My glorious and always passionate Citizens of TFD Nation – 2024 is the Year of the Wood Dragon, beginning on February 10th, 2024 (Chinese New Year), 新年好 and 恭喜发财! In Chinese culture, the Dragon holds a significant place as an auspicious and extraordinary creature, symbolizing power, nobility, honor, luck, and success. To celebrate, I wanted a spicy recipe worthy of a Dragon and to avoid the obvious Sichuan/Hunan standbys. Instead, we visit the little-known province of Guizhou and the minority Miao people for today’s rare (to the West) dish!
Know before you go any further – this recipe takes two weeks to make properly, involves some expensive ingredients and I fully recognize most will probably never make it. You’d be missing out, if so – and once the fermented tomato base is made, it comes together very fast indeed!
HOWEVER…TFD Nation is made up of rabid traditionalists who always seek out the ULTIMATE in authenticity and this will be the most comprehensive and best recipe for this rare soup in the English language! The fermented tomato base once made can be used for 2 or more batches of the soup – making it less of a hassle once it’s made up!
Guizhou, is a sheng (province) of southwestern China, bounded to the north by Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality, to the east by Hunan province, to the south by the Zhuang Autonomous Region of Guangxi, and to the west by Yunnan province. Guizhou measures more than 350 miles (560 km) from east to west and about 320 miles (515 km) from north to south. The provincial capital is centrally located at Guiyang.
Guizhou has the frontier character of other southwestern plateau lands: rough topography, difficult communication and consequent isolation, and many ethnic minority groups. It was long considered one of China’s poorest and most disadvantaged provinces, as characterized by the folk poem: “The sky is not clear three days; the land is not level for three li (2,115 feet, or 645 meters); the people don’t have three cents.” Area 67,200 square miles (174,000 square km). Pop. (2020) 38,562,148.
Because of the steep gradient and the exposure of limestone, wasteland accounts for nearly half of the total area. Yet part of the province’s natural wealth lies in its forests. The plateau surface is mostly dry and barren, but the peripheral valleys have rich and valuable woodlands. About one-tenth of the land area is under natural forest.
Guizhou has more than 3,860 species of wild plants, among which are several that are highly valued herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Notable are the tubers of Gastrodia elata, the bark of the elmlike Eucommia ulmoides, the roots of Coptis chinensis (Chinese goldthread) and Astragalus membranaceus (milk vetch), and the fruit of Evodia rutaecarpa (Evodia fruit). Collectively, these are known as the five famous herbs of Chinese medicine.
In addition to domesticated animals, such as buffalo, horses, donkeys, asses, and pigs, the province has more than 1,000 species of wild animals, some three dozen of which are rare or endangered. Notable mammals include leopards, otters, foxes, badgers, tigers, and squirrels. In most of the larger rivers carp and other fish are abundant.
Although the area has been known to the Chinese since ancient times, Guizhou came under large-scale Chinese influence only relatively recently, particularly during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when it was made a province. The colonization policy of the Ming and Qing dynasties encouraged a large number of Chinese immigrants from Hunan, Jiangxi, and Sichuan to move into the eastern, northern, and central parts of Guizhou.
The Miao are the most prominent minority group in Guizhou – they are the mountain-dwelling peoples of China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand, who speak languages of the Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao) family. Agriculture is the chief means of subsistence for the Miao, who in the past practiced the shifting cultivation of rice and corn (maize), together with the opium poppy. Opium was sold in lowland markets and brought in silver, which was used as bridewealth payments.
Traditionally, the Miao had little political organization above the village level, and the highest position was that of village leader. In China the Miao have come under the political organization common to the whole of China; where minority populations are dense, they live in autonomous counties, townships, or prefectures, where a certain amount of self-representation is allowed.
In religion, most Miao practice ancestor worship and believe in a wide variety of spirits. They have shamans who may exorcise malevolent spirits or recall the soul of a sick patient, and animal sacrifice is widespread. However, a complete lack of religious faith is common among educated Miao in China.
Young people are permitted to select their own mates and premarital sex is tolerated, although sexual regimes are stricter in China, as are controls on reproduction. One form of institutionalized courtship involves antiphonal singing; another is the throwing back and forth of a ball between groups of boys and girls from different villages, at the New Year.
Polygyny is traditional but in practice has been limited to the well-to-do. The household is usually made up of several generations, including married sons and their families. The youngest son usually stays with the parents and inherits the house, while elder sons may move out with their own families to form new households.
During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12), when the government decided to replace local Miao chiefs with officials appointed by the central government, minority groups (particularly the Miao) rebelled. Rebellions and suppressions were so common there that there was a saying, “a riot every 30 years and a major rebellion every 60 years.” In 1726 at the Battle of Mount Leigong, more than 10,000 Miao were beheaded and more than 400,000 starved to death.
The most important popular revolt against the central government was one led by Zhang Xiumei, a Miao, in 1855. He and his followers united with the Taiping revolutionaries, and the joint army with a centralized command that was organized soon controlled eastern and southern Guizhou and won numerous victories under the Miao leaders Yan Dawu and Bao Dadu.
When the Miao were eventually defeated in 1872, however, countless numbers of them were massacred. The most recent revolt, known as the Qian Dong (Eastern Guizhou) Incident, occurred between 1942 and 1943 as a result of exploitation and suppression by the warlord Wu Tingzhang. Bitter struggles between the Miao and Wu’s armies went on until 1944.
Guizhou cuisine shares many features with Sichuan cuisine and Hunan cuisine, especially in bringing the sensation of spiciness and pungency. What makes Guizhou cuisine unique is the emphasis of a mixed sour-and-spicy taste, as compared to the numbing-and-hot sensation (麻辣; má là) featured in Sichuan cuisine and the dry-hot taste (干辣; 乾辣; gān là) featured in Hunan cuisine.
There is an ancient local saying, “Without eating a sour dish for three days, people will stagger with weak legs”. The saying reflects how Guizhou people love local dishes with a sour taste. The combination of sour and spicy flavours is also found in Shaanxi cuisine. Guizhou cuisine differs from Shaanxi cuisine in that it lacks the emphasis on the salty taste, which is a common trait found in most northern Chinese cuisines.
In addition, the unique sourness featured in Guizhou cuisine comes from the local tradition of fermenting vegetables or grains, and not from using vinegar products. Guizhou cuisine comprises many local varieties and dishes from ethnic minorities, such as the Miao people. Some famous local cuisines are represented by large cities like Guiyang, Zunyi, and Liupanshui.
Guizhou cuisine has matured since the beginning of the Ming dynasty. Guizhou is famous for producing high-quality Chinese liquor, baijiu. One of the most famous and expensive baijiu in China, Maotai, is from Guizhou. Guizhou cuisine also features dishes specially cooked to match the flavor of locally produced liquor, such as preserved vegetables and steamed cured meat.
Guizhou cuisine features various pickled vegetable, or yancai (腌菜; 醃菜; yān cài). The pickled vegetables bring the sour sensation. Fresh vegetables are dried without exposure to sunlight after being cleaned. Afterwards, they are salted and sealed in containers for four or five days to allow proper fermentation. Pickled cabbage and radish are served as side dishes, commonly with wheat and rice noodle dishes.
The sour soup broth (酸汤; 酸湯; suān tāng), representative of Guizhou cuisine with unique sourness, is a cooking heritage from the Miao people. It is the secret to create the famous Guizhou dish ‘fish in sour soup’ (today’s recipe, in fact!). The broth is normally made from the fermentation of rice, rice wine, wild tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and ginger.
Spicy dipping sauce (蘸水; zhàn shuǐ) is crucial in daily dining of Guizhou people. It is made by mixing chili pepper, garlic, ginger, green scallion, sesame oil or soy sauce, according to personal preference. One unique ingredient used in Guizhou dipping sauce is Houttuynia (折耳根/鱼腥草; 折耳根/魚腥草; zhéěrgēn/yúxīng cǎo), which is loved by local people but not commonly accepted by other Chinese with its distinct taste.
Various types of spiciness in Guizhou cuisine come from the art of using chili peppers in different ways by locals. Hu-la (糊辣; hú là) is created by heat-drying crushed chili pepper. Ciba-la (糍粑辣; cíbā là) refers to both the uncooked mashed chili pepper paste and the chili sauce by simmering the paste in oil. Zao-la (糟辣; zāo là) is made by preserving minced chili pepper with ginger and garlic. Laoguo-la (烙锅辣; 烙鍋辣; lào guō là) is spice-flavored chili flakes.
The renowned chili sauce brand Lao Gan Ma in fact originated in Guizhou!
Sour soup fish (Chinese: 酸汤鱼; pinyin: suān tāng yú) is a representative dish of Guizhou Province, China. It originated from the Miao ethnic cuisine in Qiandongnan Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture and has a history of several hundred years. Sour Soup Fish is commonly served at Miao weddings, baby’s first month celebrations, gatherings, and when entertaining guests.
The white version of sour soup is made by fermenting glutinous rice flour and simmering it with wild cherry tomatoes from Guizhou. The soup is then cooked with carp, grass carp, or black fish and seasoned with chili, Sichuan peppercorn, salt, and other spices. Additionally, there is also a variation of the dish that uses pickled tomatoes as an ingredient for the sour soup. It is cooked with carp, soybean sprouts, bamboo shoots, tofu, and served with fermented bean curd, cilantro, and chili as dipping sauce.
On the website culturalkeys.cn there is an excellent historical article on Guizhou sour soup, excerpted below:
One of the most famous dishes in Qian Cuisine is Kaili sour soup fish 凯里酸汤鱼(Kai Li Suan Tang Yu). The soup is named after the city of Kaili, also known as “China’s Miao and Dong Medicine and Health Capital”(Miao and Dong are ethnic minorities living in Guizhou). It is said that the longevity of the local residents can be attributed to their diet. Locals believe sour food like this soup is good for your health.
There is a famous saying in Kaili, “三天不吃酸，走路打捞蹿”; “If you don’t eat sour food for three days, you will hobble”. In ancient times the region lacked salt and oil, and the people who lived in the mountains found not only that sour flavors made up for this lack, but that eating sour soup could give people more energy. The Miao lived in in such a harsh, remote region because they lost a battle, and this influenced their cuisine.
At the Battle of Zhuolu, fought between the Jiuli Miao and the Huaxia people led by Emperor Yan and Emperor Huang, the leader of the Jiuli was killed, and the survivors and their families fled south to the Yangtze River and lived in seclusion in the deep mountains and forests, far from the city and in a region without salt or land suitable for growing rice. They learned to rely on wild vegetables and fruits to feed themselves. In this way the Miao people learned that sour flavors could replace salty ones.
According to legend, in ancient times on Miaoling Mountain there lived a beautiful girl named Ana who brewed excellent mountain spring wine. A fisherman called Awa lived by the river at the foot of the mountain. They sang mountain songs to each other for 49 days, and gradually fell in love. But Ana was forced to marry an evil landowner instead of Awa. Ninety-one days later, on the Qixi Festival, Ana died of grief.
The grief-stricken Awa took the wine Ana had brewed and boiled the fish he had caught in it to pay homage to her. To his surprise, the fish became sour but tasty. Then he tied himself to a heavy boulder and threw himself into the river. Later, in order to commemorate the lovers, people cooked fish in sour soup every Qixi Festival and it gradually became a popular delicacy in the region.
Nothing was wasted in traditional Chinese cuisine!
The original sour soup was prepared with the ‘tail wine’ (the dregs of the wine remaining after the process of distillation) and it became sour after natural fermentation. Nowadays fermented rice soup is used as a base instead.
Sour Fish Soup is prepared in a pan with tomato as well as pickled chili pepper (originating from Yunnan and Guizhou), local Chinese herbs, and finally the fish. The sour soup is made from boiled rice water. The best sour soup is made with wild tomatoes to improve the final taste, and is even more special in flavor with the addition of some bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and green onions.
Originally, the soup was made of rice liquor and then became hot rice soup through natural fermentation. The microflora in the sour soup, coming from the microbial fermentation process, has been proved to be good for health. According to textual research, Sour Soup Fish was originated from the Shuang Yi Village in Leidong Town, Liping County.
The main raw materials required are fish, sour soup, and spices such as Litsea cubeba. Litsea cubeba is almost impossible to find in the West and may in fact be slightly toxic. As such, I have made the executive decision to find a suitable condiment with the proper citrusy vibe and that can add numbing and umami flavor notes. I have indeed found a suitable replacement after much research – 6-year aged Kanzuri paste from Japan, you can buy it from here.
The southeast part of Guizhou province is located in a very mountainous area, with inconvenient transportation conditions and an unfavorable environment for exchanging with the outside, which severely restricts the trade exchange of commodities.
The shortage of daily necessities, especially salt, urges people to constantly overcoming difficulties, innovating and enriching their own food culture. Over time, people there have created a seasoning method of “sour for salt.” “Sour for salt ” not only alleviates the dilemma of salt shortage to a certain extent but also enriches the variety of diet. Special regional conditions and traditional national eating habits have jointly created a unique sour-taste food culture in Southeast Guizhou.
As noted earlier, this is NOT a soup to be made and immediately enjoyed – to make it the proper way, you need to ferment a tomato base that takes a few weeks to properly cure! Once that base is made, however – this soup comes together in a veritable flash!
To make Guizhou sour tomato soup with fish – you first need to remember that since this is a version designed for the Year of the Dragon celebratory feast, you want to try and use carp fillets as the locals do. Why do I insist on carp – because in Chinese legend, a heroic carp that tried multiple times to jump a waterfall finally succeeded and was rewarded by the Gods for its perseverance and had its tail burned off as it leapt the falls, turning it into a Dragon! Failing availability of carp, use farmed catfish fillets.
Pickled red hot peppers are traditionally cubed and added to the soup to add both sourness and heat – I recommend using pickled Sichuan peppers straight from my go-to source for all things Chinese and spicy – the Ma La Market! Buy them from here. You’ll also need some Sichuanese doubanjiang (fermented hot bean paste) – go for the best, which is aged for 3 years in Pixian village and is also available from the Ma La Market from here.
To ferment the tomato mixture, I recommend this classic Sichuanese ceramic fermentation vessel, available from the Ma La Market here.
Dried jujube fruits are added for sweetness and healthy medicinal effect – buy them from Amazon here. To add proper sourness the Guizhou way, you’ll need to need add some properly-fermented sauerkraut (from Southern Germany or Eastern Europe, they do it the best – here is one example) as well as some Tianjin preserved vegetable, which is available from Amazon here (and much cheaper from your local Chinese grocery store, if you have one!). If it’s too pricey, just use additional sauerkraut.
To make the fermented tomato paste, try and use low-water content tomatoes if you can – cherry tomatoes are perfect, as they have the proper flavor profile similar to the wild tomatoes of Guizhou. You will also need some glutinous rice flour, as well as some top-quality baiju (white spirit) infused with herbs from Guizhou province – this is an excellent choice. Serve the leftover spirit in small shot glasses to serve with the soup and toast FREQUENTLY, as the Miao culture demands!
Citizens, this is indeed a rare recipe outside of Guizhou province – even in China. Being able to translate these recipes into a Western frame of reference brings me no end of joy and I wish you and yours a magnificent New Year of the Wood Dragon!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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