We left Sichuan Province after descending from Mt. Emei to visit Zhangjiajie 張家界 National Forest Park in Hunan 湖南 Province. Our group arrived and checked in fairly early at the airport; what was there to do with 2 hours to kill? Get a cheap 90-minute foot massage! Signet Tours even covered it for us.
But no one expected that we wouldn’t be the ones enjoying the massage the most. A swarm of mosquitoes–colonized somewhere near the airport–had apparently been drawn to the inviting smell of fresh tourist blood and poured into the massage parlor. It was a massacre. While the microscopic pests had won the battle, we eventually won the war after an arduous hour of swatting. We were fortunate in that the massage parlor carried electric swatting nets: instant death. For the entire duration of the massage, it rained dead mosquitoes. I swear I’m not even exaggerating when I say we killed over hundred. I alone zapped 30 to a crisp.
We were survivors, albeit with burgeoning, red and itchy welts starting to form over our bodies. Our reward was dinner at a wonderful restaurant in Zhangjiajie: 亭里香特色餐館 [ting li xiang te se can guan]. ‘特色’ means ‘specialty’ and ‘餐館’ is the word for restaurant. The specialties served here were very traditional Hunan cuisine.
Appetizers began with green raisins, thousand-year-old egg, and homemade egg-tofu steamed with mushroom broth in a wooden pot. Thousand-year-old egg, or 皮蛋 [pi dan], is made by preserving duck, chicken, or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for anywhere between several weeks to several months. Its origins came from 600 years ago in Hunan, during the Ming Dynasty, when–as legend has it–a homeowner discovered that a shallow pool of slaked lime, used for mortar in constructing his home months before, housed duck eggs. He set out immediately to produce more after finding the creamy, custard-like yolk and translucent jelly-like whites irresistibly delectable. They sound and look strange, but they are, indeed, delicious.
Included in our vegetarian feast was also 百页 ‘bai ye’, pressed tofu sheets that have a delightfully chewy texture, stir-fried with some fresh hot peppers. Hunan people are famous for not being able to not have chili or peppercorns in their savory foods. So if you’re not used to eating incredibly spicy food, you may want to pair your meals with a glass of milk. Two other traditional Hunan dishes that I particularly enjoyed were the black sesame, deep-fried mochi (top right) and the 葛根粉 [ge geng feng] soup. 葛根粉 is the “kudzu” vine: since 200 BC in Chinese medicine, it has been used to treat anything from hangovers to upset stomachs to diziness to vomiting. Some health providers today even use it by IV to treat stroke, as it is known for increasing blood circulation in the heart and brain. Gustatorily, it is a starchy, viscous and sweet soup made from just the kudzu powder, boiling water, and sugar. Worth trying–don’t be put off by the strangeness!