Now in the final leg of our six month sojourn around China eating all the way, we’re fairly whizzing through provinces at a cracking pace. Guizhou and Guangxi lie next to one another, the twin jade buckles side by side on China’s belt.
Guizhou, to the west, is hilly and green, misty and damp, the landscape filled with limestone karst hills cut through with meandering rivers. In Guizhou the karst, geologically speaking, is younger, so the hills are smaller and the river valleys less deep.
The foods though, share much in common. They use chili, but not too much. They like sour and salty flavours. Both provinces have clean rivers full of fish and snails used often in cooking, both have many ethnic minorities who have contributed to the diversity of foods and flavours.
Here are ten foods we tried (and loved – even the snails – especially the snails!). Some of Guilin and Yangshuo’s foods I’ve previously written about and haven’t repeated here – the famous pijiu yu or beer fish, and the barbecued river fish served from floating bamboo restaurants in the middle of the river.
1. Crispy Stuffed Tofu Balls
From southern Guizhou, these street food snacks are salty, crispy and oily – a perfect foil to Guizhou’s damp and foggy climate. Tiny balls of seasoned pork mince with scallions are stuffed inside a soft coat of tofu then deep fried.
An alternate variety uses small triangular blocks of tofu, the centre carefully stuffed and then pan-fried until the outside browns and crisps. Very, very satisfying.
Where to find them: Southern Guizhou in streets and markets
2. Stuffed River Snails
To be honest, I only ordered these snails because they’re a local Li River specialty, expecting to taste one and leave the rest, chalking the whole thing up to experience. Well, there’s a reason these are a treasured local specialty – they taste incredible.
A true labour of love, the snails are first disgorged in clean water so the meat is free of grit. After a quick steaming the snails are removed from their shells and the meat chopped finely with the freshest mint, garlic, chili and a small amount of pork, then stuffed back into the shells before being steamed again.
The combination of fresh, strong mint and chili with the rich snail meat is a knockout.
Where to find them: Guilin and Yangshuo. The Yulong River outside Yangshuo has several riverside restaurants using the freshest, cleanest snails and these were the best we tried.
3. Rice tofu 米豆腐
Made from a steamed rice flour paste cut into cubes, rice tofu mi doufu is a Guizhou specialty that looks like tofu but tastes incredibly comforting. It needs something robust and spicy to complement the smooth, soft texture: in one restaurant we were given a small earthenware dish packed with chopped cilantro, scallions, fire-hot fresh chilies and dried chili flakes in which to coat the cubes.
Where to find it: throughout Guizhou
4. Sour Fish Soup 酸菜鱼
Cut through with the complex sour tang of pickled cabbage and pickled chilies, the unique and addictive flavour of Guizhou’s sour fish soup, suan cai yu, is fully developed at the table on a burner while the aromas fill you with hunger and anticipation. Local fresh river fish is used with sweet, clean flesh, but full of tiny fine bones so you need to eat it very slowly and carefully.
The taste is enhanced with the use of an unusual local spice, mu jiao hua, shown here in a street market.
Where to find it: Throughout Guizhou. Every area has its own variation depending on available ingredients and the river fish used.
5. Zhe ergen 酸辣折耳根
And speaking of unusual ingredients, it’s difficult to pass through Guizhou, and Guangxi without eating this at least once. The root of a water plant, houttuynia, zhe ergen grows along the edges of rice paddies and ponds and has a pungent, slightly medicinal taste (some would say an unpleasant strong medicinal taste, dividing those who love it from those who loathe it) and a woody crunch whether cooked or raw.
Zhe ergen is used in a multitude of ways. Chopped into short lengths it is eaten with chili, mint and soy as a fresh, strong-flavoured salad, stir-fried with thin slices of Guizhou la rou or bacon its crunchy texture and unusual taste complement the rich smoky flavour and translucent fat of the la rou perfectly, or pickled and chopped finely to make a dressing for tofu, potatoes or other foods with simple flavours.
Where to find it: Zhe ergen is ubiquitus in Guizhou, but is also found in Sichuan (where it goes by the name of zhubigong 猪鼻拱 or pig’s snout, because the leaves resemble the shape of a pig’s snout), Guangxi, Yunnan and Hubei (where it is called yuxingcao 鱼腥草 or fish-smelling herb because the leaves have a sight fish smell).
6. Lover’s Tofu 恋爱豆腐果
Thank goodness for my friend Frank Kassell, who posted about this dish yesterday in his Field Guide to Chinese Street Food Street, saving me hours of work to track down the correct name for this popular Guizhou street snack!
Lover’s tofu, or lian ai doufu guo, is originally from Guiyang, Guizhou’s capital. Frank has the full story on the unusual name if you’re interested in its origins.
Squares of soft tofu the size of the palm of your hand are grilled on a gently heated oiled griddle until the outside becomes a little golden and crispy (but only just) and the inside melts to the consistency of soft custard. The vendor places it on a small dish, tears open the centre of the square and fills it with a big spoonful of finely chopped zhe ergen (see above) mixed with chili and often garlic. It’s smooth, spicy, soft, crunchy and one of the most satisfying ways to eat tofu I’ve tried.
Where to find it: Street food stalls all over Guizhou
7. Guilin Rice Noodles 桂林米线
Take one bowl of freshly cooked soft white rice noodles. Add a slurp of stock (but not too much), a handful of shiny fried peanuts, a spoonful of sharp and tangy pickled beans, a scatter of scallions, and wafer thin slices of cold roast pork. Mix. Eat.
Where to find it: Although this noodle dish originated in Guilin, it can be found all over Guangxi in small noodle houses and street stalls.
8. Guizhou La Rou 贵州腊肉
The first time I visited the beatiful Miao villages around Guizhou I flew back to Shanghai with 2kg of larou or home-smoked bacon wrapped in a black garbage bag sitting on my lap, the most precious of all souvenirs.
Pink and succulent, smoky and salty, la rou is elevated to a culinary art form in Guizhou by the local Miao people whose pigs are fat and happy and roam freely, and who cure and smoke the bacon in their homes.
Where to find it: All over Guizhou, the best la rou comes form the Miao villages around Kaili.
9. Lotus Seed Pudding 莲子糕
Drawn in by the ornate steaming copper pot with two curved dragons on either side for handles, I just simply had to try this Guilin street snack. I watched, fascinated, as the vendor took a small amount of white powder (from ground lotus seeds) and added hot water from the dragon pot.
As he stirred the clear liquid became first milky then thick and smooth, the consistency of paste. to this he added golden green sultanas, black sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, and peanut powder.
He told me to mix it in and eat it while it was still hot. The lotus seed ‘pudding’ itself had almost no flavour but the most extroardinary smooth and pleasant texture, with each mouthful a taste of peanuts and sweet raisins. Luscious.
Where to find it: Guilin and Yangshuo. Watch out for the copper dragon pots on the street.
10.Shattering Malt Toffee 麦芽糖
Mai ya tang, or malt toffee, is one of the most unusual street foods I’ve ever tasted. Sold in long rods coated with tiny white puffed grains, on the first bite the whole thing shatters into tiny crystalline malty sugary shards.
Eat Your Way Around China!