34 Province Project: Guangxi 广西

Guangxi (West Guang), formally the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, lies at the west end of the same plain as its much better known sibling Guangdong (East Guang, aka Canton). Rubbing up against Vietnam, the mountainous western parts are considered the wild and woolly end of China and it has the highest percentage of minorities in China, including the eponymous if rather obscure Zhuang people, who in fact are China’s largest minority group, 18 million strong. The Zhuangs have their own religion, delightfully named Mo; their own language, which is much closer to Thai than Chinese; their own writing system, which riffs off Chinese characters but is still quite different; and their own delightfully off-the-wall romanization system that takes a leaf from the late, unlamented Gwoyeu Romatzyh to encode tones with bonus letters, so that the UN Declaration of Human Rights starts off like this: Boux boux ma daengz lajmbwn couh miz cwyouz, cinhyenz caeuq genzli bouxboux bingzdaengj.

On the culinary front, Guangxi cuisine is a bit of an ill-defined mix. Spicy, but less spicy than Sichuan; sour, but less sour than Hunan; light, but less light than Guangdong, says one verdict. Rice noodles feature heavily, as do fish and snails from the Li River, and bordering Yunnan and South-East Asia, it’s not too hard to pick up similarities to both. More infamously, Guangxi is the site of the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, controversial even within China, and formerly the stage of the worst ritual cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution.

Here in Singapore, Bukit Batok has a Little Guilin Park, thus named for the craggy limestone cliffs left over from an old quarry, and a Gui Lin Food Stall, serving up not-so-Guangxi dishes like the Malay coconut rice nasi lemak. The one dedicated Guangxi restaurant chain in Singapore, Number 1 Guilin Rice Noodle (壹号桂林米粉), threw in the towel a couple of years ago, and it turns out the (parenthetically named) Wulin Shan Zhuang (Feng Bo Zhuang) 武林山庄 (风波庄) is the wrong zhuang (庄 “village”, not 壮 “strong”), the sole outpost of a chain from Sichuan, and gave up the ghost some time in early 2021.

That leaves, as far as I can tell, exactly one place in Singapore that claims to serve up any Guangxi dishes at all, namely Guilin rice noodles (桂林米粉 Guìlín mǐfěn) at Sichuan Restaurant (四川饭店) in Chinatown. It’s buried way at the back of the menu, and it took a couple of round trips to the kitchen to confirm that they actually had it. “Chilli?” “Can.” A few minutes passed, and the kitchen must have had its doubts because the waitress came back to confirm. “Very spicy!” “OK.” A few more minutes, and another doleful warning arrived: “Not only spicy. Mala.” Surely Sichuan’s signature spicy-numbing sensation is too much for the laowai? I doubled down: “Mala is OK.”

What eventually appeared was a bowl of slippery rice noodles, much closer to what Singaporeans would call “laksa noodles” than the usual thin bee hoon, with some minced meat, a couple of token veggies, swimming in a broth dominated by Sichuan-style mala flavor. The worried waitress came by once more: “Is OK?” “OK!” I mean, sure, it was spicy, but nowhere near Yunnan’s rattan pepper noodles. What disappointed me more was that, as far as I could tell, this was identical to Chongqing xiaomian, only with the wheat noodles swapped out for rice noodles. Oh well, serves me right for ordering this in a place that’s literally called Sichuan Restaurant.

Hands down the most famous Guangxi dish, though, is river snail noodles (螺螄粉 luósīfěn), hailing from the city of Liuzhou and recently massively trendy throughout China despite smelling famously funky. Failing to find any fresh providers of the stuff, I hopped on the internets and ordered a deluxe instant version, specifically the one branded by Chinese video personality Li Ziqi (李子柒), who built a following of millions by filming idyllic depictions of life in rural China without mod cons like electricity, and whom you can see photogenically squelching barefoot through the mud to collect river snails just for you her grandma. The enormous pouch (Singapore dollar coin for scale) comes with no less than 8 baggies of ingredients inside: noodles, soup stock, fermented bamboo shoots, pickled vegetables, vinegar, chilli oil, peanuts and tofu skin, and this video with English subtitles will take you through how to make it. One key point: you need to first boil the noodles starting from cold water, strain, then mix the rest of the wet ingredients and bring to a boil again.

So how was it? In a word, meh. Internet hyperbole often compares those bamboo shoots to durian, but I know durian, durian is a friend of mine, and fermented bamboo shoot, you’re no durian. They’re a bit funky, a bit sour, but not objectionably so and I’ve had curries etc made with them in Thailand and Laos as well; in fact, the menma pickled bamboo shoots commonly used as a Japanese ramen topping are essentially the same thing. Most of the other flavors, snail and otherwise, were obliterated by the combo of chilli oil and vinegar, and the end result bore a considerable resemblance to that old Chinese standby, hot and sour soup. Edible, sure, but hardly worth the hassle of preparation or the $5 it cost.

Overall, the Guangxi experience in Singapore was distinctly unsatisfying, I’m pretty sure neither of these could hold up a candle to the real thing. But until the day comes when Guilin and Yangshuo are back on the tourist map, it’s time to say Boux boux ma daengz (I think I need to make this my new email signoff) and move on to our next province.

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