dish at Chinese restaurants, particularly take-out or “fast food” chains. The simplicity and easy predictability of the dish makes it a favorite among consumers on the go. These same properties often make it somewhat less popular at fancier Chinese establishments, where chefs often like to present dishes that are more authentic or at least more complex.
Traditional Variety and Westernization
China’s Hunan region is well known for spicy foods with a dry heat that comes primarily from the oil of fermented or dehydrated chili peppers that grow in the region. Poultry dishes are popular here, though there is not really a single dish that is itself characteristic of the cuisine since cooks in Hunan, as in most places, prepare meals in many different ways. Chicken can be stir-fried, boiled, or grilled, for instance, and a variety of different sauces and marinades are common.
The dish known as “Hunan Chicken” in the United States, much of Europe, and other countries is usually best described as “inspired by Hunan.” It is typically made with ingredients that are commonly available outside of China, and is often designed to appeal to the tastes of non-Chinese consumers. Most fast food restaurants make this dish following the same basic recipe, and as a result it has become more or less standardized around the world. Different cooks are of course free to add their own twists, but the core dish is usually pretty much the same from place to place.
Cooking at Home
A number of food manufacturers sell specialty Hunan sauces that home cooks can buy to make the dish in their own kitchens; some companies also go so far as to sell ready-made chicken meals, usually frozen, that can be prepared quickly. These “pre-made” options tend to best emulate the taste of take-out, but are by no means the only way to get good results. Making Hunan sauce from scratch can be time consuming, but is often worth it where taste and nutritional value are concerned. Home cooks who control what goes into their meals can both tailor them for personal taste or family member preference and can limit ingredients like sugars and starches, which can add calories.
Making the dish more or less spicy is one of the easiest variations, though adding things like garlic, peppercorns, or different vegetables can also alter the finished product. Serving it over brown rice, thin noodles, or shredded lettuce can also change the presentation. So long as cooks keep to the basic thick brown sauce, altering the taste or playing with the accompaniments can be a good way to make the dish more personalized.