The definition of a locavore, although not universally agreed, is generally someone who obtains the majority of their food from local farmers and suppliers, sometimes within a specific radius (100 or 200 miles, depending on location). The beautiful Yao people of Longji rice terraces are such committed locavores (by necessity and tradition) that they make a mockery of our definition of locavore – their food, almost one hundred per cent of it, comes from within a single mile of their homes.
Rice, from thousand-year old rice terraces, is the main staple on the mountain, but the fresh air and rich soil also make it easy to cultivate cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, beans, eggplants, corn, potatoes, peppers and chili. Ginger, garlic and shallots add flavour along with wild herbs, many of which I’ve never seen before. Interestingly, wild foods are eaten every day – bamboo shoots, fern fronds, water weeds and other wild plants are picked as needed from the forest or beside streams. Excess vegetables are pickled to add flavour and intensity to foods, and to preserve them for the winter.
For meat and eggs every family keeps a brace of chickens wandering around the house, looking for bugs and caterpillars and feeding on household scraps. Some Yao families keep a pig or two, and once fattened and slaughtered most of the pork is preserved as smoked bacon, kept hanging over the fireplace to intensify its flavour.
The local large-leaf tea is drunk green and fresh, or for a more tasty brew, dried and smoked, with each family growing a tea bush or two for their own supply. Local wine is made from osmanthus flowers or wild yang mei berries, or from the rice itself.
L: A Yao woman carries a basket at all times for collecting vegetables, with an umbrella for shade
R: Wild yang mei berries
Hiking up and down between hills all day leads to a pretty fierce hunger and we were lucky enough to be staying at one of the best places to eat on the mountain – Farmer Li’s Quanjinglou (全㬌楼) Guesthouse, near Golden Buddha Peak.
His kitchen was a hive of activity at all hours of the day, making meals for hungry walkers – the best kind of simple fresh home-style food, cooked without fuss to allow the amzing fresh flavours to shine.
The view from the terrace in front of the hotel is one of the mountain’s best, made even better with plate after plate of incredible simple home-cooking and a tall cold beer.
The specialty of the house is sticky rice cooked inside a piece of freshly cut green bamboo. The uncooked rice, mixed with tiny cubes of pork and carrot and pieces of scallion, is spooned into a bamboo tube. The end is stuffed with fresh green leaves, then the whole tube is cooked over charcoal until the rice softens and the outside of the bamboo is charred black and easy to split open. The rice takes on a delicious smoky, woody flavour from the bamboo.
The following day’s breakfast at Quanjing Lou guest house was as good as the dinner – steamed mantou bread, crispy salty egg pancake flavoured with scallions, fried peanuts, and home-made cucumber and bammboo shoot pickles. Served with a glass of hot home-made fresh soy milk or smoky tea.
Our other favoured eating hole was here, a nameless small restaurant in Tiantouzhai village.
Their vegetable dishes were the absolute best – probably because the vegetables had only recently left their earthy home for a quick scour under the tap followed by a fast dance in a hot wok. These sour matchstick thin strips of potato were stir-fried with garlic, chili and vinegar. In the background, a dish of sweet pumpkin pieces pan fried until soft and melting, with garlic and scallions.
You may not have tried this before – stir-fried fern fronds with a little sweet pepper. A crunchy, unusual flavour not unlike raw asparagus.
After lunch this lively 98 year old man impressed me with the concentration required to light his tiny pipe, containing an even tinier skerrick of tobacco. After two puffs the effort required caused him to sit down on his haunches and take a rest until he could build up the energy to re-light it. In all truthfulness I think it’s the fresh vegetables he eats every day that are propelling him towards his centenary, although he thinks it’s the tobacco!
One of our guides, a youthful sixty-plus years, was pleased to taste her first ever instant coffee before she led us off up the hill at a cracking pace. Must be fantastic to eat such fresh wonderful local food every day, and climb up and down mountains keeping you fitter than a mountain goat, thought I. I wondered how to explain the very foreign concept of a locavore to her, but gave up. She would find it perfectly logical and reasonable that foreigners all over the world are trying to emulate exactly her kind of lifestyle, after all, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like Longji?
Quanjing Lou 全㬌楼 Guesthouse
Longji rice terraces, between Dazhai and Tiantouzhai villages
40 yuan pp/night
Breakfast from 6 yuan
Lunch and dinner from 18 yuan
+86 773 7585688
It’s easy to get lost on the mountain paths, but the Yao women will be happy to guide you anywhere you’d like to go for around 60 yuan.