Hunanese cuisine at Chairman Mao Chinese Restaurant

by Forager on July 20, 2009

We’ve been keen to try out the Hunanese fare on offer at Chairman Mao Chinese Restaurant since a recent review in the SMH. The Co-pilot and I tried to guess how Hunanese style Chinese food might taste – but this exercise largely returns blank faces. We hazarded a guess that given Chairman Mao himself was from Hunan and favoured the food from his hometown, it might be simple peasant style village fare. Intrigued and curious as to how it would taste, we gathered a small group of hungry and adventurous friends – tonight joining myself and the Co-pilot we have The Artist, The Muse and Anguloose.

On the way to the restaurant we discuss the SMH review so we’re well prepared for fiery, no – “head snappingly hot”, salty flavours. The review didn’t however prepare us for the oozing oilyness of this cuisine. We pore over the menu and each of us select a dish or two that appeals to us. When asked whether 7 dishes and steamed rice for the 5 of us was going to be overkill, the waitress smiled meekly and mumbled something non-committal. So we stuck with our order and waited with baited breath. Looking around the restaurant’s decor, we can’t decide whether the abundance of Communist Party and Mao paraphernalia represents genuine adoration or a tongue in cheek poke at the kitsch perspective. Other than our table, the other partons are either uni students or very Han Chinese looking people, so it seems authentic enough.

The first dish out was the stir fried green hot chilli with special pork crisp. Now, those amongst you who are familiar connoisseurs of authentic Asian food should know that the word “special” should send double entendre alarm bells ringing for those uncomfortable with anything but boneless fillets of meat. Usually “special” dishes will often contain offal and mysteriously will also be more expensive (another misleading cue to trick the hapless). In this case, “special” pork crisp referred to deep fried strips of pork fat which were then stir fried with green chillis. So incredibly unhealthy but so very tasty, flavourful and moreish. Fried till they’re crispy on the outside and as you bite past the crispy shell there is no resistance, just the soft, gooey, fatty goodness within. Even the health conscious amongst us tucked in, pushing aside any fears that the pure fat would congeal and solidfy on it’s journey to the heart in the cold winter weather. And with this calorific dish, the tone was set for the rest of the meal. Oh – and for the record, the green hot chilli creates less head snappingly hot explosions and more mildly amusing firecracker pops.

stir fried green hot chilli with special pork crisp $14.80

Next dish to arrive was the restaurant’s signature dish – Chairman Mao’s braised pork. The succulent pieces of pork belly are braised until tender, wobbling seductively on the end of my chopsticks. The flavour is rich, sweet and salty from the dark soy sauce braising liquid and fragrant with the scent of cinnamon and star anise. A lovely dish that marries well with a healthy serving of steamed rice.

Chairman Mao’s braised pork $16.80

The whitebait dish that is placed on our table is not quite what we expected to see or smell. We’d ordered the stir fried pre-baked white bait with hot red chillis and had expected a variation of the battered white bait we normally get in Chinese restaurants. These whitebait smelt very fishy and tasted more like battered fried anchovies that had gone soggy. They’re salty and tasty with garlic and black beans tossed through the dish and whilst not entirely unpleasant, but not the favourite dish of the night. We’re all feeling the effects of 3 heavy and oily dishes. The Muse enunciates our thoughts by voicing how heavy and sleepy she felt already.

stir fried pre-baked white bait with hot red chillis $23.80

The stir-fried eggplant with green hot chilli shows off the chef’s deft and skilled knife handiwork with paper thin slices of Chinese eggplant adorned with more of that tasty black bean and garlic combination. By itself it’s a tasty dish, but the small diced pieces don’t deliver the same satisfaction you get when wrestling generous meaty chunks of Szechuan- or Xinjiang-style stewed large eggplant.

stir-fried eggplant with green hot chilli $13.80

When we spotted the stir fried julienned potato with vinegar and fresh red chilli, another favourite dish at other Chinese establishments we had to order it. Deliciously crisp and crunchy, with a welcome kick of vinegar – you could almost convince yourself that this is a healthy warm salad. A welcome dish after the heavy, oily and fried meat-centric dishes we’ve just been gorging on.

stir fried julienned potato with vinegar and fresh red chilli $11.80

The waitress comes out and informs us that the water spinach we ordered isn’t available. So we take a quick glance at the menu and decide on the stir fried lamb with cumin spice and hot red chilli. Somehow I forgot to try any of this dish and only realised when it had all disappeared. The Co-pilot did though and thought the lamb was tender, the cumin flavour strong and fragrant. Overall he thought the dish was tasty but not remarkable when compared to other lamb and cumin stir fry dishes we’ve tried before.

stir fried lamb with cumin spice and hot red chilli $18.80

The final dish to arrive is the stir fried cauliflower with cumin spice ordered by The Artist as he is fond of cauliflower. Although the cauliflower florets are simply flavoured with cumin, they are singed in places from contact with the hot wok and lend more rich burnt caramel flavours to the dish – a process of cooking that the Chinese often refer to as “wok hei” or “the breath of a wok”. We happily munch on the florets until we dig a bit deeper and reveal a molten pool of oil cuddling the florets beneath the surface. A few of us stop eating this at the sight of the golden pools.

stir fried cauliflower with cumin spice $14.80

At this point we’d passed that comfortable amount of oil consumption tipping point. Heavy lidded and heavy bellied, we eyed the leftovers on the table and acknowledged there was plenty of food left over – enough for 3 takeaway packs and definitely more than is characteristic for this group. Disappointingly, only at this point did we also notice that the dishes arrived in the exact order that we ordered them from the menu – first the fried meat dishes, then the stir fried vegetable dishes. Better planning on the kitchen’s behalf would have balanced the fried meat and vegetable dishes more and might have changed our experience of the meal.

I realised now we had the wrong expectation of this type of cuisine. It’s peasant style fare designed to be rich in energy and packed full of flavour – perfect when eaten in small quantities with very generous helpings of rice – I imagine these are the typical meals Chinese peasants would chow down on, chopsticks attacking noisily on the bowl scraping up every last grain before heading back into the field for a hard slog under a sweltering sun. Indeed when as we walked through the restaurants towards the door we noticed that the Chinese patrons had ordered few dishes coupled with large portions of rice.

Ah… Rooky error. But it was too late, we’d ordered too much, the wrong mix and the damage had been done. Wincing when we left the warm interior of the restaurant into the frigid Sydney night and feeling the lard congeal in our arteries and veins, the co-pilot and I resolved to start a regime of healthy eating for the next week. Particularly since we heard that The Artist felt so ill from the amount of lard he’d consumed that he was sick when he got home. Not just sickviolently sick, he emphasizes.

The co-pilot and I are still optimistic about our experience. We hope to go back sometime and try different dishes, perhaps avoid the deep fried dishes (like that deep fried lard, no matter how tasty it was) and eat it the way it was intended – small portions with lots of rice. But maybe only after we’ve given a chance for our bodies to burn off that “energy rich” meal.

189 Anzac Parade, Kensington; (02)9697 9189
Open for dinner only, Mon, Wed and Thurs 5pm – 10pm; Fri – Sun 5pm – 11pm

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Helen (AugustusGloop) July 20, 2009 at 10:55 am

Mmm… pork crisp. Looks like a heady calorific meal. Had friends who were keen on going here – thanks for the preview on what we should and perhaps shouldn't order!

2 aptronym July 20, 2009 at 12:18 pm

I had been considering this place but if there's that amount of fat involved, I think that I'm going to give it a miss! A little bit of lard goes a long way with me LOL.

3 Belle@Ooh, Look July 20, 2009 at 12:40 pm

The amount of fat in the dishes is a worry, but they do look tasty. Having a bowl of plain rice to soak up the excess is definitely a good idea next time (just don't eat the rice!).

4 Betty July 20, 2009 at 12:52 pm

The one thing I dont like about some chinese food is the amount of oil! Still looks & sounds tasty though, perhaps stick to smaller portions next time or bring lots more people. I like the sound of the eggplant & cauliflower dish though (minus the pool of oil at the bottom!)

5 Mr. Taste @ tastedbytwo July 20, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I love central Chinese food. So ridiculously delicious and tasty, you can imagine them in the kitchen, "yeah just throw that giant bag of chilli in there, yeah that whole canister of oil belongs in that".

It's so cool to have more of these places pop up all over Sydney, regional Chinese food rules

6 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella July 20, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Ahh a new addition to Anzac Parade!Predictably I'd go for the braised pork. I love the sound of that wobble!

7 Stephcookie July 20, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Ooh I've been meaning to try this place. I really can't stand overly oily meals though, but some of the dishes look great. Mmm you had me at seductively wobbling pork belly! And I am obsessed with places that really get the wok hei into their dishes. Definitely sounds like you need a lot of rice to balance it out though!

8 Forager July 22, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Hey Helen – No worries. I wish someone had given us the heads up before we went. The pork crisp IS very yummy though..

Hey Aptronym – We definitely found it oilier than other Chinese cuisines. And I think that amount of fat would go a long way with anyone!

Hey Belle – Great idea! We did that with our takeaway portions. Or maybe the restaurant should provide kitchen towels to dab your food on before you ingest it!

Hey Betty – no doubt about it, it was definitely tasty, but then we all know fatty food is deliciously tasty! I don't know if I can adhere to portion control so I think more people is the go!

Hey Mr Taste – Lol! Absolutely, the question is 1L of oil or 2? Ah, let's just give them 3L!

Hey Lorraine – The braised pork was lovely, so rich and tender. Perfect when shared amongst many because a large portion of this to one is a bit overkill and richness-overload.

Hey Stephcookie – Mmm… Plenty of rice. Just what the doctor/tradtional Asian matriarch ordered. Definitely tasty and rich and if you order the right combo and portion of dishes this could definitely be a great "balanced" meal!

9 Ellie July 22, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I am not familiar with Hunan cuisine but from the sound of it… it involves a lot of FAT :p

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