Hu Guo 糊锅, an unusual treat
The more some dish is unique to the location – the more satisfaction it brings to trace it and nail it.
I have my foodie travel routine. First, read about the destination extensively. Second, make a list of food (local dishes, snacks, products) and places (restaurants, factories, food-related museums, etc). Third, arrive and look around, photographing and trying as many things as possible. Obviously, the more some specific dish is unique to the location – the more satisfaction it brings to trace it and nail it. One such example is Hu Guo 糊锅, a dish synonymous with Jiuquan 酒泉 city and a true gastronomic obscurity for any outsider.
Crumbled mahua 麻花 (fried dough twists), sliced mianjin 面筋 (gluten) and sheets of fenpi 粉皮 (starch noodle) are steeped into very thick broth spiced generously with powdered black pepper and ginger. Hard to imagine a heartier bowl of goodness and the black pepper aroma is just irresistible!
Mahua, mianjin, fenpi. Probably every Chinese person knows these ingredients. The main one – mahua fried dough twists – is a common product, countrywide. Packaged or sold by weight, you can buy it in supermarkets, usually in the cookie section. To some, its sweet incarnation will be more in place than the savory one. But regardless if someone is used to the honeyed or the unhoneyed version, I have no doubt that a soup made with mahua must be an eyebrow-raiser for many.
There are several dishes in other parts of Northern China that are somewhat similar – gooey concoctions with generous amounts of pepper. Hulatang 糊辣汤 is probably the most famous one. But if you compare it with Hu Guo, you will see that the similarities are limited to starchy texture, peppery aroma and breakfast nature of both dishes. Beyond that, it is a unique concept.
To find a proper place to try this little gem of a snack, it took me some googling (or rather, baidu-ing) and mapping (Baidu Map-ing), as well as help of a stranger-who-then-became-a-friend.
While sightseeing the Jiayuguan 嘉峪关 part of the Great Wall, I stumbled upon another tourist, a man freshly released from the army. He has set himself on a mission of visiting places related to both real and fabled events from the military history of China. His next destination after Jiayuguan’s Great Wall fortresses was Jiuquan 酒泉 – a city known for (and named after) a legend about the unusual way to celebrate the victory over the Xiongnu nomad invaders in 2nd century BCE. As the story goes, the Han army general shared some excellent-quality liquor with his soldiers by pouring it into a stream – so all can have a taste. If you visit Jiuquan today, there is an actual “liquor spring” in the town. My new friend therefore happened to be a pilgrim. Just like me – but instead of food stuff, the object of his pilgrimage was soldier stuff. We decided to accompany each other as a win-win duo. Eating together is always better than eating alone – you can order more and share. Visiting military sights and not having a proper camera, tripod, or anything, is obviously less fruitful than having a photographer by your side. So we helped each other out. He was very excited about going to all those markets, restaurants and bars. We snacked and dined, having fun and laughing a lot. My partially limited Mandarin and his absolutely-zero level of English were not a problem.
One morning, among a long list of other local treats, we were looking for Hu Guo. We checked Baidu Maps to pick areas with high concentration of shops and eateries and jumped on a bus to visit them, one by one. We interviewed the locals. Some didn’t know were to find Hu Guo, others directed us to places that were already out of stock since the morning. In the meantime my to-eat list overgrew with check marks next to other entries, but not Hu Guo. At one marketplace, someone directed us towards an inconspicuous little neighborhood of dirty lanes. After several turns, we finally found what we wanted: a perfect Hu Guo-selling little spot.
A team of cheerful middle-aged ladies welcomed us with open arms. I tried the dish and it was delicious. It the menu, it figured as 鸡汤糊锅, ‘chicken soup hu guo’, underlining what kind of broth was used. My military friend acted like he’s my sidekick showman-manager, jumping around and talking about how much of a gourmet I am. “This man came here from faraway just to try your Hu Guo” and so on.
The ladies showed me their kitchen and explained everything about the delicacy their life is centred around.