Located in Southern China, Guilin is a city known for picturesque scenery and sprawling rural landscapes. Because of its convenient location next to the Li River, the city is rich in rice terraces and freshwater marine life. The specialty noodle dish — Guilin rice noodles (Guilin mi fen, 桂林米粉) — is a reflection of that. With more than 2,000 years of history, the dish consists of rice noodles, peanuts, peppers, pickled vegetables and a protein of choice (usually fish or horse meat in Guilin). Because of Guangdong, Hunan and Sichuan influences, the cuisine tends to be spicy and sour.
Guilin rice noodles are hard to come by in Los Angeles. In fact, we found only four Guilin restaurants in the city, and all of them are owned by the same family. Regardless of the lack of selection in the area, this specific noodle genre is worth a try. The dish is notorious throughout China for its pungent flavor — the result of the soybeans, garlic, chili and pickled vegetables — but the broth at the Los Angeles restaurants is toned down compared with the authentic versions.
“We do have to keep in mind the preferences of people here,” said Helen Lau, the owner of Gui Lin Cuisine. “The noodles we make here are not as sour as the ones in Guilin.”
Lau is the owner and recipe developer at Gui Lin Cuisine, one of four Guilin noodle joints in the area. She was born in Guilin, grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. Her sister is the owner of the other three Guilin noodle joints: Steam Queen (two locations: Arcadia and San Gabriel) and Grains Taste.
“Rice noodles are not as fattening,” Lau said. “The region of Guilin has a lot of wild vegetation and herbal plants. Our broths and noodles are more soothing to the stomach.”
The history of Guilin noodles dates back to the Qin dynasty. When Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, invaded Nanyue (an ancient Chinese kingdom that consisted of the southern regions of modern China and the northern half of Vietnam), the troops were forced to use local Southern ingredients to make food palatable for the Northern Chinese troops. Because Northern China is heavy on noodles and flour, the Northern soldiers weren't accustomed to the local cuisine in the South, which lacked flour and was abundant in rice.
In an attempt to bring a taste of home to Southern China, cooks capitalized on the rice in the region to make rice noodles. And to counteract the sickness the troops were encountering, they would brew medicinal stock from local herbs and mix it in with the noodles. Hence modern-day Guilin noodles.
According to Lau, the noodles at her and her sister's restaurants are imported from China. “You can't really buy them here,” Lau said. Though the dishes at these restaurants are definitely mild in flavor compared with the real stuff in Guilin, the Lau sisters stay true to their Guilin roots. Guilin-style food reflects the rural and river landscape of the area; think lots of produce, chilis, duck and fish. At Gui Lin Cuisine, Steam Queen and Grains Taste, the rice noodles are the highlights of the menu, followed by their countryside-style dishes, which are heavy in sauteed vegetables.
Squid Ink checked out all four Guilin noodle restaurants. Turn the page.
These three locations have identical menus. Though the Chinese name of all the restaurants is Dan Dan's Guilin Rice Noodles (Dan Dan Guilin Mi Fen, 丹丹桂林米粉), the English names were recently changed to Steam Queen and Grains Taste. There are 22 selections of rice noodles on the menu. We tried the Guilin Fish Fillet Rice Noodle (#6) and the Guilin Deep Fried Fish Fillet Rice Noodle (#7).
Located in Monterey Park, Gui Lin Cuisine is owned and managed by Lau herself. With 32 selections, the rice noodle selection is much more extensive. Their specialty is the Sour Spicy Beef Rice Noodle Soup (#3).
“It's to make it convenient for customers,” Lau said, when we asked her why the broth came with the spices mixed in already. In Guilin, noodles typically are not served in a spicy broth. The famous Guilin chili sauce, made with chili, garlic and fermented soybeans, is a side condiment. “We do have the sauce at each table,” Lau said, pointing at the jar of homemade chili. “But it's just easier for people if we have a dish where we customize the spiciness level ourselves.”
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Clarissa Wei blogs about Chinese food and tweets @dearclarissa.