The Chinese region that gave the world Lao Gan Ma hot sauce has so much more to offer.
Tucked between Sichuan and Hunan in China’s southwest, Guizhou has long been dwarfed by its more notorious neighbors—and the same holds true for its cuisine, where mouth-watering infusions of chili take on a character entirely of their own.
It’s the suanla 酸辣 (sour and spicy) flavor that truly distinguishes Guizhou cuisine. Unlike Sichuan’s mala 麻辣 (numbing spice) and Hunan’s ganla 干辣 (dry spice), Guizhou’s vinegar-heavy dishes pack a punch of tomato, garlic, and chili that turns the spice dial to the maximum, but with a sour kick.
Food in Guizhou often goes unknown even within China, but its culinary culture, firmly rooted in homestyle cooking and bustling late-night street markets, has no interest in being confused with haute cuisine.
Local tales will attribute the Guizhou palate to its stunning yet barely arable geography and its mild yet humid climate. A famous saying describes the province as a place with no three days without rain, no three hectares without a mountain, and no three coins in one’s pocket.
The absence of farmland left the people here reliant on the sour, sometimes bitter vegetables that grow in the mountains—and locals will tell you there’s no better cure to chilly, humid weather than a jolt of spice.
(Read more: The boom of rural farm-to-table dining in China)
It’s also drawn heavily from the tastes of the province’s dozens of minority groups, which make up over 35% of the population. Spicy sour soup, for instance, is a staple of Miao cuisine.
The food in Guizhou is also punctuated by copious fermented ingredients. Fermentation was used to prolong the shelf life of food in areas that lacked refrigeration.
And the array of spices that the world (particularly John Cena) has fallen in love with through Lao Gan Ma—a sauce made with peanut oil, chili, minced meat, and fermented soybean—has its roots firmly in Guizhou.
“Fermented things, sour things are the driving force of Guizhou food,” says Jill Marie Barron, the writer behind Guiyang Bites in the capital of Guizhou. “Everything’s going to be spicy, but the extra level added by the fermentation, the pickled ingredients is always going to take it up to the next level.”
“The flavors are all going to be strong,” she says, “but they don’t overtake each other. They manage to put all of these heavily flavored things together and make something that tastes light.”
While Lao Gan Ma remains a justified cheat code for many a street vendor in Guiyang’s vibrant night markets, nothing beats a sample of its hometown’s spicy cuisine to understand the flavors behind China’s favorite chili sauce.
Here are five dishes to get you acquainted.
Sour fish soup 酸汤鱼
Suantangyu, or sour fish soup, is the pride of Kaili, a city just outside Guiyang that serves as a jumping-off point to Guizhou’s minority regions.
River fish farmed in rice terraces boil in a simple, yet impossibly sour hot pot of pickled chili, spring onions and tomato.
This is suanla in a nutshell. The tangy stew gives the fish and vegetables a sour punch and spicy finish.
Shops abound, but Old Kaili Sour Fish 老凯俚酸汤鱼 on Shengfu Road 省府路 in Guiyang is a great choice.
Si wawa 絲娃娃
Si wawa, or “silk babies,” might be Guiyang’s best-known offering. While it’s often eaten with Guiyang-style crispy pork, it’s the colorful selection of vegetables that give the dish its character—and make it a refuge for frustrated vegetarians traveling around China.
Around 14 vegetables are laid out to be stuffed into rice wraps. Fresh carrots, pickled radish and fungus are but a few of the offerings, along with Houttuynia, a bitter root that locals insist is good for the lungs, and a helping of spices and soybeans.
Si wawa is impossible to miss in Guiyang. The night markets of Shaanxi Road (陕西路) are one of many great options.
Fermented bean hot pot 豆豉火锅
If you had to pick a dish that’s ground zero for Guizhou’s love of fermentation, this hot pot made with fermented beans, called douchi hot pot, might be it.
Seasoned with copious spices, onions, sesame, garlic and ginger, the broth emits a smell that is positively repellent up until the first bite. After that, it’s easy to get addicted.
(Read more: A guide to all the Chinese hot pot styles)
The beans and oil combine right on the burner to create a creamy, rich stew with multiple layers of sour and spicy flavor. Since its thickness comes from the vegetables themselves, it’s miraculously not heavy at all.
In Guiyang, countless shops serve douchi hot pot in front of a conveyor belt of skewers. Aside from the broth, you’ll pay per stick.
Spicy tofu noodles 豆花面
Every shop making these tofu and pork noodles, called douhuamian, does it their own way, but here’s a classic. The soft noodles are served with stewed tomato, spring onion, soybeans, cilantro, mint and, of course, chili to taste.
It makes for a light meal with serious flavor. Once it’s mixed, the tofu and tomatoes combine to make a rich, oily sauce perfectly complemented by the herbs.
For an equally delicious alternative, some shops serve the noodles and tofu in a clear broth, to be dipped in a separate bowl of herbs, chili, and shredded pork.
Late-night street snacks
The people of Guiyang are late to bed and late to rise, making for a lively late-night snack culture where street stalls are often open until just before dawn.
Some local favorites are shaguofan 砂锅饭 (a comforting, crispy pot of pork, peas, potato, and rice), shaguofen 砂锅粉 (the rice-noodle equivalent in a sour soup), and guailufan 怪噜饭 (literally “strange fried rice,” an eclectic mix of pork, beans, tofu, onions and pickled roots).
It’s all on offer at the Putuo Road 普陀路 night market, which stays open past 4 a.m.
As Guiyang evolves from a sleepy mountain town into China’s “big data valley,” many residents are moving into newly developed areas away from the old city center. Wide streets, high-rises, and modern amenities are abundant, but there’s a worrying dearth of night markets. If you visit, head to the old city center for some late-night grub. It’s the quickest way to experience the city’s true heart and soul.