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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

Ingredients
  • 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
Method
  • 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.