Take a walk down any street in Yangshuo, and you’d be hard-pressed to avoid looking at a misty view of at least one towering karst. They litter the area like giant forest green anthills, and there is so much fog it’s hard to separate the enormous columns from their shroud.
All this impressive scenery stirs the stomach as well as the eyeballs, which suits Yangshuo just fine: there seem to be as many tasty dishes as there are karsts.
My Financial and Menu Adviser has been in fine form here, although the fiduciary aspect of her responsibilities seems completely overwhelmed by gastronomical overload. In other words: some of the food we’d like to try we have to seriously talk about donating blood to afford.
Other items, such as the Yangshuo special Beer Fish, do not cause my wallet to attempt suicide. The FMA and I went to the night market at the head of Xi Jie, West St., and spent several minutes trying to decide which random vendor to choose. The vendors stretched out across the wide sidewalk, tables, chairs, plastic awnings and naked 60-watt lightbulbs jostling for eyeball attention.
Behind them, ash gray plumes of smoke rushed skyward, and following the smoke up, sat a ninjaesque karst, pitch black in the night except for a silvery streak of rock catching light from the streetlamps. We waded through fold-up chairs of the church basement variety and past tables with clear plastic covering the blue-checkered plastic tablecloths. Two tablecloths might seem redundant, but the top layer was a stroke of stall-food genius. Instead of having to wipe the table clean after each party has dined, simply lift up the plastic, tie the four corners together and toss the mess in the trash.
Once we passed through the eating area, things got interesting. And hectic.
Customers and sight-seers meandered slowly, as if they were walking through congealing sweet and sour sauce. Vendors shouted out their wares, thrusting menus into the faces of potential diners, all hoping for just one more couple to sit down.
The skewer vendors were lined up double, creating a clear pathway through the miasma of roasting food and chattering people. They all had their raw ingredients on display. Thin wooden dowels were plugged straight through a stunning array of mostly fauna and some flora. An expert tunnel engineer couldn’t have done them straighter. There were whole chicken legs, diced beef and cubed pork, freshwater shrimp in a row of three and with their heads still attached. There were skewers of octopus legs and pig tripe, thankfully separated.
Veggies, too, were represented. Whole corn on the cob, not skewered but ready for the grill. Leeks, or something related that was green and dangly, stabbed through their meaty white ends. There was fried bean curd in thick yellowed blocks, punctured twice on the bottom like a preliminary design for a Chinese rip-off of SpongeBob SquarePants.
The FMA and I delved into the land of delicious meat-on-a-stick for our second foray into the night market, which featured most of the aforementioned food prodcuts doused in hot sauce and washed down with the local brew, LiQ – pronounced “LiChuan.” (I’ve been teaching myself a bit of Mandarin, and am so far very, very novice, but no matter how good I get I doubt I’ll ever understand where the pinyin system of transliteration gets a “ch” from a “q”.)
For our first night, though, we went a bit further up the path. The skewer vendors had all magically morphed into mini-restaurants, serving a variety of dishes with as much depth as any of the other restaurants in town, but with the additional atmosphere of being outside and having the kitchen in full view. The cutting boards, and the preparatory dissembling of meat products, were also in full view; so, too, was the meat in its pre-dissembled form.
In front of the stalls, as anybody who’s ever been to a decent Chinatown won’t be surprised to learn, were the hearts and souls of the night’s dishes. The spleens, too, along with the lungs, the skin and the limbic systems. You get the point: the meat was alive.
Fish were swimming in a pool that was big enough for them to flop about and get some oxygen into their lungs. They also had a red string tied through their dorsal fins, so that the chef could pick the animal up for the customer to inspect before cooking. Crawdad-sized lobsters twitched slowly in their pile; frogs hopped fruitlessly in their nylon mesh sack. The sources of pork and beef for the evening were thankfully no longer what they were: we did not see any cows or pigs running around. The chickens and ducks, too, had already been shoved on to birdie heaven, their feathers but not their heads removed.
We ordered a Beer Fish, a Yangshuo specialty, and paid 46 yuan (just under US$6) for two kilos of something local – trout, perhaps – from the Li River. The fish was then bonked on the head, cut open and half-cooked. Then a bottle of beer was poured into the wok with the half-done fish. The end result, when combined with the fresh tomato, garlic, onion and other vegetables and spices, was an incredibly juicy fish. Slit down the middle and served with both sides of meat up, since it’s considered bad luck here to flip over a cooked fish, the meat was tender and flaky, but not so much that it would fall off the chopsticks.
The FMA and I, anticipating smaller portions, had also ordered pork spareribs and stir-fried vegetables. While equally yummy – yes, that’s a technical gastronomical term – it turned out to be a tactical error. There was enough food on the table to feed at least four people, and we drank enough LiChuan for all of them.
Travelling through Asia is supposed to induce massive weight loss, but I just don’t see how it can happen in China.