Haw Berries & Kumquats

Destined for Guiyang 甲秀楼缘

There’s so many things to love about food in Guizhou province. Once, we accidentally ate raw pickled fish, and another time, we were force-fed slabs of fatty pork by muscular, alcoholic women of the Water Tribe. Good times.

Fortunately, Guizhou food in Beijing turns down quite a few notches in the potential nausea scale. And the restaurants do their best to replicate the cuisine’s fiery, mouth-puckering excitement – no easy feat. This is powerful stuff: exuberantly sour, mouth-tingling spicy, and with unique flavors that could only come from the region’s distinctive vegetation. There are tender spring bamboo shoots, and wild fiddlehead ferns, but zhe’ergen (折耳根) tops them all – it’s called fish root for a reason. Guizhou residents say that this pale spindly root was their natural prevention against SARS, but it definitely is an acquired taste.

Fiddlehead ferns

Fiddlehead ferns

I’m always pleased to discover a new Guizhou restaurant here. There aren’t that many, and the number of really excellent ones you can count on one hand. Which is why it’s so nice that Jiaxiulou Yuan (甲秀楼缘) – “destiny at the Jiaxiu Pavilion,” a historic building in Guiyang – is worth going back to. It’s run by the representative office of the Guiyang (capital of Guizhou province) government in Beijing – an almost surefire guarantee of quality. Homesick sojourners in Beijing would usually head to the representative office of their province or city for a nostalgic meal made by chefs from their homes.

We were torn between our usual favorites and dishes that aren’t available at other Guizhou restaurants here, and ordered a bit haphazardly. Hence this raw fiddlehead fern (RMB 18), so photogenic but alas, the raw ferny flavor was even too grassy and pungent for us. I couldn’t resist its lovely yellow and purple curls, though its flavor would be much more palatable when lightly stir-fried.

Qingyan Tofu

Everything improved vastly with the crispy fried Qingyan tofu (青岩豆腐), served with a classic Guizhou dip of ground hot peppers, cilantro, and minced zhe’ergen – here in the sauce, its fishy aroma plays very well with the other bold and powerful spices; indeed, it’s almost unnoticeable. Qingyan is known for its tofu, which no doubt also has something to do with its fame as a well-preserved Ming-dynasty town, just a few hours outside of Guiyang. You can see the tofu’s aerated interior, which soaks up the delicious sauce like a sponge. This was like the sanitized version of a classic street snack, and while it was really nice, I’d take the roadside tofu any day.

These are simply amazing: all over Guizhou and southern Yunnan, little old ladies sit by the side of the road, grilling up humble chunks of homemade tofu, whose smoky, lightly charred exterior give way to a soft and creamy middle. For a few kuai, you can easily fill up.

Dipping Qingyan Tofu

Next up was a particularly wonderful larou suancai erkuaiba (腊肉酸菜饵块粑) – chunks of sticky rice cake stir-fried with crisp, salty bacon, pickled vegetables, chile peppers, and scallions. What were the pickled vegetables? Usually they’re some kind of leafy green, but this time they seemed to be a radish. Unusual, but delicious: the rice cakes were soft and chewy, and the bacon fat had infused the entire dish with its savory goodness.  I could eat this every day.

Erkuaiba fried with cured pork and pickled vegetables

The zaola bamboo shoots (zaola zhusun 糟辣竹笋) is another one of my favorites. This place used a little more chile pepper oil than does my favorite restaurant, but made up for it with the largest pieces of bamboo I’ve ever seen. Zaola refers to a uniquely Guizhou fermented pepper preparation. Made by fermenting ground-up hot peppers, garlic, and ginger, with a little bit of baijiu (hard liquor) in a clay vat, it can kick up stir-fries, salads, sauces, and soups. The flavor is intense and complicated – not just spicy but also fragrant and savory, and it makes everything seriously delicious.

Zaola Chile Bamboo

The only downfall of Jiaxiulou Yuan is shared by almost all the representative office restaurants: their dull, puce-colored hotel decor. But while I like a good decor, I’m pretty forgiving about bad ones: just feed me authentic, spicy, colorful, exciting food and I’ll be happy. And Jiaxiulou Yuan does this pretty well.

Jiaxiulou Yuan [map]
Bldg 5, Guoyingyuan (across from the Beijing Youth Palace)
Xizhimen Nanxiaojie, Xicheng District
Tel: (010) 6613 1442
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