Thanks to the recent openings of Sizzling Pot King in Bellevue (14125 NE 20th St.) and Dong Ting Chun in Edmonds (22001 WA-99), Hunan cuisine has finally arrived in the Seattle area, bringing its special heat as part of the diversification of Chinese restaurants. In contrast to the misnamed “Hunan Restaurant” found in towns and cities all over America — typically just a broad repository for generic Chinese-American fare — Sizzling Pot King and Dong Ting Chun are highlighting the true chile-laden, smoky flavors of Hunan, albeit with some of their own twists for modernity’s sake. This development is long overdue, as Hunan’s culinary contribution, also known as Xiang cuisine, deserves to be celebrated as one of the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine.
Seattle has come a long way since the domination of Cantonese food, typified by chow mein, fried rice, and wonton soup at mainstays like Tai Tung and Fortuna Cafe. This area is fortunate to now have excellent food from various regions of China, including Shanghai (represented by the likes of Din Tai Fung and Dough Zone), Shaanxi Province (Xi’an Noodles and Qin), and even Guizhou Province (Qian Noodle). Sichuan has been especially popular here in recent years — Frying Fish, Seven Stars Pepper, and Lionhead are a few noteworthy purveyors — perhaps due to its bold, peppery contrast to what some consider the blandness of Cantonese food and the sweetness of Shanghainese food.
It might be the spicy success of Sichuanese food that’s finally paving the way for Hunan. Until recently, Little Garden in Bellevue was about the only place to find some authentic Hunan dishes like smoked duck, spare ribs steamed in bamboo, and cured pork with pickled long beans. Now, both Dong Ting Chun and Sizzling Pot King have branched out from their California bases, bringing a broader range of Hunan cuisine to the Seattle area as part of their expansions north and beyond. Both restaurants forego the finer dining trend in Chinese food (epitomized by Baron’s Xi’an Kitchen and Bar and Peony Kitchen in the wealthy downtown Bellevue area) in favor of more informal service in a relatively casual setting.
Dun Newton Liu, co-owner of Sizzling Pot King, is originally from Sichuan Province. He says that there are similarities between Sichuan and Hunan cuisine — namely, that both showcase the heat of chile peppers. But there are also strong differences in the forms of the chile peppers and what they are used with. Sichuan cuisine uses a lot of dried chiles and chile oil, often in conjunction with Sichuan peppercorns to create a ma la (numbing and spicy) sensation. Sugar is often used to balance the spiciness.
In contrast, Hunan cooking uses chile peppers in a greater range of forms: pickled, salted, and ground into pastes, as well as dried and infused in oils. Instead of Sichuan peppercorn or sugar, vinegar is the region’s preferred balancing agent — or “kicker,” as Liu calls it — which is why Hunan is known for sour and salty spiciness. Regional herbs like perilla are also incorporated as kickers. Hunan people, Liu says, find the heat and numbing effect of Sichuan food over the top, masking other flavors.
Even diners who don’t enjoy Sichuan cuisine’s ma la sensation may delight in Hunan cuisine’s gan la (dry and spicy) version. The flavors are familiar, but the food is fresher, less oily than the Sichuan norm, and prepared with more vegetables. The province, in the south-central part of China, has a rich bounty of agricultural products. As a result, menu items typically vary by season. For example, Sizzling Pot King has recently been serving smoked pork belly with winter bamboo shoots, with the preparation due to change for spring. (Any form of Chinese charcuterie is a must-order at the restaurant.)
Liu also explains that Hunan cooking deploys a wider variety of techniques, including smoking, curing, and steaming meats, slow-cooking stews, and stir-frying. At Sizzling Pot King, dishes like “magic tofu” — crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside — and golden pumpkin cakes are expertly done and demonstrate the diversity of the style. Both Sizzling Pot King and Dong Ting Chun offer further intriguing dishes like mortar and pestle-pounded eggplant with bell pepper and century egg.
Liu says the menu at Sizzling Pot King “reflects contemporary Hunan cooking and dishes, as the cuisine has evolved and incorporated culinary influences from other regions, such as the sophistication of Cantonese cuisine and a little of the ma of Sichuan cuisine.” There’s even a fusion element to Sizzling Pot King in its dry pot, which allows diners to customize their meats (including beef tongue and bullfrogs), vegetables, and heat level with the restaurant’s specialty: a highly developed sauce made with 10 to 15 Chinese herbs that offer distinct aromas and flavors.
Visitors to Hunan Province won’t find exactly Liu’s type of dry pot there, but Sizzling Pot King’s specialty captures the essence of Hunan cuisine in its flavor and spiciness even while offering a unique take on a centuries-old tradition still new to so many in Seattle. It’s a welcome addition to this area’s increasingly vibrant Chinese scene.
Correction: March 22, 2018, 4:37 p.m.
This story has been corrected to show that Facing East is Taiwanese, not Shanghainese. Monga Cafe has also been added as an example of the Seattle area’s Taiwanese cuisine.
Update: March 22, 2018, 10:36 p.m.
This story has been updated to remove a reference to Taiwan and two Taiwanese restaurants, which were not part of the original story.