• Miles Seaton (Akron/Family, Angels of Light) Dead at 41

    Multi-instrumentalist and experimental rocker Miles Seaton of Akron/Family and the former Angels of Light backing band, has died at the age of 41, as reported by Rolling Stone.

    Akron/Family, founded in 2002, released six full length studio albums as well as one split album with Angels of Light, the folk group formed by Michael Gira of Swans after he initially retired the boundary-pushing avant-garde group in 1997. Seaton, alongside the band’s three other members, played various instruments and all sang, which led to their concert performances hinging on a somewhat improvisational nature.

    Seaton’s playing can also be heard on two Angels of Light albums — 2005’s The Angels of Light Sing ‘Other People’ and 2007’s We Are Him, the latter of which is the group’s final record. Both of those releases came out on Gira’s Young God Records, as did Akron/Family’s first four records before the band released their last three albums on Dead Oceans.

    In recent years, Seaton had recorded and released music as a solo artist, his latest album being 2017’s Phases in Exile.

    Phil Waldorf, co-founder of Dead Oceans, reflected on the loss in a Twitter thread, where he shared some of his favorite memories of Seaton and praised his kind spirit.

    “It’s listening and learning from someone you feel lucky to be in the presence of, and even luckier they trust you to put out such important records in the world. Miles was a one of a kind person, in a one of a kind band. It’s a rush of emotions,” he wrote, in part.

    Justin Vernon of folk group Bon Iver commented on Seaton’s death on Twitter as well, offering, “I cannot believe Miles Seaton is gone. He is an integral part of so many musical histories. I am in shock and grieving for those who knew and loved him the most. Hearts out to all of you. His music will live on forever.”

    View the tributes below.

    Loudwire extends our condolences to the Seaton family, Miles’ bandmates and all who were close with him.

    Rockers We Lost in 2020

  • 20,000 Miles Till Lunch: To Inner Mongolia in an RV

    [Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

    Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment of our new series, 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family’s six-month road trip around China.

    It doesn’t take long to realize that we should have been more prepared. We’re sitting in our Iveco RV at a gas station in Inner Mongolia, 1,500 miles north of our home in Shanghai, where we’ve been living for the last three years. It’s two weeks into a six-month road trip around China, and the four of us—myself; my husband, Matt; and our two young daughters, Bella and Lily—are eating some sweaty remnants of cheese and our last remaining muesli bars. We are, I’m discovering, woefully ill-equipped to manage another five and a half months with our rapidly dwindling supplies of non-Chinese foods.

    Not that we’re short on other options. The RV is outfitted with a mini-fridge, a hot plate, and a sink—not exactly a luxury kitchen, but enough to cook with. And every village we pass through holds a daily market of seasonal produce: emerald cilantro tied with string, bundles of bok choy and water spinach, mountains of ladder beans and glossy purple eggplant. There are fresh chicken eggs, pale blue duck eggs, and speckled quail eggs, and staples like dried soybeans and millet. Farmers line the roads with baskets of whatever they’ve just plucked from their trees—white peaches, golden loquats, deep purple plums. Others sit astride tremendous mounds of watermelons, holding out ruby-red slices to passing motorists. And roving beekeepers camp in the fields with their hives and sell fresh honey, the bees fat with pollen from wildflowers and rapeseed.

    My husband and I are delighted by the breadth of flavors and anticipate eating like locals everywhere we go. But our girls, eight and 11, have other ideas. When we’d announced that we were relocating from our native Brisbane, Australia, so that Matt—who runs a public art business—could take a six-month assignment in Shanghai, the girls had been excited, even adventurous. But when six months metamorphosed into more than three years, with Chinese schools and daily air pollution monitoring, their enthusiasm cooled. Back in Australia, they’d always been willing to try new foods, but now their sense of culinary curiosity had evaporated. The more I tried to seduce them with slippery noodles and crackling stir-fries, the harder they bunkered down, barricading themselves with a fierce loyalty to “Western” food they had never before shown.

    Matt and I, on the other hand, flourished. Matt’s business expanded in the economic hothouse environment of Shanghai, and I took extended leave from my job as an ER physician to concentrate on something else I really enjoyed—writing about food. And when, one morning, the idea of touring China by RV popped into my head, I was acting on a long-held Australian ideal. Back home, it isn’t considered unusual to take a gap year and tour Australia with your kids before they get old enough to find you embarrassing. But now we were in China, and, as far as we knew, nobody had ever taken this kind of journey. We would tackle a new form of Chinese leisure travel, in what we were told was one of only six RVs for rent in the entire country.

    The girls practically levitated with joy at the thought of missing half a year of school and camping out in a house on wheels. But they were also keenly worried about what we would eat along the way, scarred by previous travels in remote parts of China, where all their favorite comfort foods were unavailable. And so, before leaving Shanghai, we stocked every inch of the RV with provisions: cookies and breakfast cereal, pasta, dried beans and lentils, canned tomatoes, bottled olives and capers, and some requisite chocolate, all purchased at monstrous expense from our supermarket’s “international” division.

    The tiny refrigerator initially held four prized blocks of New Zealand cheddar, but died two days into our journey. The cheese oozes yellow oil and has grown a thick, velvety coat of mold in the simmering summer air; we carve off the mold and eat what’s left. The muesli bars, too, were meant to last at least a month, but Bella and Lily, I learn, have been secretly eating their way through the snack supplies. Inside a fortnight, we’re down to the last of everything they consider edible.

    Fellow traveling gastronome parents are likely familiar with this particular dilemma—the soul-destroying experience of forcing down chicken nuggets in places bursting with culinary possibilities, because the smaller members of the household mutiny against the unfamiliar. But as we head north into Inner Mongolia, I decide that enough is enough. Our Western food is due to run out in just a few days, and then Chinese food will quite literally be the only option. When I break the news to them, they groan; Matt and I exchange secretive smiles.

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    And so the four of us head north, bouncing along in our RV with its tiny table and bench seats and microscopic onboard bathroom. It’s cramped inside, but hardly claustrophobic—the passing landscape is expansive. Under the rule of the warrior Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire was once the world’s largest, encompassing lands from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. At its peak, in 1279, a quarter of the world’s population came under Khan’s rule. Here in Inner Mongolia—the autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China that borders Mongolia proper—the population is a mix of Han Chinese and a sizable minority of ethnic Mongols. The land is in full midsummer bloom, the prairie grasslands a vast green counterpane embroidered with wildflowers.

    Despite its present lush appearance, though, the region’s ability to support agriculture is limited because of its short summers and extended subzero winters. Instead, Mongolians have historically been excellent herdsmen, dividing their cuisine into “red food” (meat and its by-products, largely from sheep, goats, yaks, and sometimes horses or camels) and “white food” (milk, curds, cheese, yogurt, and cream).

    A stroke of dumb luck stamps success on our first Inner Mongolian lunch. Prosperity Come Inn sits at a truck crossroads, the only restaurant in the small village of Five Branch Ditch. Not only do they advertise hot pot—one of the greatest gifts Mongolian cuisine has given the world—they also happen to keep two spotted deer as pets, a mother and her baby. What child wouldn’t love a meal in which you get to dip morsels of meat and vegetables in a steaming cauldron of broth, and then pet Bambi afterwards in the garden? (I hold dark suspicions about the true purpose for the deer, but the owners assure me they’re not for eating.) With the prospective petting zoo in sight, it doesn’t take much to coax the children inside.

    Once seated, we’re each given a boiling pot of clear broth on a small gas burner and a tray of ingredients with which to create our own hot pot dipping sauce. There’s zhimajiang, a smooth, nutty sesame paste, and jiucaihua jiang, a deep green, garlicky chive-flower condiment peculiar to northern China. There are cloves of pickled garlic and pickled whole chilies. I poke at a minuscule platter of small white cubes, lying in a puddle of congealed blood. Lifting the tiniest corner, balancing it on the end of one chopstick, I take a bite. It smells of blue cheese and has a deep umami flavor. It’s delicious.

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    Hong fang (red squares).

    “It’s hong fang,” the waitress tells me (literally “red squares”). The bean curd, used to flavor hot pot sauce, congee, and some wok-fried dishes, gets its distinctive bright color and pungent odor from a brine that incorporates red fermented rice. The waitress gestures to a similarly sized cube of creamy-gray fermented tofu, and patiently shows us how to mix small proportions of the condiments into a punchy, caramel-colored dipping sauce. The blending of the sauce is a vital part of any hot pot experience, and regular hot pot–goers have their own favorite concoctions, honed over many meals. Some prefer sesame paste with garlic; others, a lighter mixture of soy sauce, dark vinegar, chili, garlic, and a pinch of sugar. I love the sauce I’m making now, with the richness of sesame paste and the deep, savory intensity of the two fermented tofus. I look cautiously over at the girls and find them madly dunking slices of potato and cabbage and thin pieces of pink mutton that curl and brown in the bubbling water. I’m flooded with relief: Lunch is actually going well.

    Once our dishes are cleared and we’ve pet each deer in turn, the waitress reappears with a pannier of wild strawberries, picked in a pine tree hollow in the green prairie hills above the restaurant. Each is as small as a currant, tiny and intense with flavor.

    “Wow, these are delicious!” says Lily. Bella nods, patting the submissive baby deer. “This was a GREAT lunch!”

    I’m pleased, but not yet confident: I know that in the months ahead, not every restaurant will offer a child-friendly cook-it-yourself experience, or a petting zoo.

    We roll on eastward across the grasslands, skirting the border between China’s Inner Mongolia and Mongolia proper, conquering lunch as we go. The girls are no longer asking about Western food; even they can now see there’s no such thing to be had. We eat plenty of “red food”—hearty mutton noodle soups, steamed buuz dumplings filled with mutton, and boiled mutton. We also eat a little “white food”—fresh Mongolian yak milk, tart Mongolian yogurt, and kefir. The food is filling and rustic, with few embellishments other than a pinch of salt and occasionally a touch of cumin. When we’ve had our fill of mutton and yogurt, we eat summer vegetable crops—fried eggplant, sweet potatoes, and corn. The landscape is a splendid diversion of rolling green hills and horsemen herding goats and sheep. Our RV rattles along under the vast dome of blue summer skies.

    One day, we pass a field with a row of blue and white yurts, or ger, as they are known in Inner Mongolia, and the girls call out to us from the back of the RV. “We want to eat lunch in a tent!” We have already had the privilege once, when we ate hearty mutton noodles inside a ger with Mongolian wrestlers at a summer festival of sports known as Naadam. Keen to supplement their income, many grassland farmers and herders open ger restaurants during the summer to feed tourists and travelers. The ger restaurants are often informal and temporary, with dirt floors and plain felt or canvas walls.

    We pull into the dirt driveway, and a woman emerges from the smallest ger to meet us.

    “Hello!” she calls out. “Chi fan le ma?” (Have you eaten?)

    “No,” I reply, smiling. I open the door of the RV, and we spill out into a green field, shin-high with grass. On the lower slopes of the nearby mountain, I can see the white dots of a grazing flock of sheep, like scattered grains of rice.

    “Come to our ger, then,” she says, introducing herself as Mrs. Ma. “I’ll bring you hot tea, then you can eat.”

    It’s dim inside the heavy canvas ger, until Mrs. Ma tugs a rope to pull aside a cover, revealing the skylight at the apex of the ger’s conical roof. Unlike the more spartan, temporary ger we’d visited during Naadam, the space is splendidly decorated with yards of fine gold silk lining the ceiling and walls behind the sturdy wood and bamboo framework. Colored flags circle the walls and richly decorated wooden doors. A life-size portrait of Genghis Khan springs to life on the wall, framed in gold and rendered in neat cross-stitch. It’s flanked by two enormous spiked silver tridents, as though he’s poised for a sudden spot of marauding.

    “Did you stitch it yourself?” I ask, pointing to the portrait.

    She nods proudly. “Now what will you eat?” she asks. “Mutton? Cheese?” Red food, white food. There’s no menu and no prices, just an agreement that hungry travelers will be well taken care of, and money can be discussed once bellies are full.

    Yak’s milk tea.

    Mrs. Ma returns moments later with a thermos of salted yak’s milk tea, thick and dark as syrup and served in small china bowls. Bella and Lily surprise me, taking loud slurps from their bowls and declaring it delicious. I think of the depths of winter in Inner Mongolia, when the temperature plummets to 40 below, and when there might be no better drink than this. Except perhaps Chinggis vodka, or airag, the fermented mare’s milk liquor favored by the locals.

    Mrs. Ma’s daughter appears at the door, a girl of 12 with big eyes and a shy smile, and follows Bella and Lily outside. A boy appears moments later, and soon the four children are running through the grass, laughing and playing.

    The feast begins, under the Khan’s watchful cross-stitched eye. Farmer Ma, seeing our RV parked next to his gers and probably smelling the cooking mutton, has ridden in from the pastures, rounding up his sheep on horseback and joining us for lunch. Mrs. Ma brings out two whole legs of boiled mutton—not fat and plump like the lamb I’m used to, but lean and gamy from walking up and down the steep hills of the grasslands. Mongolian mutton is served in great hefty shanks that must be carved with a dagger, or picked up and gnawed until the juices run down your chin, but the meat is surprisingly tender once cooked.

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    Boiled mutton.

    As visitors, we’re given disposable plastic gloves to keep our fingers clean. But they swim on our hands, so we follow the lead of our hosts, pulling the meat from the bones bare-handed. Vibrant chive-flower paste and raw garlic cloves are served alongside for seasoning. I would have made a terrible nomad, I decide, craving plates of vegetables and salad. As if hearing my inner pleas, Mrs. Ma returns with a plate of cool, sweet cucumbers smashed with pungent fresh garlic, along with a platter of fried green peppers, blackened and sweetened in the heat of the wok. She also offers us pieces of white curd cheese, aaruul, dry and chewy and with the tang of rennet. Afterward, there are no fruits or sweets, just the offer of more mutton, Chinggis vodka, or airag in a leather flagon, which, I now regret to say, we decline.

    It’s said that Genghis Khan liked nothing better than to feast, but not until his enemies were first sufficiently vanquished. I look over at the girls. They are giggling with Farmer and Mrs. Ma’s two children, all four chewing on gloriously fatty mutton ribs that they dip from time to time in the pungent chive-flower paste.

    “I think the Chinese lunch program is off to a great start,” says Matt.

    “Cheers to that,” I reply, and we all toast the Khan with our yak’s milk tea.

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  • 20,000 Miles Till Lunch: Finding Noodle Heaven in Shanxi Province

    [Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

    Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment of 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family’s six-month road trip around China. Last time, we left Fiona; her husband, Matt; and their two daughters, Bella and Lily, in Inner Mongolia. Today, they pick up in northern China’s Shanxi Province.

    We enter Shanxi Province directly beneath the Great Wall. Not the imposing, gray-stone, crenellated portion marching across China north of Beijing and Tianjin, the Great Wall of history books and documentaries. This is the crumbling, rammed-earth section, eroded into a line of anthills along the northern border of Shanxi and punctuated every now and again by lumpy mounds that used to be garrison towers.

    Once we realize what it is, we stop and walk among the ruins. Lily looks disappointed. “There’s no luge,” she says.

    The Great Wall at Mutianyu, near Beijing, has a luge, a slim, silver, slippery dip that twists and curves and takes you all the way to the bottom at great speed, like a waterslide. Climb up, slide down, and repeat: one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, transformed into an amusement park ride. Lily knows from personal experience that the luge runs much faster in winter, when the metal is cold and smooth, than in summer—we visit it often. But here in Shanxi, there are no ticket booths or souvenir sellers or chairlifts and luge rides. There’s just us, a few ancient grave mounds, some wild thyme and chives growing in the red earth, and the dilapidated wall.

    That night, we camp in a peach grove alongside the Wall. Nobody stops us. Locals stroll past for their afternoon tai qi. Some pause in the orchard to pick velvety green peaches for their soft, cream-colored pits, a delicacy we will later see on a restaurant menu, stir-fried with four-treasure vegetables.

    In the month since we set out from our home in Shanghai, every provincial border we’ve crossed has ushered in a new regional culinary tradition, with its own characteristics and tastes—there was Shandong, all light flavors and seafood; Tianjin, with its pickled and salted vegetables; Inner Mongolia and its abundance of mutton. And, while the plateau province of Shanxi is often heralded as the cradle of Chinese history, I’m most excited to explore its cuisine, known as jin cai—famous for its liberal use of locally produced aged vinegar, round breads and pastries called bing, and an extraordinary variety of noodles.

    The Wall isn’t far behind us as our RV rolls into Shanxi’s northern city of Datong. When we arrive, the big country town (population: 3 million) is in the throes of transformation: Construction workers are knocking down acres of tiled 1970s apartment blocks, ’80s shops, and ’90s offices, all destined to be replaced by gleaming housing developments, impressive bridges, and broad boulevards. The ambitious mayor believes Datong’s glory days as the former capital of the empire can be resurrected, so the city’s old quarter, its walls, gates, and gardens, are being entirely rebuilt. It’s a grand scheme, or will be once it’s finished, but for now, Datong is an enormous demolition site with piles of rubble, clouds of dust, vast expanses of featureless mud, and building after building marked “condemned” in red spray paint.

    It’s hard to imagine we’ll find any restaurants open amid the reconstruction. While our girls have gained an appreciation for Chinese food on this journey, they convince me and Matt to have lunch at Datong’s only “Western” restaurant, a fast food joint with a baroque-Victorian theme. The colorful laminated menu boasts milkshakes, pizzas, and cheesecake—a jarring contrast to the overstuffed ornate velvet sofas, the flocked wallpaper, the chandeliers, and the potted palms in each corner. Our Hawaiian pizza arrives in a deep dish, with eight red glacé cherries and chunks of canned pineapple embedded into its doughy, cheese-less surface, like a dreadful cherry-pineapple clafoutis. It comes with a side salad of fruit drizzled with mayonnaise. It’s a foregone conclusion that we won’t be back for dinner.

    And so, come evening, we head to the Phoenix Court, a 500-year-old dining institution housed within a Ming Dynasty mansion. The interior is lavish, replete with gilt phoenixes flying across the ceiling and heavy linen tablecloths draped over mahogany tables. Diners are discreetly concealed behind delicate carved wooden screens.

    While we enjoyed the simple, rustic lamb and soothing soups of Inner Mongolia, our first taste of Shanxi’s cuisine offers a welcome contrast in technique-intensive dishes and a breadth of new ingredients. The meal begins with a cold dish of finely grated strands of raw bottle gourd (also known as calabash), slim and long as noodles, coiled elegantly, turban-like, in a bowl of vinegar dressed with chilies and braised scallions. The vinegar clings to the smooth, slippery strands, as soft as real noodles. We follow with guo you rou, pork slices that are first fried and then braised, and the peeled kernels of baby green peaches, tender and pale like soaked almonds.

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    But we’re here for one thing above all else: The region’s shaomai are renowned for their delicacy, and the restaurant has been honing and perfecting theirs since 1518. Our order doesn’t disappoint. The rich, smooth pork filling is wrapped in skins thin as tissue paper, the edges gathered and ruffled like peach blossoms. We dip the dumplings in the region’s namesake condiment, a dark, aged grain vinegar that delivers tang with layers of sweetness and malt.

    For dessert, we share a steamed millet pudding surrounded with soft jujubes, drowned in a luscious syrup of sea buckthorn berries. The soft, pale yellow millet has a faint nutty flavor, enriched by the honey sweetness of the date-like jujubes and the pop of the deep orange sea buckthorn berries. Known in Chinese as shajishu, the berries are about the size of plump peppercorns and grow wild all over Shanxi. They’re sweet and a little tart, with the rich taste of ripened apricot. For a Chinese dessert, it’s unusual in its sweetness and decadence.

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    Buoyed by the experience, we slow our drive southward through Shanxi, stopping briefly on our way out of Datong to buy some Shanxi vinegar of our own. The black-hued vinegar is the province’s best-known food export, and it makes its way into almost every one of Shanxi’s regional dishes. But in the tiny supermarket, I’m immediately overwhelmed. I quickly discover that “Shanxi vinegar” is little more than an umbrella term for a vast suite of grain vinegars—the shelves are crowded with bottles of dumpling vinegar, noodle vinegar, vinegar for seafood, aged vinegar, and even small bottles of “health tonic” vinegar. (“But if your health is good, you can also use it for dumplings!” the lady in the shop tells me.) It’s a far cry from the limited selection of bottles I remember buying at specialty stores back home in Australia; in retrospect, little more than crude attempts at the refined and complex real deal. Eventually, I settle on two small bottles of high-quality dumpling vinegar (about a dollar each) and a boxed set of assorted vinegars, taking tiny sips of each bottle, like Alice in Wonderland, to ascertain their properties and tastes.

    We meander south to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, through fields of sunflowers and corn and villages with rows of neat redbrick houses with amber or jade glazed roofs. Taiyuan buzzes with the energy of a big frontier town, with wheeled conveyances of every kind—bicycles, motorbikes, tray-back tricycles, and three-wheeled passenger carts, like human sardine cans on wheels. Cars, trucks, buses, and semitrailers all compete with us for road as pedestrians weave themselves into the remaining spaces.

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    We’re richly rewarded at Taiyuan’s night market, an open labyrinth of smoke-filled streets and lanes, alive with color and wonderful aromas. We feast on shí tou bǐng (stone cakes)—cornmeal cakes filled with sweet red bean paste and baked on a griddle, with heated pebbles or iron ball bearings indenting their surface. The crisp exterior and toasty corn contrast with the starch-sweet deep purple filling. On a side street, we eat grilled skewers of fatty lamb and ròu bǐng, flaky sesame-crusted pastry rounds stuffed with ground pork and lamb fat seasoned with pepper.

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    The girls may be resistant to some Chinese specialties, but our whole family is unanimous in its love for Chinese noodles. In Shanxi, noodles are idolized and celebrated—we encounter dozens of varieties. There are tiny triangular “cat ear” noodles, each one pressed flat by a thumb, its edges curling inward. I watch a row of chefs make willow leaf noodles with gently tapered ends, cutting the noodles to shape with long brass scissors. When I later taste them, served in pork sauce with yellow beans and green bean pickles, they are smooth, with a perfect chewy bite. I eat them alongside tiny macaroni-like noodles with a rich tomato and garlic sauce, reminiscent of Italian passata, and for a moment I forget I’m in Taiyuan and not Rome. My favorite are the knife-cut noodles, shaved from a block of dough right into the boiling pot and served with a hearty vegetable ragout. We try as many kinds of noodles as the days allow.

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    But there is one very particular type of noodle on our list, and we head to the historic walled Ming Dynasty town of Pingyao to find it. At the end of a long colonnaded drive lies the imposing 600-year-old dark stone city wall; it’s a scorching August day, and the wall radiates additional heat of its own. At each point of the compass, ancient barbican gates protect the city from intruders, including our hulk of a camper van, so we enter the walled city on foot. Dark stone mansions with gracefully upturned eaves line the streets, their roofs ridged with rows of curved black tiles. Glazed terra-cotta dragons in imperial yellow, jade green, and cerulean blue march across the ridges of each roof. Red lanterns hang from the gables, like apples on strings.

    With no place to camp inside the walls, we stay in a Ming-era mansion turned hostel, a stone structure with a black terra-cotta roof. The four of us step over the heavy wooden threshold that protects the house from evil spirits and ghosts and into a light-filled central courtyard, surrounded by an elegant arrangement of three double-storied wings.

    “Good choice, Mum!” says Bella. I’ve been phoning hostels from the road, trying to find one with a family room large enough for four. Our room faces the courtyard, and the entire far side is occupied by a long kang bed, an earth platform heated from below by a small stove in the wintertime.

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    In Pingyao, the refined jin cai of Taiyuan and Datong has been replaced by simpler country fare, but that’s what we’re here for. Specifically, for oat noodles. Oats are a staple crop in Shanxi, and they end up in a variety of different noodle dishes. We’re intent on trying steamed shanxi youmian, flattened noodles that are rolled into short tubes and stood on their ends for an unusual, honeycomb-style presentation.

    Out in the cobbled streets, there’s a tiny open-air noodle restaurant serving cold beers and hot oat noodles. A steamer basket full of honeycomb shanxi youmian noodles arrives, alongside a small bowl of rich, thick tomato-and-garlic sauce. The vendor, a middle-aged man with steam-tinted spectacles, explains, “You peel off the noodles one at a time with your chopsticks and dip them in the sauce.” They look coarse and heavy, like whole-wheat pasta, but have a surprisingly light texture, each noodle thin as handmade paper. The oats give the noodles a mild nutty taste, and the sauce provides a vibrant counterpoint. Every sauce-draped noodle is a perfect single bite.

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    Seeing how much Matt and the girls have enjoyed the first steamer, he offers another, but this time dry-fries the noodles with plenty of garlic, onion, chili, and a little cumin—a local dish known as ganbian kao lao lao. He brings Bella and Lily frosted bottles of golden-orange sea buckthorn juice, cracking the tops with a bottle opener hitched on the string of his apron.

    “Wow,” I say, slugging an icy beer as the girls down their juice and hit up the vendor for one last round of honeycomb noodles.

    “Noodle heaven?” Matt asks.

    “Noodle heaven,” I reply.

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  • 20,000 Miles Till Lunch: Feasting Our Way Through Yunnan Province

    [Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

    Editor’s Note: Welcome back to 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family’s six-month road trip around China. Last time, we left Fiona; her husband, Matt; and their two daughters, Bella and Lily, in Shanxi province. Today, they pick up in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

    We enter Yunnan at the jagged edge of the Himalayas, beside the 20,000-foot peaks of the Meili Snow Mountains. My husband, Matt, and I, along with our daughters, Bella and Lily, are four long months into our cross-country road trip. All of us are lean and more than a little ragged. Lean from adjusting our diets to the available foods, eating exactly as the locals eat—plenty of vegetables, noodles, and occasional meat. Ragged from living out of the back of a run-down RV for weeks on end, rattling through vast and isolated swaths of western China. By the time we cross the border into Yunnan, we’re ready for a change to softer, gentler lands. This is all by choice, of course. We’re the ones who decided to embark on this journey. Sometimes it’s rewarding; other times, I’m not so sure.

    Happily, Yunnan doesn’t disappoint. The southwestern province tumbles downhill along three deep river canyons, splaying out to the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, just above sea level. The canyons, side by side, are like drinking straws, sucking up and trapping the humid, tropical air of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore the lush landscape, which is home to more than half of the country’s plant and animal species. This bounty of ingredients makes its way into a stunning array of dishes, for a diverse, category-defying cuisine inflected with both the flavors of neighboring countries and the culinary traditions of the ethnic minorities who call Yunnan home.

    Lijiang

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    We eat our first Yunnan lunch in the small northern city of Lijiang. The surrounding land is green with pine forests, and everywhere is the rich, earthy smell of good soil planted with walnut and apple trees and corn. Lijiang itself is a puzzle of cobblestone lanes and ancient houses with black-tiled roofs, populated by the Naxi, Lijiang’s largest ethnic group. All around us, women wander to market, baskets on their backs, in their distinctive chestnut, blue, and white garb.

    We find a small restaurant with simple wooden tables and trestle seats overlooking a stream, and settle in to eat. It’s quiet and empty, and the owner doubles as chef and waiter. When he takes our order, I want nothing more than some Chinese comfort food—warming and familiar noodles and soups. But Matt and the girls have other ideas.

    “We’ll have the fried dragonfly nymphs, the bamboo larvae, and the fried honeybees,” says Matt, examining the menu.

    “Seriously?” I ask.

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    Fried honeybees and bamboo larvae.

    “You can’t come all the way to Yunnan and not try the insects,” he replies innocently, but I get the feeling he’s mocking my eat-anything attitude. People have been eating insects in Yunnan for centuries—certainly long before Westerners began viewing bugs as sustainable sources of protein. The dragonfly nymphs are crunchy and well seasoned, but it’s the bees that are a revelation: thin, crispy crusts yielding to a soft, creamy interior that tastes like smoky ricotta. I find the bamboo larvae more challenging—I can’t get past the fact that they look just like housefly maggots—but Lily pulls off their little black heads and eats the pale, plump bodies, pronouncing them delicious. It’s quite the turnaround for a child who’s spent the last three years insisting that Chinese food is “yucky.”

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    Stew made with Yunnan ham (yuntui).

    We follow our crunchy appetizers with a rich, warming stew of Yunnan ham (yuntui), the aged, dry-cured ham famous all over China for its intense depth of flavor and its smoky, dense fat. Here, the pink slivers are paired with sliced potato, turnip, scallions, and baby cabbage, but Yunnan ham is also used in stir-fries and as a flavoring for soup stocks, stews, and braises. I eat bowl after bowl of the stew, feeling comforted and satisfied, and the memory of its flavor lingers that night as we camp on a lonely road outside Lijiang, the nearby mountains shining white in the moonlight.

    Western Yunnan

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    From Lijiang, we follow the ancient Tea Horse Road in reverse, north to south, driving along the paths by which Yunnan’s famed pu-erh tea was transported from southern Yunnan to Tibet for more than a millennium. Just two weeks before, we’d been knee-deep in the Sichuan snow. But in western Yunnan, it’s the languid end of a long summer: a wild, tropical environment with banana trees growing in messy clumps like weeds, surrounded by houses with high-pitched roofs sporting golden peacocks at each corner. Women in sarongs sit in the shade at roadside fruit stalls, their tables weighed down with tamarind, limes, bananas, custard apples, pomelos, and mangoes.

    We continue southwest, parting ways with the Nujiang River, and take the road into Ruili, right on the Myanmar border. Broad green hills, terraced from top to bottom with emerald-ribbed tea bushes, usher us into town. It’s said that Ruili is a frontier town, teeming with drug runners and smugglers, but to us, it seems like a sleepy tropical outpost. The jungle is slowly reclaiming lost territory, and green creepers grow through the windows of vacant houses, tethering them to the nearby trees. In the dense, humid heat, the gardens are flourishing and overgrown, filled with hibiscus, jasmine, and wild orchids.

    That evening, we feast like kings. Ruili’s night market is a vast, open-sided hangar, crowded with people and restaurant stalls. “How are we going to choose where to eat?” asks Bella, but the answer is easy. We sit at a plastic table in the dead center and order dishes from all the stalls surrounding us. Fat tiger prawns in ginger and chili; catfish and sour tamarillo soup. The tamarillos, tree fruit with a passing resemblance to tomatoes, deliver a bright tartness, balanced by the oily, full-flavored poached catfish. We try char-grilled eggplant served inside its blackened skin, with a topping of salted and fermented yellow soybeans with ground pork: soft, sweet, and umami. We finish with a freshly dispatched chicken chopped with a heavy cleaver into mouthful-sized pieces, bones and all, fried with shallots and dried smoky chili. The girls sip ningmeng shui, a local drink of freshly pressed lime juice stirred with a teaspoon of sugar and served over ice, while Matt and I drink from tall frosted bottles of pale local lager.

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    Ningmeng shui.

    “Where to now?” I ask the next day, as we try to decide whether to stay in Yunnan’s lush south or head north to the capital, Kunming.

    “Xishuangbanna!” says Matt. It’s a tongue-curlingly difficult name to say; he loves to repeat it with a long, dramatic “ah” at the end. Xi-shuang-bann-aaahhh.

    Before long, Bella and Lily have joined in, at least for the “bann-aaahhh” part. And, since nobody’s anxious to return to colder climes, Xishuangbanna it is: We take our RV farther south, skirting the Myanmar border to the banks of the Mekong River. It’s a jungle town, colorful and distinct, and trades on the culture of its local Dai community. The Dai share much with the peoples of Laos and northern Thailand, including their distinctive Dai/Thai script, a love of communal eating, and an affinity for spicy, sour flavors that find their way into dishes featuring local Mekong River fish or combinations of mint, ginger, chilies, and sour pickles.

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    By day, we wander Xishuangbanna’s markets, soaking up the bright colors and wonderful smells. Vendors sell pineapples, papayas, green mangoes, bananas, mangosteens. There are orange loquats, sweet and tart like apricots; wild roots, fresh herbs, and fruits I’ve never met. Egg yolk fruit, with its gold-green skin and flesh, is startling—with the texture and color of a hard-boiled egg yolk, but a sweet flavor somewhere between roasted pumpkin and ripe papaya. At breakfast the next day, I try it with a squeeze of fresh lime juice, the perfect way to bring out its sweetness.

    At the back gate of the market, a woman in a patterned sarong entreats me to try her baba, a popular street snack: circles of purple sticky-rice dough grilled over charcoal, where they puff up into balls over the heat and soften. Flattened and filled with dark brown sugar, the balls are then folded into a delightfully chewy, sticky, sweet package and wrapped in a banana leaf.

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    Paoluda.

    Seeing our willingness to try local foods, the traffic policewoman outside the market takes us under her wing, introducing us to paoluda in a hole-in-the-wall café nearby. It’s a mix of tiny tapioca pearls, sweetened condensed milk, black sticky rice, rainbow-colored jelly cubes, chunks of dried bread or cookie, and shaved coconut. The individual components sound dissonant at first, but the dessert proves refreshing: cold, sweet, and coconut-creamy, with an intriguingly addictive blend of smooth, slippery, and crunchy textures. She tells me the dish is Burmese in origin, and the name is a Chinese version of the Indian and Persian drink falooda, which it closely resembles.

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    Dai banquet.

    In the warm and humid nights, we dine on Dai banquets in restaurants, in the markets, in our guesthouse. A Dai feast arrives all at once, with everything sampled and shared together. Bowls of steamed wild greens and fiddlehead-fern fronds; pumpkin leaf shoots in a soup that balances an intense chili heat; and raw mint and cilantro served with four dipping sauces—a mildly sweet crushed-peanut sauce, a sour pickled-chili sauce, a fiery fermented-tomato sauce, and a rich, deep, dark sauce made with fermented tofu. At the center of the table is a platter of fish and meats, charred on the grill and smoky—sweet slices of honeyed ham, crispy-skinned chicken, freshwater fish wrapped in banana leaves, pork and mint sausage, and sliced pork belly. There is a tiny dish of a salty, peppery spice mixture in which to dip your meat. The most surprising bit comes from the shredded heart of a banana flower, wrapped in lemongrass and fried. It has a texture like soft bamboo shoots, and a vegetable flavor slightly reminiscent of green banana.

    The Yuanyang Rice Terraces

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    Having reached the southernmost tip of Yunnan and eaten as much good food as we think we can manage, we decide to head northward—for years, I’ve wanted to visit the notoriously stunning Yuanyang rice terraces, hand-excavated from the region’s steep hillsides over the last 1,300 years. In some places, 3,000 layered terraces extend upward from the valley floor, like mirrored steps leading to the sky. In summer, the terraces will be vivid green with growing rice. Now, in early winter, they’re empty, filled with water that reflects the clouds in a mosaic of color.

    The locals here are a mix of Hani and Yi people. The Hani women dress in somber tunics fastened with enormous silver buttons made from old coins; the Yi women wear bright pinks, reds, yellows, and white, all richly embroidered. We eat lunch in a canteen perched on the edge of one of the steep market streets. A warming bowl of rich chicken and pork stock is filled with slippery-smooth rice noodles and topped with a dizzying array of bright, bustling flavors: sour, salty, fiery, and bitter. This is mixian, possibly the most popular street snack in all of Yunnan. Over the last four weeks, we’ve tasted over a dozen variations on this same dish, all of them juxtapositions of texture and flavor—slippery and crunchy, soft and firm, bland and savory. The essentials are always the same: rice noodles served in a broth with some leafy greens and a host of condiments and toppings, from pickled long beans to chili oil to pork cooked with fermented soybeans to hot tomato salsa and pickled cabbage.

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    At the rice terraces, mixian comes with a saucer of roasted tofu squares. A Yi woman sits at the charcoal grill, patiently turning squares of wu tian doufu, a five-day-old tofu that’s just beginning to ferment and soften slightly in the center. The cubes brown and puff, transforming into nutty, crispy balls with tender, warm centers, ready to eat, dipped into a zingy sauce made with soy sauce, ground green Sichuan pepper, cilantro, and pickled chili.

    Outside, another Yi woman plunges lengths of fat white rice noodle into hot oil. They poof into elongated golden balloons in the sizzling oil, crispy on the outside and sticky-rice-chewy and gooey in the center. These nuomi youtiao (sticky rice oil sticks) are sweet and light.

    “Just like doughnuts,” I tell Bella as I bite into one.

    “If doughnuts were made of sticky rice,” she smiles back.

    Noumi youtiao (sticky rice oil sticks).

    Although our bodies are still lean, in our minds we feel fat and happy, restored and nourished. Just when we think the food could not possibly get any more diverse or flavorful, we stumble across a feast of epic proportions.

    “You’ve heard about the Hani Long Table Feast?” the man in the gas station asks as we fill the tank of our RV. He seems sure only of the date, not the time or the place, so we inquire in a tiny local restaurant.

    “Oh, yes!” the waitress says. “The Hani Long Table Feast! There’s dancing, and singing, and of course the feast. Table after table after table of food!”

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    And so, several hours later, we drive through terraced rice paddies, climbing a winding road to Jiayinxiang village on very sketchy instructions gleaned from our investigations. It’s the autumn New Year—a time to celebrate the end of the harvest and the start of the cold season—and hundreds of Hani people have congregated to participate in the festivities. The entrance to the village is decorated with flags and laid with fir branches, and our feet stir up a lovely pine scent as we walk. And then, suddenly, we’re swept up in a procession as the music begins. Around us, people dance to drums and sing, slowly advancing through the village square and into the main street, where a spectacular feast is laid out.

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    The whole scene is almost overwhelming. The main street of the village is lined with two long rows of low wicker tables, stretching as far as I can see, more than a hundred end on end. And every table is weighed down with Hani festive foods: small fish, raised in rice paddies and fried until crackling-crisp; poached chicken and roast duck; boiled peanuts; rounds of golden corn; and lichen salad dressed with mint, chili, and soy.

    Everyone, save the very smallest of children, is drinking bowls of rice wine or the local Lancang River beer. A toast starts with a shout at one end of the street and spreads in a wave to the other end, as each table stands in rapid succession to toast the table next to them. The food has barely been touched, but everyone is already red-cheeked and rolling-drunk, telling funny stories and singing songs, as waves of toasting rise up and down the street every few minutes.

    We stop two young Hani women to ask if any tickets remain, and they immediately insist we join their family. “It would be our honor!”

    Matt looks at me sideways, knowing that turning up uninvited always has the potential to go awry. “Imagine if I brought home four strangers to my mum’s place on Christmas Day! She’d go through the roof,” I mutter. But the opportunity is too good to turn down, so we accept the invitation and hope we won’t impose too much on our soon-to-be hosts.

    They lead us to a narrow lane off the main street, close enough that we can still hear the toasts and singing. We’re introduced to their mothers, who accept with sublime grace the unexpected arrival of four foreigners at their home on the day of a major festival.

    Bella, Lily, and I join the mothers, sisters, female cousins, and young children at the women’s table, where my daughters are showered with compliments about their chopstick skills and their Chinese, then lined up for as many photos with all the young cousins, then all the aunts and grandmothers. Lily secretly rolls her eyes at me, but I can tell she’s having a whale of a time. Matt joins the men—their husbands, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles—in a nearby room, thick with cigarette smoke and the distinctive smell of baijiu, the local grain liquor. The baijiu sloshes into glasses as the men set about determining just how much a foreigner can drink.

    “Maybe I should join the women’s table for a while?” he suggests, looking worse for wear. But the ruddy-faced grandfathers drag him back for one more round of shots.

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    We taste wild foraged herbs with unfamiliar names and exciting new flavors—one similar to Vietnamese mint and another with a citrusy sharpness. We try pickled fern fronds, crisp and vinegary; roasted black walnuts; spiced braised duck, dark-fleshed and rich; boiled pork served with a fiery dipping sauce of fermented tofu and pickled chilies; and mysterious green vegetables I have never seen before or since, pickled and salted.

    As the evening wears on, a continuous stream of people come and go—relations and neighbors, and friends of neighbors, and relations of friends—and all of them tell us the same thing: “Make sure you come back next year!”

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  • 20,000 Miles Till Lunch: Celebrating the Miao New Year in Guizhou Province

    [Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

    Editor’s Note: Welcome to the final installment of 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family’s six-month road trip around China. Last time, we left Fiona; her husband, Matt; and their two daughters, Bella and Lily, in Yunnan province. Today, they pick up in the central Chinese province of Guizhou.

    Smoke rises from the chimneys of wooden stilt houses as we weave our way into Guizhou province. The slow roads snake back and forth, up and over hills, down into the curving river valleys. In the mountainous and heavily forested region, less than a tenth of the land is arable, carved in slender terraces. Its limited farmland means that the province has long been a poor and undeveloped region. Our intention is to cross it quickly, catching the Miao New Year festival in the town of Leishan and traversing the province in double time in order to see China’s southeast corner before heading home to Shanghai. It’s a lot of terrain to cover in a month, especially if we want to be home before Christmas. But Guizhou has other ideas.

    Each mazelike turn takes us through picturesque villages, their entrances marked by ornate stone-and-wood Chengyang Wind and Rain bridges. Two thousand years ago, the local Miao people were defeated by the tribes of the Yellow Emperor and fled south across the Yellow River, most settling in the remote wilderness of Guizhou’s mountains. Others made it farther south, where they are known as the Hmong people of northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Guizhou’s second-largest ethnic minority, the Dong, make their homes in the river valleys, where they trade the risk of flooding for access to flatter agricultural land.

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    When we enter Leishan township, we find welcoming strangers and a humming festival atmosphere, but it turns out we are a week early for the New Year. It’s a lunar festival, so the date changes from year to year, and we have miscalculated. Everyone is buying firecrackers by the box, ducks by the brace, and 25-gallon jerry cans of mijiu rice liquor in preparation.

    “Will it be like the Long Table Feast?” asks our daughter Bella. “Because that was fun, except that everyone got drunk.” She and Lily look pointedly at Matt, whose hangover following that celebration had been ferocious.

    I laugh. “No, no, nothing like that,” I say, although I have a strong suspicion it will be exactly the kind of festival where lots of strong drink is consumed. Why else would you need 25 gallons of rice liquor?

    Waiting for the festival to begin, we spend the week meandering in loops from Leishan, visiting neighboring villages and sampling the local cuisine. The food of Guizhou, known as qián cài, features hot, sour flavors designed to ward off the damp mountain chills. Wedged between Sichuan to its north and Hunan to its east, Guizhou is home to China’s other spicy cuisine, still relatively unknown even within China thanks to the region’s remoteness. It relies heavily on foods grown and made locally: fermented chilies, smoked bacon, salted and fermented greens, rice wine, and foraged wild ingredients—peppers and herbs, the roots of mountain and water plants, and unusual fruits like yang mei, dark purple globes tasting of mulberry.

    Lunch begins in nearby Shidong village, on market day. The girls are old hands now at these busy markets, darting off to seek out the sweets vendor and the man selling kittens. The area’s most famous Miao dish is sour fish soup (suan tang yu), and we find it in a small, plain restaurant overlooking rice paddies, away from the market crowds.

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    The soup arrives in a vast metal tureen, uncooked, and is set to simmer on the gas burner in the center of our table. The base is a complex blend, with a lemony sourness from pickled bean sprouts and cucumber, the clean acidity of fresh tomatoes, the sweet-sourness of sticky fermented rice, and the kicking-hot tang of fermented mashed chilies. It appears that a handful of random leaves and sticks has been thrown in, but they’re wild aromatics, intended not to be eaten but to be left in the soup to continue flavoring it as it cooks. Dried twigs of prickly ash berries (a kind of tart, dark green peppercorn) are mixed with branches of wild mint, ginger, and zhe ergen, the root of a water plant that grows along the edges of rice paddies. It has a pungent, slightly medicinal taste and a woody crunch, whether cooked or raw. Whole river fish, each the size of a hand, cook in the soup. We sit and watch, aromas enveloping us and sharpening our hunger. The small fish take only minutes to cook, their fins curling upward away from their bodies once they’re done. I carefully take a piece of fish and dip it in the sauce—a mixture of chopped fresh chilies, cilantro, diced garlic, and dried Guizhou chili flakes, moistened with a ladle of broth. The heat builds and builds until the chili damn near blows my head off. It’s the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted.

    “Bit spicy?” asks Matt, as tears stream from my eyes and my nose waters uncontrollably. “Go easy on the dipping sauce,” I gasp. I’m reminded of a saying from our Miao friend, Billy.

    Sichuan ren bu pa la
    Hunan ren la bu pa
    Guizhou ren pa bu la

    People from Sichuan are not afraid of spicy food.
    People from Hunan, of spicy food they’re not afraid.
    But people from Guizhou—they’re afraid the food won’t be spicy enough.

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    La rou.

    Matt seems immune to the effects of the chili, but the soup makes Bella and Lily’s eyes smart whenever it nears their mouths. They give up on it in favor of jueba, or wild bracken root starch. During the three years of China’s Great Famine (1958–1961), the local Miao people survived by eating wild plants like bracken fern roots, pounded to release the starch and steamed into a heavy, dark purple “cake.” We eat that cake sliced and fried with smoked chilies and slices of la rou (smoked bacon), crisp on the outside and dense and chewy within. Guizhou la rou, smoked by all Miao families in their own homes, flavors many stir-fried dishes, but the favored local way of eating it is to slice the bacon finely and enjoy its rich, smoky flavor and translucent fat on its own.

    The following day, in the nearby Langde village, I continue to marvel at the extreme locavorism of the Miao people. Almost everything consumed by each family of villagers is grown or made within a 50-yard radius of their wooden stilt home. Under the house live a pig and a brace of chickens. There are two or three rice paddies below the house, supporting not only rice but also indigo plants for dyeing cloth, small, sweet-fleshed fish, and edible snails. Uphill from each house are terraces for growing vegetables—leafy greens, corn, chilies, pumpkins, eggplant, and scallions.

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    And not a scrap is wasted. In the home of a local Miao family, who turn their front room into a restaurant if the need arises, we sit at a low circular table and eat dried and pickled scallion roots, their fine strings crunchy and tasting ever so slightly of garlic; fried pumpkin sprouts, furred and crisp; fresh hen eggs scrambled with greens; braised rice paddy snails flavored with chili and garlic; and squares of homemade tofu, cooked gently with chili and scallions. Nothing we eat has come from beyond the village.

    Each evening, in the night market in Leishan, we try a smorgasbord of snacks: deep-fried tofu balls stuffed with scallions, chili, and ground pork, and pan-fried triangles of tofu filled with ground beef. Bella and Lily become addicted to “lover’s tofu” and fried mashed potato. Squares of soft tofu or patties of pressed mashed potato are grilled until golden and crispy, topped with a spoonful of finely chopped zhe ergen mixed with chili and garlic.

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    “It’s a strange way to eat mashed potato! With that weird root!” says Lily, ordering herself another three potato patties from the vendor.

    A week of exploration flies by, and suddenly it’s the Miao New Year. Although we’d planned to celebrate in Leishan itself, during the week we find ourselves invited guests of the chief of Paiweng village, whose handsome stilt house stands just outside of town.

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    The celebrations begin at dark, with a barrage of bianpao (firecrackers) exploding red, green, and gold umbrellas of sparks on the wood-shingle roofs. Someone sets off a mighty coil of bianpao on a woodpile, with noise and light like the flash of artillery fire.

    “Is that a good idea?” I ask the chief.

    He just laughs. “Maybe now and again, we lose a house!” Pails of water sit outside many homes, just in case.

    In the large central room of the house, we meet his mother and extended family. They seem utterly delighted to have four extra guests, and the room soon fills until there are 30 of us seated on low trestles. There are no tables, just three evenly spaced braziers glowing with coals. A wok filled with steaming duck-blood congee is placed on each. Everyone in the room murmurs with expectation. On top of the wok rests a wooden plank balancing three dishes, warming from the steam of the congee. The first is duck braised with fermented chili, rich and pungent; the second, small crisp-fried yellow fish from the rice paddies, which we eat bones and all; and the third, pickled bamboo shoots, sour and salty.

    But before we dig in, we need to toast. The chief’s son dispenses mijiu liquor from a jerry can into a teapot so he can fill our bowls. In Miao culture, refusing an offered drink is the worst possible social insult. We raise our bowls—the same size as food bowls—and swig the throat-scalding liquor. Except, of course, Bella and Lily, although they are offered a bowl along with everyone else.

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    “He jiu!” commands the chief’s mother, in her eighties. “Drink liquor!”

    “He jiu!” we reply in unison.

    The Miao children watch TV in another room, recognizing the early signs of a very, very long night, but Bella and Lily are too interested in watching the feast unfold to join them.

    Other dishes arrive: fermented leafy greens, known as yancai, eaten sparingly as a seasoning, or as a meal in itself, served with slices of pork belly. Yancai has a dark green or brown color, depending on its age, and a strong umami flavor.

    Every few minutes, someone calls, “He jiu!”, and we all stop eating to drink another mouthful of firewater. At intervals, the chief calls, “He gan!” (Drink the bowl dry!), and we gasp and splutter as we force the last of the liquor down. Bella and Lily giggle at Matt and me, trying to stay vaguely upright on our narrow trestles. Suddenly, everyone gets to their feet and walks unsteadily to the door, flushed and ruddy from the liquor and the cold.

    “The feast’s over?” I ask the chief.

    “No! Just beginning! We’re going up the hill now to my sister’s house!”

    And it begins all over again, this time with crispy roast duck and sour, spicy shredded fish and charred hot green peppers. And round after round of “He jiu!” and “He gan!”, until we are all, village elders and young alike, roaring drunk. We leave sometime after one in the morning, staggering to the van to sleep, as rounds of New Year firecrackers see us off and the family all yell, “Come back tomorrow!”

    And return we do. The slaughter of eight pigs, one for each family clan within the village, marks the start of the New Year. The afternoon feast that follows is a celebration of every part of the pig: slices of cooked liver, surprisingly mild-tasting, and marble-white pork fat. The fat has a clean, fresh taste and a tender, buttery texture. It’s served alongside bowls of fermented sticky rice, apple cider–sweet.

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    We crowd around the braziers as the hot dishes arrive—chili soup flavored with thick slices of pork and pieces of kidney and cooked blood, chewy sliced fried intestines cooked in a richly spiced gravy. Before long, the mijiu flows again, and the whole room rejoices in a reprieve from their hangovers.

    Lily rolls her eyes. “Not again!”

    At the close of the meal, the chief surprises us with a special request. He offers us, as guests of honor, small bowls of just-set pig’s blood. Lily and Bella look aghast. “You’re not actually going to drink that, are you?”

    My courage fails me, and I shake my head. I can’t face the wobbling, jellied blood, but Matt meets the challenge. Every eye in the room is on him as, pale and sweating, he swallows the congealed blood in a single gulp.

    The room erupts. “He jiu!” we cry together.

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