Hunan Beef vs Kung Pao Beef: What’s the Difference?

Written By Acacia Crossley

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As far as flavoursome cuisine goes, China is up there with some of the most varied, complex, and spicy dishes. Rarely will you taste a Chinese-based dish that is just sweet or just salty; there is always a delicate blend of flavours that have been developed.

But that isn’t to say that the dishes you order from your Chinese takeaway are guaranteed authentic Chinese.

There are countless variations and adaptations of classic Chinese dishes worldwide. So how do two of the most popular Chinese dishes in the west, Hunan beef and kung pao beef, compare? 

Though both Chinese dishes, Hunan beef and kung pao beef hail from different Chinese provinces which handle flavours such as spice very differently. Hunan beef is a Hunan province dish, while kung pao beef is inspired by the Sichuan kung pao chicken. 

What is Hunan Beef?

If you were to order Hunan beef from a Chinese takeaway in the UK, you would still get a delicious dish, but it may not be entirely authentic to an actual Hunan beef.

The original dish highlights the most beloved foods and flavours of the Chinese Hunan Province — particularly dry smoked beef.

The beef bounces back to its fresh tenderness when it is added to the wok to create Hunan beef while still preserving that dry smoked taste. 

Another aspect of Hunan beef is how the Hunan Province cuisine portrays its spice even compared to other local Chinese cuisines like Sichuan.

Hunan cooking is well known for its use of chilli peppers which don’t numb the tongue like spicy Sichuan recipes, making them seem even spicier. 

Less oil tends to be used in Hunan beef than in other Chinese beef stir-fries, creating a dryer dish and allowing its spicy flavours to come through more clearly.

This spice is amplified by the use of plenty of fresh garlic or garlic chives, too. 

What is Kung Pao Beef?

One of the most popular dishes at any Chinese restaurant is easily the Sichuan invention kung pao beef.

However, if you were to go to a less authentic Chinese takeaway in the West, you would probably also come across the less traditional kung pao chicken.

The two dishes are prepared in the same way, but kung pao beef arguably has a more complex, deep flavour because of how much tastier beef naturally is compared to chicken. 

The term kung pao refers to the sauce of the dish, which is comprised of plenty of aromatics.

Spice is also a key element of kung pao beef as would be expected from a dish inspired by Sichuan cuisine.

Sichuan peppercorns are used in abundance which are numbingly spicy, though there is also a delicious brightness in the dish due to rice wine vinegar as well as a hint of nuttiness from wok fried peanuts. 

Similarities Between Hunan Beef and Kung Pao Beef

At first glance, Hunan beef and kung pao beef appear to be vastly different dishes. But they do have some key similarities, especially given their cuisine’s context: 

Chinese Origin / Inspiration

Both Hunan beef and kung pao beef, in any iteration, embody the fundamentals of Chinese cuisine. There is no mistaking their origin / the inspiration behind the dish. 

Beef Bases

It may seem like an obvious similarity, but it is worth noting that both Hunan beef and kung pao beef comprises of mainly beef.

They could be made with other proteins, such as chicken, though the dishes in the versions described above are solely beef based. 

Spicy Dishes

China is well known for its use of spice, with each Chinese province having its own spicy take on Chinese classics.

Depending on who makes the dish, Hunan beef and kung pao beef can vary in spiciness, but the dishes need an obvious spicy element.

Szechuan Peppercorns

Differences Between Hunan Beef and Kung Pao Beef

However, at their core, Hunan beef and kung pao beef have too many important differences to be considered the same dish. Such as:

Province Cooking Style 

Every Chinese province has their own cooking style, even when it comes to traditional Chinese dishes.

Sichuan cuisine tends to be tongue-numbingly spicy when heat is used, so kung pao beef usually includes Sichuan peppercorns. Hunan cuisine prefers dry spices which don’t create a numbing effect the same way, ensuring that the spiciness in Hunan beef is tasted in full. 

Type Of Spice

Due to the different cuisines that Hunan beef and kung pao beef embody, they are two dishes that successfully showcase different approaches to spice.

Hunan beef has a drier taste that allows the heat of the spicy ingredients used to be more evident and impactful.

Kung pao beef is based on a Sichuan dish and so that kind of spice is more numbing, not letting you taste the full scale of the dish’s heat. 

Authenticity 

Some would argue that there is a lack of authenticity with Hunan beef due to Western interpretations of the dish.

But if you were to travel to China and order Hunan beef, you would be able to taste the fundamentally Chinese flavours. 

Kung pao beef is a much less authentically Chinese dish, if at all. Kung pao chicken has been around since the 19th century and is the original kung pao dish. It is unclear who or when kung pao beef was invented, though many restaurants in China are unlikely to serve the dish. 

Hunan Beef vs Kung Pao Beef: Which Wins?

Now it’s time to cast your vote for either Hunan beef or kung pao beef. Which of these popular Chinese dishes gets your vote?

Do You Prefer Hunan Beef or Kung Pao Beef?

Hunan Beef and Kung Pao Beef FAQs

Do you have more questions about these two popular Asian-inspired beef dishes? Then have a look through these common FAQs:

Is Kung Pao Beef Spicy?

A key component of kung pao beef is chilli so there will be some degree of spiciness. However, there is no set rule on how spicy it should be so it will differ depending on who is making it.

Is Hunan Beef Spicy?

Generally, Hunan beef has a subtle spice level to it. The flavour is more complex than just spiciness.

Sources

We have verified the information on this page using the following resources:

The Woks of Life

Tesco

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