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Some Like it Hot! Food Adventures in Central Guizhou

‘Do you eat chili Fiona?’ asked our local Miao guide Billy, as we watched a young woman trimming four enormous baskets of chilies outside a restaurant. It was the restaurant’s daily chili delivery.
He looked slightly defeated in advance, as though he already knew the answer was likely to be no. He often took small groups of foreigners around central Guizhou, but they all found the hot, sour local food intolerable and Billy was thwarted, yet again, from showing them the delights of Guizhou’s cuisine, also known as qián cài 黔菜。
We had been driving since early morning on bumpy back roads, the car expertly handled through mud bogs, deep ruts and climbing mountain switchbacks by our driver, who appeared to be fourteen years old. A Miao himself, and therefore small of build, I’m sure he was actually about twenty-two but with a soft baby face. He was carefully cultivating two things – a long whisker on his chin that stubbornly resisted being joined by any others in the way of a beard, and a nonchalant attitude whilst smoking. Both looked oddly out of place on one so young.
‘Of course I eat chili’ I replied. ‘I enjoy it very much.’
‘Really?’ asked Billy and the driver together.
‘Really.’  A love of all things spicy had served me well on past travels through India and Thailand, and I loved all of China’s spicy cuisines – from Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan and Guangxi, and now Guizhou. 
Billy and the driver smiled. And so began four days of Guizhou food adventures, guided by Billy, and fitted in around finding weavers, silversmiths and traditional indigo dye artisans. 
I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on Guizhou’s foods (you can read about Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi), but after four trips to the same area in central Guizhou I am beginning to understand the Miao-influenced local cuisine better. 
Guizhou’s cuisine is characterised as suānlà 酸辣 – hot and sour. It feels rustic, but is far from simple  and dishes are rich in a complexity of both taste, colour and texture. Wild ingredients are commonly used – wild peppers, wild herbs, water roots, and fruits – which lend the food an exotic and unusual edge.
We began with the area’s most famous dish, synonymous with the Miao people:
Sour Fish Soup Hotpot 酸汤鱼火锅 Suan Tang Yu Huo Guo
The saying goes that, due to the cool damp weather in Guizhou, the Miao people are unable to go more than three days without sour soup or their legs become unsteady.
You must try this dish, if you ever get the chance – it is unbelievably rich, flavourful, nourishing and addictive. 
The soup is a complex blend of sour tastes – the lemony sourness of a clear base of lightly pickled bean sprouts, tomato slices and cucumbers, the clean acidity of fresh tomatoes, the sweet sourness of fermented sticky rice and the kicking hot sourness of fermented fresh mashed chilies – mixed together with wild herbs and spices – Guizhou ‘mint’ resting on top, mu jiang zi or tree ginger seeds (a kind of tart peppercorn), and finely chopped and spiced water root zhe ergen 折耳根 (known as yuxingcao 鱼腥草 in other parts of China), ginger and fermented soybeans.
Added to all of this are six or so uncooked freshwater carp. The best versions of the dish are found in smaller villages where the carp are grown in the water of the rice paddies, small but sweet of flesh. 
The whole pot then bubbles away at the table, cooking the fish and the fresh tomatoes and filling the room with steam and wonderful smells.
In front of each diner is a small dish of diced garlic, chopped fresh chillies, chopped cilantro and dried chili flakes. Once the soup is cooking you add a small ladle of liquid to this dry mixture and use it as a dipping sauce for your fish.
Once the fish have been eaten, heads and all, the real ‘hotpot’ begins – fresh cabbage leaves, fresh spindly bean sprouts, and white enoki mushrooms are added to the remaining soup to cook.
(If you read Chinese there’s a clear and concise recipe here)

Bracken Root Starch Fried with Smoked Bacon 腊肉炒蕨粑 larou chao jueba

Billy told me during China’s three years of Great Famine (1958-1961) the local Miao people survived on wits and instinct by eating wild plants like this. 
Bracken fern roots are pounded to release the starch, which is then steamed into a heavy ‘cake’ that can be cut into pieces and cooked. The bracken root cake (jueba 蕨粑) is fried, rendering the outside crispy and the inside dense and chewy, with a texture like bacon rind, mixed together with smoked chilies and slices of la rou smoked bacon. 
Guizhou Beef Hotpot 贵州牛肉火锅 guizhou niurou huo guo

A slightly different style of sour hotpot, this one functioned more like regular hot pot from other parts of China – we started with a fairly clear, sour, hot-as-hades soup base, and then added all the other ingredients ourselves – pieces of beef, lengths of chive stalk, slices of firm tofu, mushrooms, bean sprouts and cabbage.
The heat from the soup base was amplified by then dipping each piece of meat into a mixture of dried and fresh chill mixed with salt, until none of us could speak and sweat literally dripped from our brows. But still we kept eating.

 We finished the meal with a bowl of the clear, slightly sour pickled vegetable ‘starter soup’ that is the hotpot base, which restored some much-needed coolness to our mouths.

Filled Rice Rolls 卷粉 juanfen
Minutes after I tried juan fen for the first time I jotted down a page of frantic notes, determined to capture the essence of its amazing taste. (Doesn’t everyone write notes about what they eat?) 
‘A completely textural dish. Soft pillows of rice sheet rolled with sliced fresh green beans, tiny cubes of tofu and slivers of mushroom. The beans give a squeaky crunch. Topped with guizhou water root zhe ergen, scallions, lajiao chill paste, peanuts, fresh tomato sauce, Guizhou pickled greens, whole garlic cloves and chopped green chili.’
It was a revelation – the soft smoothness and relative blandness of the rice sheets gave way to more than ten different flavours and textures on the tongue. 
It’s often eaten as a breakfast food or mid-morning snack.
Rice noodles 米线 mi xian and Rice tofu 米豆腐mi doufu
All over central Guizhou are small food stalls like this, typified by a row of enamel bowls and plates filled with condiments. 
To one side are the starches: large platters of cold rice noodle sheets cut into broad or narrow strips, deep bowls filled with cubes of soft rice-starch known as rice tofu, or cubes of mung bean jelly or sweet potato starch jelly.
The diner chooses a cold starchy base – noodles or cubes – and to this is added a mixture of textures and tastes from the many bowls. These include dried chill, fried peanuts, diced garlic with coriander stalk, hot spiced water root, finely chopped shallots, pickled spiced beans, pickled green vegetables, fresh chopped chilies (red and green), fermented chili sauce, pork mince, soy sauce, mild vinegar, or oil.
The result is fresh, tasty, cold and spicy all at the same time, the intense chili heat balanced by the soft coolness of the starch.
I suspect you could go an entire year without eating the same combination twice!