There is a Chinese saying that people of Sichuan have no fear of spicy food and that the people of Hunan fear food that is not spicy.
The number of Chinese regional cuisines far exceeds the number of the country's provinces and other jurisdictions, but when Chinese talk about spicy food, you can almost guarantee that the first name to fall from their lips will be Sichuan, which may be followed in quick order by Hunan, Guizhou and Yunnan.
If the spicy hot you seek is the kind that leaves your mouth numb, you cannot go past the food of Sichuan, but that does not mean the food of Hunan, for example, cannot give it a run for its money. In fact, in terms of flavor, Hunan-style spiciness can pack a prize-winning punch, with its bold savory, simply dry hot or pickled sour spiciness.
A new restaurant in Beijing now offers a gourmet experience that adds a contemporary twist to Hunan dishes, borrowing from classic dishes from Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui and Yunnan, yet retaining the essence of the Hunan flavor.
But even before being charmed by the food and the restaurant's chic, almost whimsical decor, its name, Xiang'ai - a clever pun meaning both the love of Hunan and falling in love - gives a foretaste of the masterfully crafted delights that await the diner.
Starters are interestingly presented and full of flavor. We ordered two: marinated cucumber with sesame sauce (18 yuan), and marinated wheat gluten with Chinese prickly ash (22 yuan). Cucumbers are sliced into little slim sticks and delicately stacked into the shape of a Chinese character jing or "#". Here a surprise awaits because it is prepared with two kinds of cucumber, fresh or sour pickled, so you do not know what you have picked up until it lands in your mouth.
The next delight was a soup infused with natural and aromatic sweetness derived from longan fruit, which is stewed with silky black chicken and ganoderma mushrooms, both said to be very nutritional, and an aid to recovery in traditional Chinese medicine.
Far from sending taste buds into mouth-watering anticipation, the very names "hairy tofu" and "stinky fish" are apt to send many a non-Chinese palate rushing for cover. True, Xiang'ai cannot promise to make you fall in love with these two dishes, but there is a good chance that once you have tried them here, the milder and slightly glamorous twist they are given will truly squash and negative preconceptions.
At Xiang'ai, fermented hairy tofu, a delicacy hailing from Anhui province, is stewed with a homemade Hunan sour and spicy sauce. Unlike stinky tofu (chou dou fu), hairy tofu (mao dou tu) is devoid of the strong smelly flavor. It is named after the white hairy-like downy mould that grows on the surface during fermentation. The result is that the tofu tastes cheesy, creamy and fragrant.
The restaurant also serves stinky Mandarin fish, another representative of Anhui cuisine with Hunan's spicy flavor. The fish is usually fermented for about five days when the meat proteins turn into ammonia, sending out a subtle smelly flavor like a ripe blue cheese.
We tried this odorous eat, not smelly at all to the palate; instead, it left a lingering, burning aftertaste because it was smoked and then braised with Hunan red chilies.
One way to tell whether the stinky Mandarin fish is good or not is to use chopsticks to push the fish: the meat of well-fermented mandarin fish will shred off the bones in the shape of garlic flakes.
The peerless classic Hunan dish - fish head with chopped chilies - was wonderful, probably the best version I have ever had. Even my companion, who generally shuns fish, was smitten.
It is prepared with the head of a bighead carp cultivated for four years from Dongting Lake, China's second-largest freshwater lake, in northeastern Hunan province. Because of the large size, the meat inside was substantial. The cheeks, eyeballs, and all the flesh around each part took on different textures, creating a combination of chewy and succulent.
The fish head is stewed unfurled under a layer of Hunan-style salted green chili sauce and ginger. It is mildly spicy, not to overpower the savory fish flesh drenched with the broth.
What we tried was half the fish head. There are more choices in the chilies for diners. A popular way is to order a whole fish head under a coat of chopped bi-colored chilies, half green, and half red.
Pineapple rice is usually served as a staple at Yunnan restaurants, and the one we tasted at Xiang'ai was more satisfying and soothing, like a dessert. The glutinous rice is steamed with pineapple flesh and brown sugar for 30 minutes before being placed in a hollowed-out pineapple for another 15 minutes to create the sweet, fruity aroma. It costs 28 yuan.
The icing on the cake of this culinary extravaganza came in the form of what Xiang'ai calls "durian popsicle" (36 yuan). The creamy fresh durian flesh is mixed with milk and crushed nuts, and chilled into a popsicle. Wrapped with crispy rice, the popsicle is placed on a bed of cracker crumbs, decorated with little hami-melon balls and strawberries. It is only mildly sweet, but the strong fragrance and silky texture will surely capture you if you are a durian lover.
Xiang'ai is spread over three floors and can hold up to 200 people at a time. Private dining rooms on the second and third floors are named after species of flowers and birds. The decor gives you the impression that you are entering a fantasy land, with the backs of chairs in the shape of a flame or tree branches, or leaves - depending on your imagination.
There is a patio at ground level where you enjoy a meal or a few drinks in a tranquil and relaxing atmosphere, and which is just a stone's throw from the vibrant Galleria Shopping Center near the eastern 3rd Ring Road.