This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting my students’ homes. It was a sort of learning tour for myself to learn about my students’ lives. I spent a week in Debao county, Guangxi province, which is a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border. The mountains are the same kind of vertical karst mountains that are so famous in Guilin, but tourists don’t visit Debao because the region is so remote. The first roads in the area were built 20 years ago, and in some villages only 10 years ago.
Debao county also isn’t on the tourist path because it doesn’t have any special lovely traditional architecture to lure tourists. It’s a Zhuang minority area, but people don’t wear traditional clothes anymore. Guidebooks dismissively say that the Zhuang have assimilated into the mainstream Han Chinese culture, but after spending a week there living with a family, I can say there are some special aspects to life there. Some distinctions include the local language of Debao county, which has some similarities with Thai, and it’s the only place in China where the work animal is the pony! The cuisine is also special, with a few Vietnamese influences.
One of the Vietnamese culinary influences is found in the rice rolls, called juan tong fen in Mandarin. Juan is the verb for rolling things. Tong is the noun for a rolled object, and fen is for rice flour. These rice rolls are a common street breakfast in Debao.
The stall we visited made the rice sheets fresh to order, which made the rice rolls warm, soft, and slightly thicker than the Vietnamese rolls I’ve had before. They were slightly reminiscent of crepes. The process starts with a bowl of batter for the sheets, which consists of rice flour dissolved in water. She uses a ladle to spread a thin layer of batter on a piece of cloth that is stretched over a steamer. Then it is covered with a lid to steam for about 20 seconds.
After the rice sheet has steamed, it is removed with wooden sticks.
There are a variety of fillings, and customers order a combination of 2-4 fillings. Many of the fillings are preserved items, so the juan tong fen has a mild sour edge. Some of the fillings were chopped green beans, preserved bamboo shoots, soy bean sprouts, sour pickled vegetables, and some meat, all chopped fine.
Then the juan tong fen is quickly rolled up. Because the rice paper is fresh, it is thicker than store-bought rice paper, and it is soft and warm, quite comforting for a breakfast food.
Many people drizzle a little soy sauce on top.
This little boy was waiting patiently for his breakfast juantongfen.