Friday, August 17, 2012

Guizhou: China's spicy wonderland & its perfectly spicy chicken

Little Guizhou doesn't get much respect in the culinary world, even among otherwise knowledgeable Chinese connoisseurs. She's locked away, dominated by her flashier neighbors: Sichuan to the north, Yunnan to the south, and Hunan to the east, as well as another overlooked place to the south: Guangxi.

And so when I started looking into Guizhou's foods, I wasn't expecting much, mainly because there is so little written about the local dishes. I have shelves and shelves of Chinese cookbooks, for example, but not a single one is devoted to Guizhou. If Guizhou's culinary creations are ever mentioned, they are as little side notes to Yunnan's cuisine. 

Part of this is because Guizhou has been on the outskirts of Chinese life for almost all of the nation's history, home mainly to ethnic minorities like the Miao, who are more related to the Vietnamese than the Han Chinese. Add to that the fact that most of Guizhou is hot, humid, mountainous, and exceptionally remote, so it's little wonder that few have heard about its singular dishes.

Map courtesy Wiki Commons
Another problem is that so much of the local foods really are the province of  minority people who live in isolated villages where domestic animals are a luxury and where wild things make their way to the dining table, everything from deer and snakes to insects, all the way to unusual furry forest creatures and even elephant trunks.

This is definitely a very long way from Beijing...

But the time has come for Guizhou to shake off this provincialism and claim a place in China's wonderful crazy quilt of flavors. The problem for me, as with so many of these out-of-the-way places, was finding out what it was that the local people ate. So, I started with my friends.

I knew for a certainty that the food was wonderfully spicy, not from a book mind you, but from my former boss at the central library in Taiwan, who later became one of my best friends there, as her husband grew up in Guizhou. Both of them are confirmed chili-heads, and nothing made them happier than dishes so hot that just the thought of them makes me sweat.

But then again, that is pretty much true of most homestyle dishes from south-central China -- including Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, and Guangxi -- so Chinese connoisseurs have divided these areas into exactly what kind of heat we're talking about.

Thigh meat in the wok
 Sichuan, for example, is the home of mala, or numbing spicy. Guizhou, though, is categorized as suanla, or sour hot. And while most of the Guizhou dishes I've tried have rarely been tart, sugar isn't really used when cooking, which sets this cuisine apart from almost all others. But not to worry: the heat and seasoning can be adjusted to suit your liking, so there's no reason to avoid these tempting dishes.

First up is a local classic, Guizhou Chicken. Traditionally this is made with a whole chicken that is chopped up into bits, but I've decided to go with boneless, skinless thigh meat for a couple of reasons. 

The most obvious one is laziness. Using boneless meat just makes life a whole lot easier. The second reason is that I'm not too crazy about the way that white meat dries up in lots of stir-fries and braises, and as I'm partial to the moist meat of chicken thighs, this seems the way to go. And why skinless? Because that is how almost all thigh meat is sold now. I have no clue as to why that is. But if you want to keep the skin on or the bones in, that's totally all right with me.

This dish is so complete that all you need is some steamed rice and a green vegetable to round it out. Don't count on any leftovers.

Guizhou chicken 
Guizhou ji 貴州雞 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

18 ounces (or so) boneless chicken thighs (see Tips)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons thinly sliced ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 teaspoons finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
4 tablespoons rice wine
1 to 2 tablespoons Guizhou-style hot sauce (see Tips)
4 tablespoons filtered water
2 tablespoons chili oil, or to taste
Chopped cilantro for garnish

The chicken simmering away
1. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes. Heat the oil in a wok over high until the oil starts to smoke and add the chicken. Cook the chicken over high heat until it is completely browned; remove to a platter and drain as much of the oil back into the wok as possible.

2. Return the wok to high heat and immediately add the ginger, green onions, and garlic. Cook for a few seconds, and then add the wine, and then the hot sauce; fry these together for about a minute to release all of the fragrances. 

3. Pour the water into the wok and add the chicken. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the chicken for about 15 minutes, or until just cooked through. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and then add chili oil to taste. Plate the chicken and scrape all of the sauce over the top. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot.


Use any cut of chicken you like; if you use bone-in chicken, increase the amount to 2 pounds. As always, free-range, organic chickens are recommended.

Add chili oil as the final touch
I prefer to use Taiwanese rice wine, or mijiu, for this dish because it has a very subtle taste, while Shaoxing would be too noticeable. Japanese sake can also be substituted.

Guizhou hot sauce can be found in most well-stocked Chinese groceries; Guilin-style hot sauce is almost the same and can be substituted. These both garlic and black beans in them and are usually sold in little jars. If you can't find either, use whatever Chinese chili sauce you like as long as it isn't sweet, and add a couple teaspoons of chopped fermented black beans, as well as more garlic, to the sauce.


  1. I just got back from a trip to China with two days in Guizhou. The food was amazing!!! Everyone in my group thought it was the best we'd had in China (and we were being hosted, so we had excellent food all around. It's hard to know where to begin, there were so many different dishes. We had a "sour fish hotpot" with a white fish that was lemony with lots of vegetables. There were fresh mushrooms in vinegar; a sticky rice dish cooked with almost burned smoked ham and maybe shredded oolong tea leaves in it? that turned the rice gray to black with a wonderful smoky flavor. The Laoganma or godmother chili sauce is unbelievable good -- mix it with rice or noodles and maybe some sauteed meat and a vegetable and you won't be able to stop eating it. Guizhou has the best fried noodles in China -- really. I wish I could find recipes, so thank your for yours! (I brought back two tubs of laoganma, and apparently one can find it in well stocked Chinese grocery stores.)

    1. Now you have my stomach growling. I know, isn't Guizhou's food insanely good? I never can get enough of it and am happy I am not alone in my obsession. I will look into those recipes and report back if I find something good!