34 Province Project: Guizhou 贵州

Guizhou (“Precious Province”) is in southern China, just north of Yunnan and Guangxi. “The sky is never sunny for three days, and the ground is never flat for three feet” (天无三日晴,地无三尺平), says a local proverb, summing up how rainy and mountainous the area is. As you might guess, it’s historically poor and thinly populated, and like its neighbours has a reputation for being a wild and woolly borderland inhabited by many minority people. Peter Hessler’s Country Driving recounts how Zhejiang factory owners used to summarily reject any applicants with Guizhou IDs, and my own prejudices stem from something nearly as irrational: the guì (贵) in Guizhou sounds awfully close to the guǐ (鬼) of “devil/ghost”, as in yángguǐzi (洋鬼子) and the Cantonese gweilo (鬼佬), both meaning “foreign devils” like me.

Guizhou cuisine (黔菜 qián cài) is famous for being spicy and sour, so much that, to quote another proverb, “if you don’t eat sour for three days, you’ll stagger when you walk” (三天不吃酸,走路打窜窜). However, this sourness is usually not derived from vinegar, but by fermenting and pickling, and like Sichuan and Hunan to the north, chillies are used in abundance. Lao Gan Ma (老干妈), a sauce made from chillies, soybeans and onions now trending worldwide in hipster circles under the bizarre moniker “chili crisp”, originally hails from Guizhou.

Much to my dismay, I could not find a single Guizhou restaurant in Singapore. I was contemplating drowning my sorrows Finnish style with a large bottle of Guizhou’s most famous product (about which more later), but out of the blue, the lovely Sam of @appropriateamount reached out to this random yángguǐzi and offered to host a feast at her place. A Guizhou native who moved to Singapore when young, her quarantine project was recreating the tastes of home. How could I possibly say no?

So on a Saturday night we rocked up at Sam’s place to find Sam, two of her friends, a puppy and a veritable feast awaiting us. By special request, she had made the effort to rustle up some fish mint, commonly known in Chinese as yúxīngcǎo (鱼腥草, “fish-smelling herb”) but in Guizhou usually called zhé’ěrgēn (折耳根, “broken ear root”). The Yunnanese like to chow down on the leaves, but in Guizhou it’s the crunchy roots that are the star of the show, with an unusual flavour that’s partly minty, partly lemony, and, yes, vaguely fishy, but not at all in a “fish sitting out in the hot sun for a week” kinda way, more a gentle whiff of fresh sashimi. The rhizome was served up both cooked in a tasty stir-fry with chilli and bacon (折耳根炒培根), the bacon substituting for cured ham (腊肉 làròu), and raw in a delicious dipping sauce flavoured with coriander, chilli, and a few drops of another uniquely Guizhou ingredient, mùjiāngzǐ (木姜子, “tree ginger”) oil extracted from Litsea cubeba. The oil has a strong lemongrass-like scent, and as a result the dip reminded quite a bit of the ubiquitous nam jim dipping sauces in Thailand, only you don’t need fish sauce because fish mint does the job!

The hit parade continued. Guizhou-style làzǐjī (贵州辣子鸡), very different from the dry Chongqing-style “popcorn chicken” you usually get in Singapore, with cíbā làjiāo (糍粑辣椒) pounded “mochi” chilli paste in oil (thus named for the texture, no actual glutinous rice involved) and springy cubes of konjac (魔芋豆腐 móyù dòufu, “devil’s tofu” in China, konnyaku in Japan). Tofu stew with fresh green chillies, tomatoes and garlic (西红柿青椒豆腐), this trio being a signature of Guizhou cuisine. And a mild pork meatball soup (肉丸子汤), perfect for eating with the fish mint chilli dip.

Last but not least, one dish even a Finnish country boy would recognize, namely mashed potatoes (土豆泥), albeit with crispy chunks of pork crackling (脆哨) mixed in. The way to eat this is by dipping chunks into the unassuming red powder above, which looks like the kind of ground chilli that makes you sneeze just by looking at it, but was actually a blend of chilli and spices, nowhere near as fiery as it looks and straight-up addictive. I’m kind of tempted to start importing this to Finland, but it may still be an uphill fight to convince my countrymen to start adding chilli to their potatoes.

To refresh our palates, the obvious choice was Kweichow Moutai (贵州茅台 Guìzhōu Máotái), the official liquor of the People’s Republic, used for disinfecting soldiers’ wounds during the Long March and served by Mao to Nixon in 1972. A powerful sauce-type baijiu generally considered an acquired taste, one review says that it is “reminiscent of a very rough vodka, followed by soy sauce notes”. But while the taste may be debatable, the prestige is not: a standard 500 ml ceramic bottle of their flagship “Flying Fairy” clocks in around $700, vintage editions sell for hundreds of thousands at auction, and the Moutai Group is now more valuable than Diageo. Fortunately for proles like me, the marketing department has come up with two innovations: a new more-herbal, less-acetone formulation called Moutai Bulao (某台不老, lit. “Ageless”), sold in 125 ml bottles for “only” $80 a pop, and nifty vending machines to dispense these shots. And it was… quite nice! At 53% it’s obviously strong stuff, but at least in the Bulao formulation, much more drinkable than I expected: the taste was complex but smooth, no soy sauce or paint thinner in sight.

Last but not least, we sampled some Guizhou tea as well. Kǔdīng chá (苦丁茶) means “bitter nail tea”, since the leaves dry up into sharp needle shapes, and it’s supposed to be quite bitter — although to my tastes, trained on Japanese green teas, it was quite mild and pleasant. Fun fact: the Ilex kaushue plant it’s made from is closely related to Ilex paraguariensis, the source of South America’s yerba mate.

All in all it was a great evening with great food, great company and great conversation, and absolutely one of the highlights of my culinary journey so far. Sam is considering sharing her Guizhou food with Singapore and the world by setting up a private dining experience, so drop her a line if you’d be keen. The next feast on her agenda is Guizhou street food, and I’m already on the waiting list!

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