Eating Indigenous Chinese Food in the Mountains of China
From oil tea to mugwort rice cakes, the Yao people of Southern China serve up their own version of Chinese food.
All photos by the author.
Dressed in embroidered pink tops and black pants, a group of women chat at a market stall in Huangluo, Guangxi province.
With their long hair and traditional clothing, these members of the Yao minority would seem out of place in one of China's megacities.
But here in the village, they are at home.
In modern China, indigenous peoples struggle to safeguard their traditional cultures. Making up nearly 92 percent of the population, the majority Han ethnic group dominates the country's politics, media, and food.
"I think food is very important especially nowadays because minority cultures are becoming more and more absorbed into the Han majority," Jen Lin-Liu, an expert on Chinese food culture, told us.
In the mountains of the southern province of Guangxi, the Yao have carved out an existence for more than 2,000 years.
Developing dishes from locally available ingredients, such as rice and bamboo, Yao cuisine reflects the culture and history of its people. It also remains an important marker of identity for the group.
"Food is one of the few things that sticks with the culture," said Lin-Liu. "The way someone eats at home with their families is something that continues on, even if they don't speak the language or dress in traditional clothes."
Youcha—or oil tea—is one such specialty that transcends generations. A caffeinated soup mixed with tea leaves, oil, and other spices, it forms the backbone of a Yao's diet.
Ronggui Li, 53, belongs to the Yao minority. After growing up in a traditional village, he moved to the city of Guilin at 18. He has been drinking oil tea every day for 50 years.
"Oil tea plays a very important role in my daily routine," he told us while discussing Yao culture. "I would feel sick the whole day if I didn't drink it."
Affordable and nutritious, the greenish-brown drink tastes a bit like coffee. It is eaten with puffed grains similar to Rice Krispies and Coco Puffs cereals.
Although she is Han, Yanmei Li, Ronggui's wife, learned how to prepare oil tea from her mother-in-law. Every year, Yanmei participates in the Oil Tea Festival, vying for the honor of best recipe.
"The first step is to use a wooden hammer to pound the tea leaves while warming them in an iron pot. After that, you add oil and boiled water," she explained, pouring the glue-like green tea soup into bowls after removing the remaining tea leaves.
Yanmei then adds salt, caraway seed, green onion, dried rice, fried groundnuts, sliced taro, and fried beans.
For the couple's daughter, Yuanyuan, the taste reminds her of her childhood.
"Since I live in Beijing, I don't drink oil tea because I don't have the right equipment for it," she said, "But every time I come home, I always enjoy drinking it with my family."
Hospitality is another important part of Yao culture. Oil tea, accompanied by one chopstick, is often served to guests in certain villages. The tradition is even a surprise for other Chinese visitors.
"When I first heard about it, I was shocked by the name. How can people put oil into tea?" said Kenneth Wang, Yuanyuan's husband from the northern Shanxi province.
While he now appreciates the beverage, Wang compared his first taste of oil tea to "drinking Chinese herbal medicine."
Guangxi's vast bamboo forests inspired another main course: zhutongfan, or bamboo rice. A mixture of rice, meat, vegetables, and spices is stuffed into a hollow bamboo stalk and roasted over an open fire. Using bamboo gives the resulting sticky rice dish its signature wood flavor.
In the village of Jima, local Yao farmers own a restaurant called Three Visits to the Hut. Bamboo rice is their most popular dish.
"You need to make sure there is enough water so it cooks properly," explained chef Xiying, who only gave us her first name. "Then, I seal the bamboo with banana leaves and roast it on a charcoal fire."
Surrounded by rice terraces, the Moon Bay Restaurant in Huangluo also offers their version of bamboo rice. The villagers belong to the Red branch of the Yao minority and believe their recipe is superior.
"The bamboo stalks are very fresh and the water is also pure fresh mountain spring water, which is why the rice has a sweet taste," boasted a server.
While she wouldn't reveal how she spices the dish, chef Mengmei Hu offered us a bit of advice about how to cook it to perfection.
"The secret of making good bamboo rice is heat control," she said. "When the bamboo turns black, it means it is almost ready."
Not to be outdone for the final course, Yao are also known for their variety of desserts, ranging from ciba, glutinous rice cakes, to matigao, fruit-infused gelatin cakes.
Sweets are particularly important during festivals, when they are given as gifts to celebrate.
Aiyeba—mugwort-covered rice cakes—are one of the most famous Yao pastries.
"Since the mugwort is a little bitter, the most important step is to soak the mugwort in clean water for a whole day to remove the bitterness," explained Yuping Tian, an elder from Longsheng village.
"After that, we can drain the clean mugwort and use it to coat the sticky rice and sugar mixture," she continued.
In traditional Yao beliefs, mugwort is considered a nutritious ingredient that can prevent illnesses, such as a cold and cough.
Shuijinbing are another local favorite. These transparent discs stuffed with red bean paste can be found in restaurants and food stalls at the night market in the city of Guilin.
"Many outsiders might feel these desserts are strange," said Kun Yang, a street food vendor. "But for me, it is the food culture of Yao and I would love to introduce to more people."
As Yao cuisine seems poised to survive to the next generation, it remains to be seen if the minority will be able to protect their culture beyond their cuisine.