So Hot Right Now | China’s Spiciest Cuisine is Set to Take the World by Storm
Few in the West have tasted Guizhou food. That may be about to change
Photo: Peter Yeung
Whether grilled, dried, crushed, pickled, or stir-fried, chillies dominate almost every dish served in Guizhou, a region little-known outside of China. Not even breakfast is safe – in a morning bowl of congee, a kind of rice-based porridge, there will probably be some of those fiery red devils. They are one of life’s fundamental staples, in so far as existential, crisis-invoking heat can be a staple. For the Guizhou people, spice is a matter of pride.
One saying that locals, eager to show off their dry provincial wit, take pleasure in repeating to anyone who will listen goes: “People from Sichuan are not afraid of spicy food (Sichuan ren bu pa la). People from Hunan, of spicy food they're not afraid (Hunan ren la bu pa). But people from Guizhou – they're afraid the food won't be spicy enough (Guizhou ren pa bu la).”
"For the adventurous, there’s plenty: griddled pig brain, stewed sheep intestines, pig offal topped with fresh blood, and deep-fried field rat"
But while Sichuan is known for its numbing-hot sensation (ma la) and Hunan for its dry-hot taste (gan la), Guizhou cuisine is all about a curious combination of sour and spice (suan la). It’s a flavour forged by the spectacular limestone karst surroundings of Guizhou, whose remoteness shielded it from Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and wider modernisation even to date, meaning a third of its population is made up of 18 ethnic minority tribes. Crucially, the geography meant salt was too difficult to import, so vinegar was the preservative instead, helping to deal with the humid subtropical climate. This was the key ingredient in forming Guizhou cuisine.
“There’s a lot of sour and a lot of hot chilli,” gasps Tim Oakes, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has been researching in the region for more than two decades. “Especially in the countryside. They’re really tough people. They’ve lived for a long time in tough conditions. I think those flavours reflect that.”
Guizhou food is not all about burn-off-your-mouth heat. It’s a more nuanced sibling to Sichuan cuisine, full of aroma and fragrance. “It’s not like anything else in China,” says a waiter in the town of Zhaoxing, where you can get a bowl of the area’s most famous dish: sour fish soup. The steaming broth is usually made with local river fish or those reared in the rice paddy terraces that punctuate Guizhou's rolling mountains. It comes with wild tomatoes, pickled chilli and cabbage, bamboo shoots, and large hunks of garlic and ginger, and is often served on a gas burner so the tangy taste develops at the table.
“We will have wobbly legs if we don’t eat anything sour for three days,“ goes another Guizhou saying, ever the raconteurs. Among the Miao and Dong tribes, the largest in the region, fermented and pickled food, soups, and hot pots figure greatly, useful for keeping the damp mountain chills at bay. Better yet is the often-homemade rice wine, a fiery spirit similar to Japan’s sake. And for the adventurous, there’s plenty: griddled pig brain, stewed sheep intestines, pig offal topped with fresh blood, and deep-fried field rat.
More revelatory is a strange plant called Houttuynia: a sinus-flaring, party-in-the-mouth of an experience that’s hot and bitter yet reinvigorating. Its various nicknames go some way to conveying the hopscotch flavour: rainbow plant, fish wort, Chinese lizard tail, and bishop’s weed. In Sichuan, they eat the leaves, but in Guizhou, they eat the root. It’s supposedly good for the lungs, and locals say it’s what kept the region free from the SARS epidemic that ravaged China in 2002. A snack and healthcare system all in one.
“Food is a key aspect of Guizhou culture,” says Luo Yu, a native of Guizhou and Yale anthropologist. “As a source of nutrition and subsistence as well as identity marker. One could say that, in the countryside where people used to grow all their food, they have had a strong connection and perhaps emotional attachment to their land, and the food they produce. I miss my mom's cooking a lot which I grew up on. I really love the smell and taste of sticky rice, which is very much related to local agrarian life.”
At the heart of it is an astonishing hyperlocalism. Spend a few minutes in any village and you’ll see that each family produces almost everything it consumes within about 100 metres of their wooden stilt abodes. A flock of chickens peck furtively; a large pig snores in a hut; rice paddies grow grain but also small fish, snails and ducks; earth clay jars ferment vegetables and wine; leafy terraces cultivate corn and pumpkins. Further afield, nutty mushrooms are foraged from the hillside, and grasshoppers gathered by dragging nets through the grass.
But China’s unprecedented growth and numerous mega infrastructure projects means that less and less of the country is distinct. A decade ago, it could take days to travel 100 miles in parts of Guizhou. Although much of the transport system remains poor, a high speed rail network that opened this summer means that distance can be travelled in less than an hour. There are now already large cities such as Guiyang that offer most amenities that you would expect of a city in Europe.
“Historically, Guizhou is thought of as a poor and remote province. So you wouldn’t expect a well-established cuisine,” adds Professor Oakes. “But the high-speed rail connections will give Guizhou more exposure.”
Increasingly, there are Guizhou restaurants sprouting up in Beijing and Shanghai. They can be found in New York City and Los Angeles too. Could this opening-up herald a chance for Guizhou cuisine on the international scene? Can we expect a hip new pop-up at Shoreditch House?
“People do just seem more adventurous these days,” says Thomas Howells, a food writer at Time Out London. “London has a scene that’s spoken of only behind LA and Tokyo in terms of breadth and ambition. So from an objective viewpoint as to whether Guizhou food could take off from a taste point of view, then I think definitely. There’s a growing taste for it. You just have to look at the massive love for places like Lanzhou Noodle Bar and Bai Wei in Chinatown, and especially fiery joints like Silk Road in Camberwell, Xi’an Impression up in Arsenal, Kaki in King’s Cross, and Etles in Walthamstow.”
Given the success of Sichuan food in cities across the world, the unabashedly bold flavours of Guizhou’s folk cooking could well be coming to a kitchen near you. Perhaps the more challenging aspects may not make the leap - the pig brain, and what-have-you - but there’s plenty for us to savour and salivate over. The question is whether the flavours can travel, despite coming from a culture so completely of its own.
Peter Yeung is a roving freelance journalist. Keep up with him on Twitter.