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Wood Ear Mushrooms with Pork and Ginger: A Recipe from Dragon’s Backbone

I hang out in a lot of kitchen doorways in China, watching techniques and gleaning cooking secrets, and generally trying to stay a safe distance from the cleavers and boiling cooking oil. By hanging out in the kitchen at Quanjing Lou guesthouse for a protracted period, scribbling notes and asking questions, I can now bring you this delicious recipe courtesy of Farmer Li’s chushi (chef). 
We ate it for dinner the first night on the mountain and the entire plate disappeared in 30 seconds flat, with several self-professed mushroom haters among those who wolfed it down. On the mountain they use fresh wood ear mushrooms when available, but dried mushrooms work equally well. The key is to not soak them for too long, or they absorb a lot of water and become rubbery. Finely sliced and cooked this way, they are soft and delicious.
Dragon’s Backbone Wood Ear Mushrooms with Pork and Ginger

  • 100g lean pork
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 50g dried black wood ear mushrooms
  • small carrot, julienned
  • 1/2 green pepper, julienned
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2cm piece of ginger, finely julienned
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 2 scallions, julienned
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • finely slice pork into strips
  • combine pork with Shaoxing wine and half of cornflour/water mixture, stir to combine, set aside
  • soak dried mushrooms in cold water for 20 mins, drain, slice finely
  • half-fill wok with water, bring to the boil
  • add mushrooms, carrot and green pepper, cook for 1 minute
  • add pork strips, stirring to separate, for further 1 minute
  • drain into colander
  • heat wok again over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • add ginger, stir-fry 1 minute
  • add cooked pork and vegetables, stir
  • add salt, sugar, light soy sauce and oyster sauce, stir to combine
  • add remaining cornflour/water mixture, stir until sauce thickens slightly
  • add scallions, stir briefly
  • add sesame oil
  • serve immediately
Serves 4 as part of a shared meal, or serves 2 as a complete meal

Hardcore Locavores, Longji Rice Terraces

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.

Standing On The Dragon’s Backbone, Looking Down

Spectacular, no? This view is all yours, should you feel like travelling twenty-two hours by slow train from Shanghai to Guilin, followed by two hours on a bumpy road (marred by occasional landslides) from Guilin to the village of Dazhai, and then finally hauling your travel-weary body uphill on foot for the last two hours to the top of the Dragon’s Backbone. There, as mountain breezes cool your face, the contoured layers of the very spine of the great green scaled beast spread out below to reward you.

I have visited the rice terraces of the Dragon’s Backbone (Longji titian) before, and couldn’t wait to get back there on this visit. Reputed to be over one thousand years old, the rice farming methods of the local Yao people have changed little. Yao villages are dotted throughout Longji, wooden huts cantilevered out over the steepest hills and clustered along the valley streams. The mountain paths between the villages lead the walker to incredible views over rows and rows of vivid green rice terraces.

The sound of water is everywhere, fresh cold mountain springs feeding the terraces from top to bottom, a system of bamboo pipes and channels diverting the water into and out of each terrace to keep the feet of the rice constantly wet.

In contrast to the orderly tamed rows of rice plants, the hillsides that are too steep for rice cultivation run completely wild with every kind of climbing, creeping tropical foliage, swathes of bamboo, exuberant ferns, exotic flowers, butterflies the size of small birds, and millions of frogs. It feels like wildness will cover the mountains in a smothering carpet of creeping green tendrils the moment my back is turned. The greenery presses in on the path from both sides, narrowing the broad stone stairs as I climb up and up to the mountain’s peak.

And there at last, after a day and a half of travelling, I’ve reached as high as I can go, and I can sit down and enjoy the view.

To reach Dazhai village and Dragon’s Backbone:

A minibus departs from Guilin train station every day for Dazhai village (two and a half hours)
Departs at 8am, 9.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

From Dazhai, the bus departs at 9am (direct to Yangshuo), 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

40 yuan per person.

Phone +86 18977392805 for information.

Last Night in the Mountains

I spend the last night in this magical place watching the sky gradually darken over the rice terraces and hills. The cicadas stop their singing and go to sleep, and soon the air is still and calm. Clouds begin to gather and a few drops of cool rain fall, just as a last shaft of sunlight  pierces through before setting. Night is falling slowly and silently.

Way below me, in Tiantouzhai village, a sudden burst of firecrackers splits the air, followed by another, and another. I strain to see in the enveloping dark but I can only make out a small knot of people moving from house to house, and setting off firecrackers at each doorway. I can hear singing, though, drifting up the hill, and later drums and reed pipes playing an energetic song. The firecrackers continue, now with bigger single noisy bangs. It must be a wedding, I think, as I go to sleep. Some sort of celebration.
The night is broken with the frequent crack-crack-cracks! of strings of bian pao crackers going off with more drumming and pipe-playing. The singing comes and goes, sometimes soft, sometimes loud. I imagine a huge village wedding, with everyone invited, and everyone enjoying a huge feast. I drift back to sleep.
Just before breakfast the noise begins again, but with less intensity. We are due to begin the long winding walk back down to the mountain’s base after breakfast, and I hope that the celebrations will not have lost all momentum before we get there. As I draw closer to Tiantouzhai I see the villagers, both men and women, all wearing a long white sash around their heads. 
This celebration is a funeral, not a wedding. My thoughts immediately fly to the old woman, our guide’s mother, and her frailty. We pass all the men sitting on the stone terrace in front of one of the larger houses, their faces tired, and red from too much tian jiu wine. We pass the spot where a pig has been slaughtered just an hour before, for the funeral feast. The blood is thick on the ground, and the freshly butchered pork sits on a wooden table inside the house. We pass the colourful banners that will guide the funeral procession, made from patterned bedsheets and coloured paper. Then finally we pass the domed wooden coffin, brightly painted in red, white and yellow and covered with paper offerings. I look carefully at the faces of the women keeping the dead one company, but I see neither our guide nor her sister amongst the group. I feel great relief.
The villagers stare at us dispassionately. This is no ordinary day, but it is part of the yearly cycle of life, growth, and death. As the rice passes from green, to gold, and then to brown, they have seen death many times and are not afraid. For now it is just important to celebrate the life that has passed and guide it on its way to the afterlife with as much noise and celebration as possible. 

Mountain Breakfast

I love a Chinese breakfast, and I rarely get to eat one thanks to the cereal-and-toast lovers I live with. Occasionally, when travelling, I luck out and we stay in someplace with no western food whatsoever. How very delicious. Millet congee with pickles, fried bread, and cong you bing, a kind of savoury fried pancake. This breakfast also came with sweet corn, grown on the terrace just below us, and a big pot of smoky dark Longji cha, the local tea.

They actually ate it too, initially out of desperation born of starvation, then out of surprise, then out of enjoyment. Fiona, 1. Cereal-and-toast lovers, nil. 

Zhongliu Village, Longji

The rice terraces of Longji are scattered all over with small villages. From Dazhai at the mountain’s base, through Tiantouzhai to Qiang Bei at the mountain’s top, and another twenty or so . For no other reason than it looked like the right distance for a walk between breakfast and dinner, we had decided to walk to Zhongliu Village, and had a lovely Yao woman from Tiantouzhai to guide us. 

The walk took three hours, along stone-paved mountain paths across rice terraces, over cold clear mountain streams, and through forest. Along the way we met the younger sister of our guide out working the family’s rice terrace, alongside her fifteen year old son who was finishing off a log bridge across one of the streams. They live in Zhongliu but their terrace is over an hours’ walk away from their home. The two sisters decided to walk the rest of the way together, chatting all the while in their Yao dialect. 

When we reached Zhongliu, it was now mid-afternoon and we were starving. We could smell cooking smoke as we walked down the hill towards the village, and imagined sitting down at a little mountain inn just like in Dazhai, tucking into some mountain food. Except that Dazhai receives hundreds of tourists each year, and Zongliu, practically none. As we turned the corner we realised that the sum total of Zhongliu is four houses. Population thirteen. Nowhere to eat!

Except that this is a small mountain village, not Shanghai, and the Yao people are extremely hospitable. Our guide’s sister took us into her home and made us a late lunch of freshly laid eggs stir-fried with wild greens, home smoked bacon (cut from a blackened hunk of flesh hanging above the fireplace) with beans, and a wild water vegetable with garlic. All washed down with Longji smoked tea first, then tianjiu, a kind of fermented rice wine served warm in bowls.

Our guide’s sister
Tamped earth lower floor with a chicken basket
The kitchen wall
A neighbour dropped in with her twin grandchildren when she heard we were there. This means the house now holds 60% of the village population. Despite her traditional appearance, the embroidered pouch at her waist is for her mobile phone.

Wild greens stir-fried over the flames
A shared lunch, with thanks.

Yao Women, Longji

I meet a lovely Yao woman whilst out walking. Chinese is also her second language, so we understand each other surprisingly well – she speaks Yaohua, the Yao dialect in her everyday life. She and her relatives live in the twenty house village below our guesthouse, Tiantouzhai. 
The villages in the rice terraces seem populated largely by these wonderful and beautiful long-tressed women and their young children, and I wonder where all the men have gone. She tells me her husband is in faraway Guangdong province, working to support their twenty-three year old daughter  in her college studies.  Between she and her elderly mother they manage to bring in between one and two hundred yuan each year, from rice growing and the occasional work guiding tourists like us between the rice terrace villages, whose paths can be confusing. That’s somewhere around $17 to $34 in a year. They survive by growing everything they need themselves – rice, corn, pigs, and chickens.
I ask if she will guide us to a village a few hours’ walk away – Zhongliu – and she readily agrees. She’s not busy, she tells me. Her suggested price is sixty yuan, and I agree – she will take us there and back. 
But first we visit her home so she can tidy up out of her workclothes, and check on her eighty year old mother.

Her home is typical for these hills – a large, rectangular three-storey house built from mountain pine, with carved wooden latticed windows and heavy cross beams, and a roof tiled in the dark grey curved terracotta tiles used all over China. It was built by her grandfather. The ground level is for livestock, here just one pig. We climb the heavy wooden stairs to the first floor. The house is old, as old as her mother, and seems silent and dark. No husband, no children, and no grandchildren to bring it alive. The central area is for living, with sleeping quarters at one end, and the kitchen at the other. The wooden floors are worn with age, and light filters in through the lattice carved with birds and flowers to a corner of the room where her mother sits on a short wooden stool.
The old lady has a beautiful face, worn by years and cares, but holding a gentleness and grace. Her ears hang long with her heavy silver hoops, and she has a silver bracelet on each wrist. Her hair is grey now, but she still wears it in the traditional style with a knot at the front, and covered by a black headcloth embroidered in each corner. She shows me another headscarf she has embroidered – the stitches are so tiny I cannot imagine how she could see them,  and each minutely cross-stitched corner square is about 15mm across. The fastenings on her simple black shirt are in the same colours. 

Around her waist she wears a bright pink handwoven sash with tasselled ends, tied at the back with the tassels hanging down. Her daughter wears the more usual finely accordian-pleated black skirt with small embroideries, but her mother feels the chill mountain air at night, and prefers simple black trousers for comfort. 
Her daughter checks a last time that her mother has all she needs before we set out for our walk. Her mother smiles and grasps my hand strongly as I say good-bye. We set out on the path, and ahead of me the daughter’s skirt and colourful sash swish from side to side up the mountain path.

Seven Dragons and Five Tigers French Fries, Longji

This post is dedicated to my good friend Dr S, who has spent a fair bit of her spare time all over the world in search of the perfect french fries, or hot chips as they’re known in Australia. I’m happy to tell you, Dr S, that I’ve found them! 
But the caveat – you’ll need to take a 10 hour flight, then a 22 hour train ride, then spend 4 hours in a bombed-out minibus hurtling around narrow mountain roads, and then, a heart-stopping 2 hours’ uphill walk. Then you may eat the world’s best as you gaze out over the Longji Seven Dragons and Five Tigers rice terraces, as a cooling breeze flows gently past.
Why are they the best? I’ve analyzed this carefully. They taste wonderfully familiar yet with flavours quite uniquely other-wordly, that I suspect cannot be reproduced anywhere else.
Firstly the potatoes – grown on the mountainside and fed with clear mountain spring water, they have more bite when cooked than regular potatoes. The oil used is pretty normal cooking oil, but has deep fried garlic, finely chopped, added to it. Secondly the genius extra of chopped smoked chillies, taken from above the kitchen fireplace. The guesthouse’s famous dish is an entire chicken cooked inside a piece of bamboo, and as this smokes away in the coals below the chillies it must impart a very special flavour. Lastly, the whole lot is tossed in a wok with fried spring onions, salt, and more fried garlic.
I tried them again the following day, and I’m afraid to report that this had been a once-off, never-to-be-repeated culinary experience. They came out looking like any old french fries. Obviously, in French Fry Heaven, the Dragons and Tigers constellation only aligns once every dynasty. Sorry, Dr S. 

Climbing the Dragon’s Backbone

Sometimes in your travels you have the chance to experience a place so incredible the memory will never leave you. The Dragon’s Backbone (Longji) is such a place – these ancient rice terraces north of Guilin in the far reaches of Guangxi province are almost one thousand years old, built entirely by the hands of the local Zhuang and Yao people, and still worked in exactly the same manner today as then. 

Places like this are never easy to get to of course, and from Yangshuo it’s about four hours’ drive through smaller and smaller winding country roads, across several landslides, past a number of alarming traffic accidents, and through searing heat rising from the asphalt. When the road begins to climb higher, higher, and higher, I feel my anxiety increase, particularly after we pass a crane pulling a compressed version of our car from the bottom of a ravine.

But I can also feel the oppressive heat and humidity of Yangshuo dropping away and the air becomes ‘liang kuai’ – cool. We drive alongside a clear green mountain stream where children areswimming while their mother picks some wild green vegetables nearby. Even so, I am quite relieved to get out of the car at the entrance to Dazhai village.

Dazhai is home to the Yao minority, whose women have their hair cut once, on their first birthday, and never again. Their long black hair is wound into an intricate style around their heads and fastened behind a front knot with a heavy black bone comb. Over this is worn a tightly fitting black headcloth, embroidered in each corner with brightly coloured thread. The women wear heavy hand-made silver jewellery – the silver loops in their ears elongate their earlobes, and they carry simple silver bracelets on each wrist.

We walk up through the village guided by several of the local women, who have given us the bad news that our guest house is a further two hours’ walk uphill all the way. For thirty yuan each, they negotiate to carry our bags in baskets strapped to their backs. I feel very guilty about this, until it is pointed out to me that this is how they make extra money when there is no work to be done on the rice terraces. We follow them along narrow stone paths past rice fields just sprouting, past their beautiful wooden houses built on stilts wedged into the hillside, past pigs, chickens and children playing. The women chat away as they walk, their wiry legs finding no struggle with the thousand metres climb.
We pass the first terraces, carved into the hillside like contour lines. Each terrace is fed by a mountain stream, diverted to feed the rice and keep its feet wet, and then the clear water runs down the subtlest of gradients into the next terrace. An ancient and efficient irrigation system, honed over centuries.

The scale of the terraces is hard to judge from photographs, but each terrace is about one and a half metres high. In the photo above, the small yellow-coloured dot in the lower right half of the picture is a local man working his terrace. The larger white dot below and to his left is a pile of equipment.

The vilage is now way below us and we climb closer to the low clouds. We pass through the next village, Tiantouzhai, and upwards again for another hour, past more beautiful wooden houses and along ever narrower stone paths set into steeper and steeper hills. We are truly up in the heavens now, and as we arrive on the terrace of our guest house after two gruelling hours the magnificence of this place becomes obvious, and I can see the dragon stretched out below us, coiling his way down the hill and around into the valley.