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March 14, 2011

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Guilin beer fish, stuffed snails and snakehead hot pot

GUILIN City in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region not only offers stunning natural scenery but also a "sour spicy" adventure in eating.

Because of the humid and wet weather, pepper is a must on the menus in Guangxi, just like in its nearby Sichuan and Hunan provinces.

Unlike the hot spicy "tongue-numbing" Sichuan dishes and the "dry spicy" Hunan dishes, Guangxi cooking has a fresh aroma and a "sour spicy" flavor.

My four-day vacation in Guilin was the best tour I ever had in terms of the wide variety of fresh, delicious and nutritious food and delicacies. Much of it cannot be found in a metropolis like Shanghai.

The Lijiang River is abundant with fish, shrimp, crabs and snails. It was said that late Chairman Mao Zedong loved the Wuchang fish, a specialty of Hubei Province, while late Premier Zhou Enlai favored the fish from the Lijiang River.

Following the recommendation of locals, I chose the Jinlongzhai Restaurant in Guilin for its authentic dishes.

Since the rivers in the region are crystal clear and unpolluted, fish comprises a large part of the local diet. I ordered the Jiangu fish fresh from the river - in other parts of China it is commercially raised.

The steamed fish was tasty and tender, lightly flavored, accompanied by a sour and spicy sauce.

The fish bones are not a problem; they are very few and tiny, but still not edible.

River snails with pork stuffing is popular. The snails of Guilin are big and meaty, cooked with shallots, pepper, ginger and the famous sanhua (literally "three flowers") rice wine of Guilin. The wild snail meat is tender and more fragrant than that of commercially raised snails.

Although Guilin rice noodles are available in Shanghai, the authentic noodles in Guilin taste more delicate and rich. They are made from rice flour and oil. Cooked in broth, they are served in a bowl of soup made from pork, garlic, peanuts, peppers and radishes. Pickles and condiments can be added.

That dinner was superb, and there were more pleasures to come on my following two-day trip to nearby Yangshuo, an ancient town only an hour's drive from Guilin.

There are two famous dishes that should not be missed: the beer fish and the ban yu (snakehead fish) hot pot. Both are easily found in restaurants along West Street, a shopping and dining area that attracts many foreigners.

Beer fish is a household dish. The Lijiang River fish is braised in local beer with fresh vegetables and green and red peppers. Beer fish in other cities doesn't taste the same.

My favorite dish was the hot pot made with snakehead fish. As a hot pot enthusiast, I have tried many different types of hot pot and this ranks among the very best.

The Fugui Pavilion restaurant on West Street is well known for this hot pot. A snakehead, which weighs 1-2 kilograms, can be made into around 10 dishes of semi-transparent fillet to be cooked in the hot pot. The crispy-cooked and nutritious skin is served as an appetizer with chili sauce and shallots. The dipping sauce containing vinegar, fresh chilies, shallots and garlic is the best hot pot seasoning I have tasted. It's a little sweet, sour and spicy, highlighting but not overwhelming the flavor of the fish.

I added local wild plants to the hot pot of milk-colored fish soup for a delicious and nutritious meal.

Guilin is famous for its "three treasures" widely used in cooking - chilies, pickled tofu and sanhua rice wine. The wine has a history of more than 1,000 years.

The city offers many unique snacks, such as Guilin sour pickles and luohanguo (monk's fruit) tea.

Savory Guilin sour pickles include many kinds of salted and sour vegetables such as peppers, radishes, sauerkraut, sour beans, bamboo shoots and root mustard.

Luohanguo tea is a favorite of locals. The special fruit grown primarily in Guangxi is sugar-free but tastes sweet and is very fragrant.

Containing all kinds of trace elements, the tea is used in traditional Chinese medicine for a variety of treatments. It is said to moisten the lungs, detoxify the liver, get rid of phlegm and work as a laxative and general detoxifier.

Although the fruit is around 300 times as sweet as sucrose, it is the preferred natural sweetener for diabetics, people with hypertension and overweight patients.


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