In my travels in southwest China, I found a surprising tradition: a corn culture in Debao County, Guangxi. I discovered unique uses of corn in a remote corner of the country.
Last summer I designed a learning tour for myself, and spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces in southern China, living in my students’ homes. I spent a week in Debao County, Guangxi province, a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border.
Living in China, I have been told over and over again that Chinese cuisine has a north-south divide along the line of the preferred starch at the table. It’s wheat in the north and rice in the south. In northern China, people eat more more wheat-based foods like dumplings, noodles, and steamed breads. In the south, rice in more prominent, and southern noodles are usually rice noodles.
But I had never heard of a corn culture in China. In Debao I learned that the remote, mountainous region has a unique tradition of using corn instead of rice or wheat. Only recently have people started eating bowls of rice at the table. Until a few years ago, rice was considered so precious that a small bag of rice was a common wedding present of great value.
Because the karst mountains are so steep around Debao, farmers can’t grow rice in terraced paddies like other regions of China, and the spaces between the karst mountains are only narrow valleys. Farms are small, so people have grown corn because they could obtain more nutrients per square acre.
Instead of having a bowl of rice at the table, the traditional starchy side dish was a bowl of corn porridge, not dissimilar to grits or polenta. Debao style corn porridge however only includes dried ground corn and water – no salt or fat or other flavorings. At the table, people dip their stir-fried vegetable and meat dishes into the runny corn porridge, combining stirfry with porridge instead of stirfry with rice.
In the last 10 years, people in Debao have been transitioning into eating bowls of rice as their starch side dish, but many in the older generation still prefer a bowl of corn porridge, called yumi zhou. When I lived with this student’s family for a week, I observed that the mother always ate corn porridge, made in a pressure cooker, while the rest of the faily ate steamed rice with their meals.
Not only have corn porridge been the traditional starch side dish, there are numerous ways that corn is indispensible to the distince local cuisine.
A common breakfast beverage is yumi zhi, a hot, sweet, pureed corn beverage. Corn kernels are removed from the cob, then boiled until soft. Then it is pureed in a blender with a scant amount of sugar. The mixture is poured through a metal strainer to create a creamy consistency. The taste is pure, sweet corn flavor, like pure melted rich gold. Sweet corn enthusiasts would go crazy for this if they could taste it.
One of the favorite street snacks in Debao is kao yumi, roasted corn. Street vendors everywhere were roasting corn on the sidewalk. One day while driving on a winding mountain road, we stopped to admire a lake and noticed some small girls were roasting their own corn over a fire.
One evening a friend of the family came over and brought homemade snacks that were quite similar to tamales, corn steamed banana leaves. Because they were wrapped in banana leaves, they were like the Oaxacan version of tamales. It’s fascinating that people on opposite sides of the planet can create such similar foods.
I’ll close with a simple dish of fresh corn stirfried with scrambled eggs. The variety of corn in Debao produces wide, flat corn kernals, with a firmer texure than American corn.