China's spicy wonderland: How to eat like a local in Guizhou

Guiyang, China (CNN)Here, they like it hot.

Chilies -- whether dried, pickled, fermented or stir-fried -- are a staple of every meal in Guizhou. And that includes breakfast.
Broths, dipping sauces, noodles and stir fries are liberally seasoned with chili peppers that are grown on the province's terraced fields -- from the milder green bells to the tiny, red firecrackers that pack a mouth-stinging punch.
    The dominant taste is "suan la" (sour spicy) rather than the "ma la" (numbing spicy) found in neighboring Sichuan, another Chinese region famed for its fiery cuisine.
    Poor and remote, Guizhou's food, known as qian cai, is relatively unknown even within China.
    Home to dozens of ethnic minorities, the region's signature dishes draw on folk cooking -- there's little refined banquet cuisine.
    But what I found was extremely fresh ingredients grown and made locally -- foraged fungus, unusual root vegetables and fruits and fish plucked from the fast-flowing rivers that snake their way through the limestone karst landscape.
    Unlike Sichuan cooking, which is now found in cities across the globe, Guizhou food is only just beginning to find an international audience. New restaurants in London and Los Angeles serving it are getting foodie accolades.
    As the local saying goes, Sichuan people "bu pa la" -- they don't fear spicy food; but people in Guizhou "pa bu la" -- they're afraid the food won't be spicy enough.
    And for Phoebe Yin, a Sichuan native now living in Guizhou, this definitely rings true.
    "Our Sichuan food is hot, but we don't eat spicy all day every day," she says.
    Here's what to expect if you think you can handle China's spiciest food.

    Sour fish soup

    This steaming fish stew made with tomatoes, pickled chili and cabbage is Guizhou's most famous dish.
    It's a staple of the Miao ethnic group, which makes up more than a tenth of the province's 35 million inhabitants.
    The stew is made with river or "field fish" farmed in the rice paddy terraces that cascade down the province's mountainsides.
    It's often served on a burner so its tangy, unique flavor develops at the table.

    Silk babies

    Known as "siwawa," or silk babies, this vegetarian snack or appetizer is similar in look to Vietnamese spring rolls.
    A "silk blanket" made of pounded glutinous rice wraps up the "baby" -- a filling of fresh and pickled vegetables with dried soybeans added for crunch.
    You then dip them in a sauce -- a mix of homemade stock, dried chili flakes and sesame oil.
    I liked them best at "Aunty Yang," a restaurant that has seven branches across Guizhou, where you can build your own.
    For less than 50 yuan, you get 10 wrappers and 14 different fillings -- everything from shredded cucumber and potato to pickled radish and jueba bracken fern roots.

    Houttuniya

    This unusual root vegetable, known in Chinese as zhu'ergen, is eaten on its own and gives depth to dishes and dipping sauces.
    Grown along the sides of rice paddies, it has a lemony, medicinal tang and locals believe it's good for the lungs.
    I was told it might've been one reason Guizhou escaped the 2003 deadly outbreak of the respiratory disease SARS.
    It's a common find among the piles of fresh vegetables at the region's colorful street markets.

    Lover's tofu

    It's like a sandwich that packs a fiery punch.
    Crispy squares of griddled tofu with a soft custard center wrap a mix of chili, scallions, houttuynia and garlic.
    The version I tried in Guiyang was easily the hottest thing I've ever eaten -- I barely managed two bites.
    It's not clear how the powerfully flavored street snack got its unusual name.
    But it's hard to imagine being in the mood for love after eating it.
    Crispy tofu balls are a close cousin -- grilled orbs of beancurd are served with lashings of chili sauce.

    Rice tofu

    A Guizhou specialty, this looks and tastes like tofu but is made from rice flour paste.
    I ate it barbequed and the taste was bland but comforting -- a welcome respite from all the chili.
    It can also be served chopped in cubes and combined with chopped cilantro, fresh and dried chili pepper.

    Pork brain flower

    Nothing goes to waste here.
    I came across griddled pig's brain in street markets in the provincial capital Guiyang and the city of Anshun to the southwest.
    First cooked in a cabbage leaf, it's then seasoned with soy sauce, scallions and pickled and dried chili.
    The pungent sauce complemented the jelly-textured offal.
    Coagulated pig's blood is also a delicacy -- often added to noodles.

    Grasshoppers

    I was served these at a home stay in a village so remote it's not connected to the road network.
    But I also spotted bowls of them -- and other insects -- for sale at night markets.
    My hosts had caught theirs earlier in the day by dragging a net as they ran through the cornfield in front of their home.
    Their haul clearly hadn't dented numbers too much -- the screeching din of buzzing insects made it hard to talk during the early evening meal.
    They were part of a simple home-cooked meal that consisted of a salad prepared with homegrown red onions and garlic, stewed goose that the family had reared for two years before slaughtering behind their kitchen and a dish known as rainbow rice -- the grains colored yellow and purple with natural plant dyes.
    Crunchy, the insects are best washed down with home-brewed rice wine.
    My hosts poured their moonshine from a plastic jerry can into ceramic bowls.

    Where to find it

    I found most of these dishes and snacks at night markets in Guiyang (Erqi Lu) and Anshun (Gufu jie also known as Tasty Street).
    Sour Fish Soup can be found in restaurants throughout Guizhou.
    Kaili Sour Fish Restaurant in Guiyang, (55 Shengfu Lu) is a well-known place to sample it.