A growing Chinese population in the United States is leading to a new wave of proudly authentic regional cuisine from the homeland. For restaurant owners like Yunchou Liu, this is a way to fight back against what they consider a one-dimensional, Americanized view of their food.

Liu owns the popular Happy Hot Hunan, which is located near Columbia University. Yunchou Liu immigrated from Hunan in 2002, and seeks to bring Hunan food to a broader audience.

His eater serves up the dishes of Hunan, a region in Southern China that is  surrounded by mountains on three sides and a river of its fourth side. The result is an area famous for beautiful landscapes — and spicy food.

Owners like Liu describe their cooking as gan la, which means “dry spicy.” The strong flavors are enhanced by chili, garlic and shallots. 

Liu opened the restaurant with friends in 2015, and then took over sole ownership. He spoke in both English and Chinese on the differences between Hunan food and Americanized Chinese food.

What’s changed in the menu since you started?

No changes. No changes, but I bought higher quality vegetables and meat. The waiters and service did more to certify the customer. If we did not do more to certify the requirements and what they could do to certify the requirements.

I know this restaurant around Columbia. How many students come here?

I’m not sure, but every lunch and dinner time they must wait for the seats a long time. It is very filled.

Why do you think Hunan has become popular?

Because I come from Hunan, I know Hunan food is very popular in China. I think the taste, it is the same everywhere. If you taste this food is good, there are a lot of places where it tastes good. I wanted to bring Hunan style Chinese food to New York. There is a lot of American Chinese restaurant in New York, but not a lot of authentic Chinese food. This kind of food is very Americanized. There are so many Americans eat all this Chinese food, eat a lot. The real Chinese food makes our restaurant popular.

Why do you think that is?

Simply said, American Chinese food is too easy. They add sugar, too much sugar into the food. Usually you add a little bit. A lot of Chinese they use a little sugar. But Hunan food, one special characteristic is its spiciness.

How many Chinese people versus other Americans?

There are 60% Chinese people, and 40% other people. They all like all the dishes in our restaurant.

Has this restaurant become more popular with non-Chinese people? Why do you think that is?

Yes, sometimes I will ask these non-Chinese people their opinion. And they said, they like our tastes. And before they think American Chinese food is Chinese food, but now they understand that it is American Chinese food.

What would you define Hunan food as?

It is spicy. A lot of things with Hunan food, the procedure to make it is different than other food.

Can you tell more about that?

It is hard to tell you. Hunan uses smoking and curing. American Chinese food just fries the food, and puts the sauce on. The sauce is pre-made. Hunan style sauce is never pre-made, you must make it when you make the food. This kind of sauce, they fry together. Not just put the sauce on it.

Do you see more authentic Chinese food popping up? Why do you think that is?

It is the same reason, they never have real Chinese food. They want authentic Chinese food. Also there are more Chinese people coming over.