For those who have been following my blog and twitter feed, you’ll know by now I’m a strong advocate for informing the public about the traditions and history of Chinese dishes. Here’s my latest. This time, Guilin noodles.
Located in Southern China, Guilin is a city known for picturesque scenery and sprawling rural landscapes. Because of its convenient location next to the Li River, the city is rich in rice terraces and freshwater marine life. The specialty noodle dish — Guilin rice noodles (Guilin mi fen, 桂林米粉) — is a reflection of that. With more than 2,000 years of history, the dish consists of rice noodles, peanuts, peppers, pickled vegetables and a protein of choice (usually fish or horse meat in Guilin). Because of Guangdong, Hunan and Sichuan influences, the cuisine tends to be spicy and sour.
Guilin rice noodles are hard to come by in Los Angeles. In fact, we found only four Guilin restaurants in the city, and all of them are owned by the same family. Regardless of the lack of selection in the area, this specific noodle genre is worth a try. The dish is notorious throughout China for its pungent flavor — the result of the soybeans, garlic, chili and pickled vegetables — but the broth at the Los Angeles restaurants is toned down compared with the authentic versions.
“We do have to keep in mind the preferences of people here,” said Helen Lau, the owner of Gui Lin Cuisine. “The noodles we make here are not as sour as the ones in Guilin.”
Lau is the owner and recipe developer at Gui Lin Cuisine, one of four Guilin noodle joints in the area. She was born in Guilin, grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. Her sister is the owner of the other three Guilin noodle joints: Steam Queen (two locations: Arcadia and San Gabriel) and Grains Taste.
“Rice noodles are not as fattening,” Lau said. “The region of Guilin has a lot of wild vegetation and herbal plants. Our broths and noodles are more soothing to the stomach.”
The history of Guilin noodles dates back to the Qin dynasty. When Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, invaded Nanyue (an ancient Chinese kingdom that consisted of the southern regions of modern China and the northern half of Vietnam), the troops were forced to use local Southern ingredients to make food palatable for the Northern Chinese troops. Because Northern China is heavy on noodles and flour, the Northern soldiers weren’t accustomed to the local cuisine in the South, which lacked flour and was abundant in rice.
In an attempt to bring a taste of home to Southern China, cooks capitalized on the rice in the region to make rice noodles. And to counteract the sickness the troops were encountering, they would brew medicinal stock from local herbs and mix it in with the noodles. Hence modern-day Guilin noodles.
According to Lau, the noodles at her and her sister’s restaurants are imported from China. “You can’t really buy them here,” Lau said. Though the dishes at these restaurants are definitely mild in flavor compared with the real stuff in Guilin, the Lau sisters stay true to their Guilin roots. Guilin-style food reflects the rural and river landscape of the area; think lots of produce, chilis, duck and fish. At Gui Lin Cuisine, Steam Queen and Grains Taste, the rice noodles are the highlights of the menu, followed by their countryside-style dishes, which are heavy in sauteed vegetables.
Squid Ink checked out all four Guilin noodle restaurants. Turn the page.
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The countryside in Guilin is known for being one of the most picturesque places in China. Think lush, green farmland and foggy, mystical mountains in the backdrop. We were lucky enough to have lunch at our tour guide Jesse’s home during our visit to Guilin. All the food came directly from her farmland.
Some key differences between the food there and the food in metropolitan cities like Shanghai. 1) Everything was very qing dan (清淡), or light. No heavy sauces and not a lot of oil. 2) The meal had more vegetables than meat (a welcoming addition to our usual diet back in Shanghai, where we were constantly being fed heavy portions of pork and fish).
This was definitely one of the most memorable meals in China. It was home-cooked by Jesse’s parents, a humble and adorable couple native to Guilin. We ate at the upstairs room of her childhood home, which had been converted into a dining room for her tour groups.
Okay. Pitch for all you travel/food casting directors out there. I’d love to see this scene on television one day.
In Guilin there’s a well-known tourist attraction at the Li River where you hop on a bamboo raft and float downstream for a good hour. Along the way you’ll encounter restaurants perched on top a large bamboo mat who will be selling beer, beer fish, and beer-battered fish. Now beer-battered fish is a Guilin specialty dish. The fish is a carp from the Li River itself.
The process: your raft steerer will ask whether or not you want to stop to grab a couple of beers or two (it’s customary to treat them to a drink). The restauranteur will pull the raft in with a stick and you’ll literally be sitting on a bamboo impromptu restaurant sipping on a cold beer and eating fish from the river below.
No worries at a missed opportunity — you’ll encounter at least a dozen of these river restaurants along the way.
Fair warning, the post contains graphic pictures of butchered dogs and cats.
We took a cooking class in Guilin but before the actual cooking, we were taken to the local farmers market to get a glimpse of daily life. With a few exceptions, the market had the usual fruits, vegetable and meat offerings.
Now Yangshou is a heavy tourist attraction and the farmers market is constantly being flooded with wide-eyed foreigners. Our guide advised us to tone it down and be sensitive to the local businesses — they tended to get annoyed with the extra foot traffic and DSLR-equipped tourists.
The dog and cats vendors were especially hostile. Understandable — I can’t even imagine all the hate they get from tourists on a daily basis. There were “no picture taking” signs posted up everywhere and they snapped at us for lingering. We managed to snap a couple of photographs anyways. A side note: they choose the short haired dogs for consumption. Easier to breed and butcher I suppose.
Dog meat is typically used in hot pots. Their meat is much more warmth-inducing.
Here are the photos, courtesy of Becca Zeidman (I forgot to bring my camera around that day — fail).
It’s about time I uploaded some photographs from my three month trip to China. Now I’ll admit I wasn’t paying too much of the food while I was in China — I was too busy avoiding food poisoning (I lost five pounds because of it) and trying to pick up the language.
These bowl of noodles were discovered at the Yangshuo Night Market in Guilin. It was an idyllic strip of street vendors and restaurants — most of them ironically Western. But a couple of us had heard of the famous Guilin rice noodles and embarked on a mini-trip to find them.
The quest for these noodles was motivated by our Chinese professor. Next to our apartments in Shanghai was a fairly popular Guilin Rice Noodle shop that we constantly frequented. Our teacher had brought up that the Shanghai variety was more “chou” (臭）, or stinky, than the Guilin varietal.
It’s the pickled vegetables that give off the “chou” factor. After a great deal of inquiring, which was odd because we were supposedly in the center of the place known for their rice noodles, we finally found a shop named Yi Feng Ji (壹粉记）that sold the noodles.
The dish: noodles with fish from the nearby Li River. Unlike regular wheat noodles, these noodles are made from rice. They’re clear and have less of a chewy-like texture.
There definitely was a distinction between Guilin’s Guilin rice noodles and Shanghai’s version. The Guilin version is softer on the pickled vegetables and the fish, a white-fleshed carp, was the defining ingredient. Shanghai’s version emphasized way too much on the pickled vegetables, which gave it a sour aftertaste that really didn’t resonate well.