You might have heard something about the “Chili City” of Xiazi before, but in spite of its label as international, you probably don’t know anything about the Chili Expo being held in Zunyi, Guizhou.
More than likely, you haven’t even heard of Guizhou.
I’ll admit, if it wasn’t for Guizhou chilli sauces – or rather, that name on supermarket chilli sauce labels – I wouldn’t have heard about it before, either.
Guizhou has been in the (travel) news quite a bit, though.
Various places in the province have been heavily promoted as potential tourist destinations – and there is a lot to be discovered, indeed.
The landscape with all its hills is fantastic; the province is rich in ethnic minorities with interesting traditions and handicrafts.
The Buddhist holy mountain Fanjingshan, the only area with the snub-nosed monkeys, lies here. National Geographic declared it one of their “Where to travel” recommendations of 2019 (#3 on the list); since 2018, it is China’s newest UNESCO heritage site.
Chilli in Guizhou
Comparatively little has been said about the chilli in Guizhou.
It is clearly there; the food sure is often spicy.
Only when you read specialized literature do you find that Guizhou is easily the spice capital of China, though. More than half of all dishes (or, recipes for dishes) from Guizhou include chilli.
Zunyi, with its “chilli city” in Xiazi, is the chilli trade capital of China’s southwest, at least.
A part of this is how it is a major processing and trading center for chilli from the province as well as farther afield. A part of it is the major Chili Expo that has been held there for the last three years.
In the course of my book research, I had a chance to attend.
The World Chilli Alliance had a booth and brought some of the internationalization the expo otherwise only had in its name.
I had the possibility – or responsibility – of giving a presentation on my view of the Chinese chilli market and its internationalization. And I could look around the expo… which I sure did.
Zunyi itself is a typical “small” Chinese town.
The hilly landscape of Guizhou gives it a certain charm; the Millennium Hotel in which we had our rooms and the adjacent Olympic Park would have fit just as well into a European capital – or have been way too bombastic for it.
Xiazi “Lajiaocheng” Chilli City
As usual, there was not much time to see anything of the place. And Xiazi, the chilli city, lies in the administrative area of Zunyi, but a fair bit outside.
The chilli city, even in a stricter sense, is not to be underestimated…
At the Zunyi Chilli Expo
Being one of few non-Chinese faces, of course I got held up a lot. Foreigners can still be objects of great attraction that Chinese want photos with.
At an expo like this, that means lots of photos – but it also means a lot of opportunities to communicate with the people there, difficult as it can be.
One of the first booths that held me up, because it attracted me only too much, was a small stand of people selling different spices. Especially, several different kinds of Sichuan pepper!
Sichuan pepper has been a major mystery – and thus become a major fascination – of mine.
It all sounds so easy, as if there were simply a spice called Sichuan pepper. At most, in a red and a green form.
As this stand and their wares (and by now, more experience in China) has been showing, there is actually a lot more to it.
That, though, I will need to work out for and in a whole section of this site…
The focus of the expo, of course, was on the chilli and its many uses.
There were chilli sauces galore, pickled chilli, some snacks, and also some plants and pods. And things to learn from all of them.
Right across the spice stand, there was someone showing the different types of chilli they grew.
This was one of the first times I saw this usual Chinese diversity of chilli – and of course, some I had not known – all in one place and with labels…
All too often, the same thing happens in China as everywhere: Chilli in supermarkets just get some everyday name that does not really mean anything much.
Chilli on markets or in fields is either labeled in way too much detail (with distinct varieties bred by companies) – or named in ways which again don’t help much in telling different kinds apart.
Talking of companies…
Companies from various parts of China were here to show the chilli varieties they had developed. Guizhou, Hunan, and the city of Wuhan were origins I noted.
The chilli was, as I had seen at the first chilli expo I visited in China back in 2008 already, mainly focused on size. Or so it looked.
There is quite some diversity of pod types (by now?), from the usual long slender and the small, hot, upright-growing chaotianjiao (“facing-heaven chilli”) to more and more round types. Size still seems to matter for all of them, at least from a quick look over them.
The Chinese Five-Color that started my interest in the chilli and China is still around, as well. And it has “expanded” to a Seven-Color variant…
Among the products, what was most noticeable to me was the sheer diversity of preparations and promotions.
There are many companies who just look to be making what they have been making for however long, for better or worse.
In some cases, that means “burnt” hu-lajiao or pickled small peppers that are traditionally-made and, with less PR savvy, all the more authentic.
In others, it looks more like producers are stuck in time and, if they try to upgrade in any way, then only by trying to copy Laoganma.
… and Modern. And Both.
Some brands had very nicely modernized designs that could fit into any international supermarket immediately, though.
Dezhuang had its booth, focused on the Li Spicy Degree Scale, as usual. You’ll get to hear more about that…
And Laoganma itself was also around. Their example has shown that an old-style design and product can actually work internationally as well…
One booth that excited me, given my interests, was of people and products from the Miao ethnic minority, around their suantangyu (sour-spicy soup for fish).
My excitement comes from the ingredients used for this soup, which don’t only include chilli, but also Sichuan pepper and mujiangzi (also known as shanhujiao or maqaw)… which I really want to learn more about.
“Chinese Artichoke,” Hot
It may be a bit silly, but another one of my highlights here was a booth that had pickled “Chinese artichoke” roots.
Sour, spicy, and still crunchy, these were very good – and one of the few times I have ever seen this Chinese root crop that I have growing in my garden.
I started growing it years ago, just never found out how it is traditionally used in China…
Xiangcuijiao and Other Chilli Crisp
The other peculiarly interesting bit were the fried chilli snacks the one chilli seed company made fresh.
They not only had the xiangcuijiao chilli crisp that my visit to Hongya Cave in Chongqing had reminded me of, but also xiangsujiao … chillli crisp.
English translations fail a bit here; cui and su both translate to crisp, but cui has more of a chewiness, su more of a flakiness.
Both are made from red chilli that gets filled with sesame seeds and – as I was able to find out at this booth – rice flour, then fried in hot oil. (More on that in a bit.)
The Officiating Bits…
An insight I don’t much want to bore you with but I also gained was how such expos work all around, in the background, when you are really a participant of them. And boy, was I ever.
First order of the day, before I got a chance to look around, were hours in the sun at the opening ceremony. Okay, it may not literally have been hours, but it took something like 1.5 hours easily.
Opening speeches, well-wishing – and I was on, together with Mr. Li of the Dezhuang Group and (here) as Asia president of the World Chilli Alliance, to present Zunyi with their plaque with which we named them our (first) Chilli Capital.
From the expo, WCA secretary general (and manager of Dezhuang International) Gianluca Luisi and I had to rush back into Zunyi proper.
There, Mr. Li and we had a meeting with representatives from Zhecheng in Henan, another major city in the (Chinese) world of the chilli, which we would visit later in the year.
And there were other official meetings/dinners… and of course, the forum/seminar on chilli markets and marketing that also wanted a presentation.
From my presentation, I went out of the seminar because I was wanted for media interviews. Some organizational things needed to be handled for/with our international guests.
Chats and Contacts
Just until midnight, Matt Gross (journalist, writer, now producer of the – hopefully – forthcoming TV documentary series about the chilli called “Hot Pursuits”) finally had time to talk.
Funny thing: He’d got in touch with us because he wanted to visit the Zunyi Chili Expo – and we were one of the few organizations who mentioned anything about it, for this year’s edition.
I still can’t quite wrap my head around how everything worked out with us having been able to invite him, him having received the necessary visa in Hong Kong within a day, while my bureaucratic hassles were a never-ending story.
That was a great contact to gain, though, as were others from the expo.
On we rushed, the next day, back to Chongqing for a chilli seminar quickly organized there, to share (international) insight not only in Zunyi…
For a look at the chilli field they have there, for the chilli city in normal operation, I’ll have to return!