Covered in spicy, salted and fermented chilies, with eyeballs staring back at you, Hunan chili fish head can be intimidating.
But for those who know the cuisine, it’s a must-have classic dish.
“It’s the most famous dish in Hunan province in China,” said Sunny Sun, chef and owner of Hunan Cuisine restaurant in Chinatown. “Chinese all over the world know about this dish.”
His restaurant caters to Hawaii’s small Hunan population and to other mainland Chinese seeking a taste of something beyond Cantonese.
About 60 percent of the customers are Chinese — rather than locals or American tourists. They’re seeking this dish or some of the other Hunan or northern Chinese dishes served here.
Chili fish head is usually ordered in advance, to give the chef time to find and buy the head from Chinatown’s fish stalls.
It’s also not cheap, costing about $50, depending on market price.
Some Chinese guests prefer a whole, live fish and the restaurant has a fish tank where customers can pick out their own head-to-tail dinners.
The key to the dish — whether whole or just the head — is the sauce.
“Every home in Hunan has this sauce,” Sun said. A big pot is filled with chilies, salt and sugar, then allowed to ferment. The pot is never emptied — as sauce is used, more chilies are added — so there’s always a little bit of the original sauce still in there.
“This dish looks a little spicy, yeah?” I ask.
“It’s sort of spicy,” Sun admits.
The fish head is steamed for 20 minutes in the sauce, then basted in hot oil, soy sauce, salt, pepper and Chinese spices. The head is split lengthwise, so the brains and meat inside can also be eaten.
“The head is the tastiest part of the fish,” Sun said. “We eat everything, even the eyeballs.”
Picking up my chopsticks, I grab a piece of fish cheek, the tastiest part of the head, and some chilies.
The first bite isn’t spicy. The steamed fish is tender, light and tasty with a hint of soy sauce. The heat comes later. I wouldn’t classify it as deadly hot, more a medium level of spiciness.
The vinegary spice of the fermented chilies lingers and is what makes the dish a Hunan signature.
Should you eat it? If you can take the heat (it’s probably too hot for people who can’t handle spicy) and don’t mind food that looks back at you (until someone eats the eyeballs), Hunan chili fish head is spicy goodness.