Tuesday, April 17, 2012

貴州人怕不辣 ("In Guizhou, people are afraid food is not spicy enough")

"Mi pi" noodles in a sour spicy sauce
Dazhi Road Lane 46 #27, Dazhi District, Taipei (MRT Dazhi - surprise!)

In 2002 and 2003 I lived in Guizhou (貴州), a southwest-central province of China. Specifically, the city of Zunyi (遵義), in the north part not far from the Moutai brewery and, further up, Chongqing.

When I lived there, for most lunch meals that I didn't eat at the school, I would go out for either the town's famous lamb noodles (遵義羊肉面) or get something called "mi pi", or "rice skin" noodles. Like the wide "bantiao" noodles popular in Hakka cuisine in Taiwan (板條), they're basically soft, white, wide, thin noodles - but these are much wider than bantiao and served in a much spicier sauce with ground lamb or pork and vinegary undertones. It tends to be spicier, reminiscent of the flavors of Chongqing hot pot, in the north and more sour, reminiscent of Miao (苗族) cuisine in the south where there are more ethnic minorities - mainly Miao but also Dong and others.

Mi pi quickly became my favorite food IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, second only to dried chilis stuffed with rice gluten and baked until the chili skin crackled. I've tried every Chinese restaurant that does a good job with southwestern Chinese fare - Sichuan, Hunan, Chongqing, Yunnan - and never found my mi pi outside of Guizhou. It was so simple and yet so perfect. And I could only have it in Guizhou - it was too simple, too local, too basic, to be served elsewhere it seemed.

Until now. 

The other day I read a review of "Oriental Cuisine" in the Taipei Times (linked above) and thought "I must go there immediately". It was actually my husband who found the review, but I was the one squealing giddily over it. Finally! MY FOOD! I could have MY FOOD again! I didn't like a lot about China - I got pneumonia twice in one year after all - but I loved, loved, LOVED the food, especially the amazing yet underrated cuisine of my "home state" of Guizhou. It was like Sichuanese food only better. As though Sichuanese food could get better (actually, it can).

There's even a saying: 四川人不怕辣,湖南人辣不怕,貴州人怕不辣. In Sichuan, the people are not afraid of spicy food. In Hunan, the people of spicy food they are not afraid. In Guizhou, the people are afraid food is not spicy enough!

And it is so true. The variety and depth of spice in cool, humid, mountainous and poverty-stricken Guizhou (all true: they also say that "in Guizhou you cannot walk three steps without going uphill, it cannot go three days without raining, and the people do not have three pennies to rub together") is truly a magical, life-changing thing. I tear up just thinking about it - and not from the chilis. The sweat on my brow from a fiery soup steeped in chili oil. The long-term burning of the dried chilis used in many dishes, especially when tempered with nothing but rice gluten. The use of grilling, stewing and adding sour or bitter notes, the sharpness black pepper and flower pepper (花椒, a personal favorite of mine and found in all good Sichuanese food) created a cuisine that I grew very attached to.


Unfortunately, Guizhou cuisine, for reasons I cannot explain, has not caught fire - pun intended - abroad the way Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisines have. Why? Why?! I honestly don't know.  So, after leaving Guizhou, I'd resigned myself to never enjoying that particular beauty again, unless I were to return for a culinary visit (which I fully intend to do, even if I will never again live in China).

And then, there was magic.

A restaurant - in Taipei!!!!!!! - specializing in Guizhou food with a guy who had studied it in depth and in meticulous detail at the helm? Oh, pinch me! Bring my smelling salts! Bring my stuffed dried chilis and my mi pi sauce! BRING IT!

So, it was really not an option: we had to eat there as soon as possible. Which we did, on Sunday.  We ordered many of their most famous dishes, I got my mi pi (not seen on the menu, but he could whip it up for me easily enough) and I had a lot of great banter with the chef about the wonderfulamazingness of the food of Guizhou. Either he was humoring me or he was genuinely pleased to meet another fan of the cuisine who had been there and knew what she was talking about.

The chef explains the history of Miao dry chicken pot as my friend Cathy gazes into the wok
We also ordered a meat dish cooked with a special root which has a bitter-ish taste (one of the only bitter tastes I can handle) and a fishy smell - and not in a good way. I'd seen it many times in Guizhou, and at the time didn't like it. With five years of Chinese cuisine under my belt, I was ready for another go. This time, I can say I honestly liked it. My, how things change.

Scary root dish that is a little bitter and smells of fish
We ordered some of the cheaper Moutai - not the "ten thousand NT a bottle" stuff, but good stuff - to drink to our amazing meal. Despite not being the most expensive kind, it did make us a little lightheaded.

And the meal was amazing. This chef is the real deal - he knows what he's doing and the food delivers.

 We also got the Miao sour fish soup (above), which comes with a "dipping soup" for the fish slices - amazingly boneless - shown below. So good. This reminded me less of Zunyi - mi pi and lamb noodle territory - and more of Kaili, the Miao stronghold in the south of the province, not far from Guanxi.

Good decor, too.

All I can say is that if you live in Taipei like spicy food, you have to eat here. If you don't, I will punch you in the face.

And now, please enjoy some of my photos from Guizhou - this trip down memory lane brought to you by the fine folks at Oriental Cuisine. Just to give you a little cultural and landscape background to the food that you WILL eat because I will MAKE you eat it. You don't have a choice, sorry.

Kaili textile market

Downtown Guiyang - China Construction indeed

A "Chinese horoscope" game in Zunyi - you get a lollipop that looks like the animal
the spinner lands on

Somewhere in Zunyi

Minority woman (Dong, perhaps?)

Phoenix Park in Zunyi

Zunyi wet market spice shop

A very poor area in northern Guizhou

Villager in a Dong minority area

Miao woman outside Kaili, preparing to go to a wedding (which I was invited to, attended,
but could not take photos of as it was too dark - it was amazing)

Zunyi's main wet market

Miao woman outside Kaili

Miao girl and her mother dressed up in a village outside Kaili (we were going to a wedding)

View from the highway between Guiyang and Zunyi, central Guizhou

Miao mother and child Chong'an in southwest Guizhou

Southwest Guizhou

Miao textiles for sale (I own several)

Way up by the Chongqing border

Capital city of Guiyang

Near Chishui (north Guizhou)

No comments: