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Reading, Writing, and Regional Cooking: Guizhou Style Chinese

Hot Pot

Stan and I were done with our planned site visits, but not with the paperwork. Yes, even in tropical China, there’s always paperwork. So we ate a hearty breakfast, knowing full well that even the condemned get to eat something. The buffet was well stocked, and I tried out more of the Chinese goodies this time: Dumplings, some pickled veggies, steamed buns, and so on. Of course, I didn’t let the bacon get completely away. Every time I visit the country that invented the pig I make sure to get some local pork.

We then set up in Stan’s swanky suite to knuckle down and get the reports drafted. We had a great view out the window, and would take breaks on the balcony enjoying the warm (nearly hot) tropical air. Plenty of moisture in that air too! We didn’t need to drink much with that humidity around, just step outside, inhale and drink and the same time.

The early part was a hard trudge, but we got through it and gained speed as the day wore on. We grabbed a quick lunch downstairs rather than lose our momentum, and went back to it. Work work work work work! We finished just in time to get cleaned up and meet Frank, a local friend of Stan’s who was taking us out to dinner.

Stan has known Frank for several years, and they’ve had plenty of opportunities to eat out together. We were supposed to have Vivian, Frank’s wife of (almost) a year, along with us; but at the last minute she got stuck in a training class. So it’s only the three of us, looking for spicy food. And Frank knows just the place. Taste Qian Guizhou Style Restaurant is where he takes us.

Taste Qian is relatively new. The first one, which Frank describes a “a hole in the wall” that he wouldn’t have ever noticed without help from a friend, is only four years old. Now they have several stores in the Shenzhen area, and Frank has taken us to the newest one. The floors aren’t even tiled yet, but they’re serving hot-and-spicy to a fair crowd. Apparently it’s best we went on Thursday, as the Friday night crowd gets large. That’s a good sign!

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We’re shown to a quiet table upstairs, where few diners are seated. Immediately the appetizers begin showing up. This restaurant advertises Guizhou style cooking, also known as Qian style. Since I know most of you haven’t met Guizhou style yet, here are some details.

Experts in Chinese cuisines often speak of the Eight Great Traditions: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang. Most of us in the States only recognize maybe two or three of these. A common simplification leaves four traditions, geographically divided: Sichuan (Western), Cantonese (Southern), Shandong (Northern) and Huaiyang (Eastern). Some modern writers have added Beijing and Shanghai cuisines to the original eight.

Notice, there’s no Qian or Guizhou in those lists. This cuisine is often confused with its cousins found to the east of Guizhou Province: Sichuan, Yunnan, Jiangxi and Hunan. Similar, that’s true. Identical, definitely not. These five provinces constitute the majority of hot pepper consumption in China. And Qian leads the way by a lot, on a per-capita basis. They love their hot food! I knew we were in for a treat, if I could take it without a complete meltdown.

The condiments and appetizers included a pickled, shredded daikon radish that set the tone for the meal. It was quite hot, maybe not the hottest pickle I’ve ever had (some kimchi still holds that honor), but definitely a warning to my tongue and palate that flames were on their way. A bowl of boiled peanuts showed up as well. These aren’t my favorite way to eat peanuts, but are typical at many Chinese meals.

Next up was what Frank called “rice tofu” in chile sauce, with onions and peas. This dish is chilled, and the tofu is firm and cut into little logs. I really think this stuff is made from rice flour, and isn’t processed at all like tofu, which requires fermentation. It was good, a bit sweet, an bit salty, and fairly zesty. Enough to make you sip strongly on your Tsingtao beer.

A big plate of batter-fried mushrooms showed up next. These aren’t like any mushrooms you’ll get in the States, though. They are thin tubes with small, round heads, and only an inch or so long, with a few up to maybe two inches. These were coated in a batter like used in Japanese tempura, very light and thin. Salted lightly as soon as they come out of the fryer, these lovelies were the belles of the ball! Frank didn’t want any, and that’s a good thing as Stan and I went through that plate of fried fungi like Grant through Richmond. Yum!

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The procession of dishes suddenly sped up. Kangkung with garlic, thinly sliced spicy beef tenderloin with lots of cilantro and pepper flakes, and a sweet, greenish-yellow paste were up next. This paste was made with egg, sugar, and I think rice flour and tarot root. Much better tasting than you might think! Since it was sweet and not zesty, it could be used to clear the palate in-between spicy bites.

Finally, the centerpiece dish showed up: A large, ceramic hotpot that was placed on the burner built into our table. When they lit that off and lifted the lid I knew we were in for a special treat. Chicken chunks, veggies, big pieces of ginger and more were swimming in a sauce that was covered with a layer of oil. And all of it was deeply red. Dangerously red. The aroma hit us all at about the same time, and it was so pungent we all sneezed. We started fishing out bits of chicken and vegetables, and once we’d lowered the level in the pot we began to add the extras: deep-fried sheets of tofu, bean sprouts, potato slices, bok choy and more went into that red inferno. The howling hot oil consumed them all, and once they were crisp-tender we’d fish them out, blow on them to cool them down a bit, and eat.

Guizhou cooking makes use of a distinctive, very hot chile that’s only found in that region: The Zao chile. I couldn’t tell much difference from other chiles; by the time it was explained to me, my tastebuds were nuked back into the Stone Age. I will admit, though, that somehow this chile, in spite of being super-hot, doesn’t completely hide the flavor of the food.

Frank tried to show us how to stir the pot, and wound up burning his left thumb. First he cooled it off in his beer, as that was close by; then he was given a bowl of cold soy sauce by a waiter. That seemed to help a lot. I guess it’s another of those secrets of Eastern medicine, or something. Then they brought out some burn cream in a tube, and about a dozen Bandaids. Stan and I commiserated while the medical repairs were being made. We also noted that, while he was distracted, we had that much more of the hotpot to ourselves. We didn’t let any guilt get in our way as we chowed down.

I haven’t a clue how much we ate. Frank always orders too much food, Stan says. And Frank says it’s all Stan’s fault, because he always pays. Me, I don’t care whose “fault” it all was. It was delicious, and so hot I’m sure it curled my ear hairs. After it grew them, of course. (I know I don’t have those things naturally.) A meal so good it could make you cry! Or at least it was that hot.

Frank had the wait staff make up a to-go box for his wife, Vivian. She likes hotter food than Frank does! That says a lot. Stan settled up the tab (220 RMB, or about $30 including drinks), and we waddled down the stairs to the car. I knew the next day would be a hard travel slog, but before then I could relax and savor the Qian aftermath…

Enjoy the (Guizhou Meltdown) Heat!

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