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The term “Hunan shrimp” can refer either to a specific method of cooking shrimp or to a range of different rice and noodle dishes that contain seafood cooked this way as a key ingredient. Hunan is a province in southeastern China known for spicy food. Chefs in this region tend to have varied approaches, however, and as a result a number of very different dishes can all properly come under the title. Chinese restaurants, particularly those in North America and Europe, have also taken their own approach to this dish. Again there can be a lot of variation, and a range of spicy shrimp dishes can use the “Hunan” name whether or not they actually have any relation to that region of China.
China’s Hunan province sits in the country’s southeastern corner along the Xiang river. It is not a coastal community, which means that most of the shrimp cooked here are freshwater varieties. These tend to be smaller than those that live in the open ocean and many people also believe that they are more flavorful, through a lot of this depends on the animal’s diet and habitat. Shrimp raised on commercial farms and fed a limited diet often have a different taste than those that live in the wild.
Food that is described as “Hunan” can mean either that it is actually from this region or that it is cooked in the style of this region. Hunan chefs typically use a lot of hot chili peppers, which grow well in the local area, and also tend to stew their food for a long time, slowly simmering the flavors together. Cooks traditionally create “combined” dishes that blend vegetables, grains, and meats; this also has the effect of producing meals that are colorful and complex.
A number of different shrimp preparations can fall under the Hunan description. Simple stir-fries are among the most common, and are usually made by combining raw shrimp with vegetables, spices, and seasonings in a wok over high heat. Once cooked, the mixture is typically served over steamed rice or boiled noodles.
Cooks may also elect to steam or fry the shrimp alone, often to serve as an appetizer or side dish; they can also be boiled or included in soups or stews. The main characteristics that make shrimp specifically “Hunan” — namely, the spice and preparation style — can be applied to many different presentations.
The dish often has a slightly different connotation outside of China, though, and Chinese food fans in many more Westernized countries have something much more specific in mind when they order it. Take out shops and “fast food” style Chinese restaurants in many places have a somewhat standardized dish they call “Hunan shrimp,” which in most cases is shrimp stir-fried in oil with hot peppers and mixed vegetables, then served over white rice. A thick spicy sauce or marinade may also be included.
Many restaurants use sea-caught shrimp, particularly if they are less expensive, and they are most commonly served “de-veined” — which is to say, without their heads or spinal columns attached. A number of the most traditional Chinese chefs cook the crustaceans whole. This can make eating them a bit more challenging, but food purists often claim that it improves the overall flavor and “essence” of the meal.
The nutritional profile of this dish depends almost entirely on how it was made and the specific ingredients it contains, though in its purest form it is generally considered to be somewhat healthful. Shrimp, like other crustaceans, is a good source of iron, protein, and vitamin B-12. It is a very lean food, though it does tend to have somewhat high cholesterol levels; this is usually amplified when cooked in oil, butter, or other fats.
Vegetables are widely regarded as an important part of a balanced diet, and some medical research also suggests that regularly eating foods cooked with certain hot peppers can lower inflammation and improve blood pressure. Again, though, these benefits can be counteracted if the dish is also made with a lot of salt or high-sodium seasonings, both of which tend to cause inflammation and blood pressure problems. In most cases, the healthiest way to eat Hunan-style shrimp is with steamed meat, vegetables, and rice. The more oils, fats, and salts the dish includes, the more potential it has to be very high in calories and cholesterol.
There is a Chinese restaurant with “Hunan” in its name in my town. I'm guessing that all the food is prepared using the Hunan style.
They have a big buffet with different steak, chicken, and shrimp dishes available. All of them are mixed with vegetables like broccoli, red peppers, and green beans.
The shrimp is never fried, which is one thing I love about the Hunan restaurant. It is either boiled or sauteed with vegetables and soy sauce in oil, and it is so much healthier than fried food.