20,000 Miles Till Lunch: Celebrating the Miao New Year in Guizhou Province

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[Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

Editor's Note: Welcome to the final installment of 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family's six-month road trip around China. Last time, we left Fiona; her husband, Matt; and their two daughters, Bella and Lily, in Yunnan province. Today, they pick up in the central Chinese province of Guizhou.

Smoke rises from the chimneys of wooden stilt houses as we weave our way into Guizhou province. The slow roads snake back and forth, up and over hills, down into the curving river valleys. In the mountainous and heavily forested region, less than a tenth of the land is arable, carved in slender terraces. Its limited farmland means that the province has long been a poor and undeveloped region. Our intention is to cross it quickly, catching the Miao New Year festival in the town of Leishan and traversing the province in double time in order to see China's southeast corner before heading home to Shanghai. It's a lot of terrain to cover in a month, especially if we want to be home before Christmas. But Guizhou has other ideas.

Each mazelike turn takes us through picturesque villages, their entrances marked by ornate stone-and-wood Chengyang Wind and Rain bridges. Two thousand years ago, the local Miao people were defeated by the tribes of the Yellow Emperor and fled south across the Yellow River, most settling in the remote wilderness of Guizhou's mountains. Others made it farther south, where they are known as the Hmong people of northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Guizhou's second-largest ethnic minority, the Dong, make their homes in the river valleys, where they trade the risk of flooding for access to flatter agricultural land.

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When we enter Leishan township, we find welcoming strangers and a humming festival atmosphere, but it turns out we are a week early for the New Year. It's a lunar festival, so the date changes from year to year, and we have miscalculated. Everyone is buying firecrackers by the box, ducks by the brace, and 25-gallon jerry cans of mijiu rice liquor in preparation.

"Will it be like the Long Table Feast?" asks our daughter Bella. "Because that was fun, except that everyone got drunk." She and Lily look pointedly at Matt, whose hangover following that celebration had been ferocious.

I laugh. "No, no, nothing like that," I say, although I have a strong suspicion it will be exactly the kind of festival where lots of strong drink is consumed. Why else would you need 25 gallons of rice liquor?

Waiting for the festival to begin, we spend the week meandering in loops from Leishan, visiting neighboring villages and sampling the local cuisine. The food of Guizhou, known as qián cài, features hot, sour flavors designed to ward off the damp mountain chills. Wedged between Sichuan to its north and Hunan to its east, Guizhou is home to China's other spicy cuisine, still relatively unknown even within China thanks to the region's remoteness. It relies heavily on foods grown and made locally: fermented chilies, smoked bacon, salted and fermented greens, rice wine, and foraged wild ingredients—peppers and herbs, the roots of mountain and water plants, and unusual fruits like yang mei, dark purple globes tasting of mulberry.

Lunch begins in nearby Shidong village, on market day. The girls are old hands now at these busy markets, darting off to seek out the sweets vendor and the man selling kittens. The area's most famous Miao dish is sour fish soup (suan tang yu), and we find it in a small, plain restaurant overlooking rice paddies, away from the market crowds.

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The soup arrives in a vast metal tureen, uncooked, and is set to simmer on the gas burner in the center of our table. The base is a complex blend, with a lemony sourness from pickled bean sprouts and cucumber, the clean acidity of fresh tomatoes, the sweet-sourness of sticky fermented rice, and the kicking-hot tang of fermented mashed chilies. It appears that a handful of random leaves and sticks has been thrown in, but they're wild aromatics, intended not to be eaten but to be left in the soup to continue flavoring it as it cooks. Dried twigs of prickly ash berries (a kind of tart, dark green peppercorn) are mixed with branches of wild mint, ginger, and zhe ergen, the root of a water plant that grows along the edges of rice paddies. It has a pungent, slightly medicinal taste and a woody crunch, whether cooked or raw. Whole river fish, each the size of a hand, cook in the soup. We sit and watch, aromas enveloping us and sharpening our hunger. The small fish take only minutes to cook, their fins curling upward away from their bodies once they're done. I carefully take a piece of fish and dip it in the sauce—a mixture of chopped fresh chilies, cilantro, diced garlic, and dried Guizhou chili flakes, moistened with a ladle of broth. The heat builds and builds until the chili damn near blows my head off. It's the hottest thing I've ever tasted.

"Bit spicy?" asks Matt, as tears stream from my eyes and my nose waters uncontrollably. "Go easy on the dipping sauce," I gasp. I'm reminded of a saying from our Miao friend, Billy.

Sichuan ren bu pa la Hunan ren la bu pa Guizhou ren pa bu la

People from Sichuan are not afraid of spicy food. People from Hunan, of spicy food they're not afraid. But people from Guizhou—they're afraid the food won't be spicy enough.

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La rou.

Matt seems immune to the effects of the chili, but the soup makes Bella and Lily's eyes smart whenever it nears their mouths. They give up on it in favor of jueba, or wild bracken root starch. During the three years of China's Great Famine (1958–1961), the local Miao people survived by eating wild plants like bracken fern roots, pounded to release the starch and steamed into a heavy, dark purple "cake." We eat that cake sliced and fried with smoked chilies and slices of la rou (smoked bacon), crisp on the outside and dense and chewy within. Guizhou la rou, smoked by all Miao families in their own homes, flavors many stir-fried dishes, but the favored local way of eating it is to slice the bacon finely and enjoy its rich, smoky flavor and translucent fat on its own.

The following day, in the nearby Langde village, I continue to marvel at the extreme locavorism of the Miao people. Almost everything consumed by each family of villagers is grown or made within a 50-yard radius of their wooden stilt home. Under the house live a pig and a brace of chickens. There are two or three rice paddies below the house, supporting not only rice but also indigo plants for dyeing cloth, small, sweet-fleshed fish, and edible snails. Uphill from each house are terraces for growing vegetables—leafy greens, corn, chilies, pumpkins, eggplant, and scallions.

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And not a scrap is wasted. In the home of a local Miao family, who turn their front room into a restaurant if the need arises, we sit at a low circular table and eat dried and pickled scallion roots, their fine strings crunchy and tasting ever so slightly of garlic; fried pumpkin sprouts, furred and crisp; fresh hen eggs scrambled with greens; braised rice paddy snails flavored with chili and garlic; and squares of homemade tofu, cooked gently with chili and scallions. Nothing we eat has come from beyond the village.

Each evening, in the night market in Leishan, we try a smorgasbord of snacks: deep-fried tofu balls stuffed with scallions, chili, and ground pork, and pan-fried triangles of tofu filled with ground beef. Bella and Lily become addicted to "lover's tofu" and fried mashed potato. Squares of soft tofu or patties of pressed mashed potato are grilled until golden and crispy, topped with a spoonful of finely chopped zhe ergen mixed with chili and garlic.

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"It's a strange way to eat mashed potato! With that weird root!" says Lily, ordering herself another three potato patties from the vendor.

A week of exploration flies by, and suddenly it's the Miao New Year. Although we'd planned to celebrate in Leishan itself, during the week we find ourselves invited guests of the chief of Paiweng village, whose handsome stilt house stands just outside of town.

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The celebrations begin at dark, with a barrage of bianpao (firecrackers) exploding red, green, and gold umbrellas of sparks on the wood-shingle roofs. Someone sets off a mighty coil of bianpao on a woodpile, with noise and light like the flash of artillery fire.

"Is that a good idea?" I ask the chief.

He just laughs. "Maybe now and again, we lose a house!" Pails of water sit outside many homes, just in case.

In the large central room of the house, we meet his mother and extended family. They seem utterly delighted to have four extra guests, and the room soon fills until there are 30 of us seated on low trestles. There are no tables, just three evenly spaced braziers glowing with coals. A wok filled with steaming duck-blood congee is placed on each. Everyone in the room murmurs with expectation. On top of the wok rests a wooden plank balancing three dishes, warming from the steam of the congee. The first is duck braised with fermented chili, rich and pungent; the second, small crisp-fried yellow fish from the rice paddies, which we eat bones and all; and the third, pickled bamboo shoots, sour and salty.

But before we dig in, we need to toast. The chief's son dispenses mijiu liquor from a jerry can into a teapot so he can fill our bowls. In Miao culture, refusing an offered drink is the worst possible social insult. We raise our bowls—the same size as food bowls—and swig the throat-scalding liquor. Except, of course, Bella and Lily, although they are offered a bowl along with everyone else.

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"He jiu!" commands the chief's mother, in her eighties. "Drink liquor!"

"He jiu!" we reply in unison.

The Miao children watch TV in another room, recognizing the early signs of a very, very long night, but Bella and Lily are too interested in watching the feast unfold to join them.

Other dishes arrive: fermented leafy greens, known as yancai, eaten sparingly as a seasoning, or as a meal in itself, served with slices of pork belly. Yancai has a dark green or brown color, depending on its age, and a strong umami flavor.

Every few minutes, someone calls, "He jiu!", and we all stop eating to drink another mouthful of firewater. At intervals, the chief calls, "He gan!" (Drink the bowl dry!), and we gasp and splutter as we force the last of the liquor down. Bella and Lily giggle at Matt and me, trying to stay vaguely upright on our narrow trestles. Suddenly, everyone gets to their feet and walks unsteadily to the door, flushed and ruddy from the liquor and the cold.

"The feast's over?" I ask the chief.

"No! Just beginning! We're going up the hill now to my sister's house!"

And it begins all over again, this time with crispy roast duck and sour, spicy shredded fish and charred hot green peppers. And round after round of "He jiu!" and "He gan!", until we are all, village elders and young alike, roaring drunk. We leave sometime after one in the morning, staggering to the van to sleep, as rounds of New Year firecrackers see us off and the family all yell, "Come back tomorrow!"

And return we do. The slaughter of eight pigs, one for each family clan within the village, marks the start of the New Year. The afternoon feast that follows is a celebration of every part of the pig: slices of cooked liver, surprisingly mild-tasting, and marble-white pork fat. The fat has a clean, fresh taste and a tender, buttery texture. It's served alongside bowls of fermented sticky rice, apple cider–sweet.

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We crowd around the braziers as the hot dishes arrive—chili soup flavored with thick slices of pork and pieces of kidney and cooked blood, chewy sliced fried intestines cooked in a richly spiced gravy. Before long, the mijiu flows again, and the whole room rejoices in a reprieve from their hangovers.

Lily rolls her eyes. "Not again!"

At the close of the meal, the chief surprises us with a special request. He offers us, as guests of honor, small bowls of just-set pig's blood. Lily and Bella look aghast. "You're not actually going to drink that, are you?"

My courage fails me, and I shake my head. I can't face the wobbling, jellied blood, but Matt meets the challenge. Every eye in the room is on him as, pale and sweating, he swallows the congealed blood in a single gulp.

The room erupts. "He jiu!" we cry together.