Most people in the US equate only Sichuanese food with spiciness. In China, that honor belongs to both Sichuan and Hunan, although many Chinese also recognize that the two varieties of spiciness are distinct and quite different from each other.
In Sichuan, chili oil is king. Dried red peppers are fried in oil to create a red hot chili infusion that includes both a hot oil on top and plenty of pepper seeds at the bottom. The cook is free to choice the percentage of oil and seed paste to create the desired spicy dimension to a dish. For example, the "water boiled fish" dish from a few posts back is one that focuses on the use of a large quantity of chili oil. When only oil is used, the spiciness comes on more slowly in the mouth, but builds up and lingers for a very long time.
In Hunan, ripe red peppers stand alone in fresh form. Only when it's time to make a dish are the peppers cut and quickly fried in oil to release the fragrances. Therefore, in many instances, Hunan dishes actually look spicier than Sichuan dishes due to the large amount of visible red peppers. The spiciness in fact does come on stronger and quickly because of direct contact with fresh seeds. However, I find that the spiciness subsides much faster than the version imparted by the Sichuan chili oil.
Our meal at Di Shui Dong, a Hunan cuisine temple started off with a cold dish of beef jerky (top). The beef is actually not quite dried to the Slim Jim form, but still has some moisture. As you can see, the red fresh chili pieces that have been soaked in soy and other spices are quite easy to spot. This is one of my favorite dishes to start a meal. I find that the intensified chewing gets one's appetite going.
Our garlic and chili prawns came skewered individually. They have been fried very quickly in extremely hot oil and are crunchy on the outside and very tender on the inside. For those not in fear of the garlic and chili paste on top, eating the prawn in the whole, shell included, is recommended. Otherwise, one can go through the messy process of removing the shell.
Even vegetables can't escape the spicy treatment. Here eggplant slices are stir-fried with plenty of hot peppers and bits of onions. The super absorbent nature of eggplant make this dish irresistible to those who love spiciness, but pure punishment for those who can't take it.
Just like in Sichuanese cuisine, not all classic Hunan dishes are overly spicy. The focus of this rib dish is on the fragrance released by the large amounts of fennel and anise seeds that coat the meat. The ribs are very meaty and quite satisfying.
Hunan is the birthplace of Chairman Mao, so almost every Hunan restaurant serves his favorite dish, a non-spicy red roasted pork. It's similar in preparation to the famous Shanghainese version of red roasted pork, but it does not rely on sugar to create a final sticky coating. At a meal with mostly spicy food, I prefer it this way. Sugar somehow interferes with the spiciness of other dishes.