Guilin and Hunan Province Recommendations, Please
As for Hunan: you did not mention where exactly you are headed (Changsha? etc) But let me go ahead and recommend a wonderful new book in Chinese that was just published (pub date: 09/2006) when I was in China in Nov last year. This is one of several very recent volumes on regional snacks (xiao chi) or regional cuisines that have been coming to the market oh say since 2000. These volumes tend to differ from the high-serious Pei-Mei type cookbooks of yore which explicated from the position of High Authority or Mastery. The voice in these new books tend to be less formal, houndier-the adventure almost always involves actual travel on the road to obscure corners of a province in search of lesser-known culinary delights. The writers tend NOT to be cooks, but to be scholars in other fields, journalists laymen. Among these volumes that I got are one on the snacks of the city of Kunming, one on Szechuan dishes (wuo de chuan cai sheng huo), one on Guizhou. The one I am recommending for Hunan is called:
Shen (God) Tseh (whip): HuNan Ming Xiao Chi
I don't know how to translate that title: perhaps Divine Goad: the Famous Snacks/small eats of Hunan.
The author is Fan Ming Huey and the ISBN is 7-5438-4510-5/2.163
Right inside the front cover is an rough informal map of sort, showing specialties of each little town of Hunan. There is a little cartoon showing a beaming couple in a tiny car looking at road signs indicating directions to "Feng Huang Hsieh Tsang (Wind Phoenix Blood Sausage)", "TsuHsieh Yuan Tzi (Pork blood balls)", "Tou (nut) Cha (tea)". The license plate of the little car says (in English): Follow me. Ya gotta love it when the balloon over the cartoon says: shun tsao (search) HuNan Ming Xiao Chi Chu (let's go chowhounding for Hunan snacks!!!)
The book is arranged according to snacks (chou tofu-stinky tofu, hongshao tzu jiao-red-cooked pig's feet, the round "jieh mei" sister's dumplings of Huo Kong Tien (Fire temple), each chapter devoted to a fairly in-depth discussion of history, anecdotes (Mao loved this, loved that), representative styles, best places to find etc.
Thank you for the helpful suggestions. We're going to Changsha, Shaoshan, Yueyang, Liuyang, and perhaps Huangfeng. The book you mention sounds most interesting. I'll look for a copy in Hong Kong, where we will begin our trip. Where did you find your copy?
Fuchsia Dunlop has written a book about Hunan cooking--Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. It's full of pictures of Mao and Mao memorabilia. The recipes I've tried have been very good.
Guilin, like almost all of China's big cities, have in recent years been modernized beyond recognition and traditional life, including traditional foodways have been relegated to the margins out of sight. While walking through a cityscape of massive convention hotels, multi-lane avenues (all pedestrian-unfriendly), malls, towering new skyscrapers, it is almost impossible to hope that anything delicious that is truly representative of the old city might have remained. Also, I agree (generally) with James G that "Guilin's cuisine is not remarkable". This is specially true if you are coming from or going to provinces with mind-bogglingly rich chowscapes like Guizhou or even Hunan (are you travelling through Guizhou to get to Hunan? if not, you MUST! Guizhou is HOT HOT HOT!!!) The cuisine of Guilin, at least on first glance, seems to be simple, depending largely on "simple" techniques like grilling and stir-frying, and featuring more modest flavor profile that does not call too much attention to itself. As James G noted, shao khao is quite popular here. These are grill stands-usually night time streetside businesses-that can be seen throughout China. However, shao khao places in Guilin (and also Yangshuo) have their distintive flair and recognizably different range of grill possibilities. Some stands (in Yangshuo's night food market for instance) feature as many as three + dozen items including beautifully-skewered vegetables of every sort, shellfish, even exotica like dog's meat. If trying these places, concentrate on riverrine and/or seasonal fishes (such as the long tou yu = dragon head fish), crabs etc from the Li River. Some of these places also prepare stirfries from ingredients on display and can also prepare the fish cooked in beer (pi jiu yu) that James mentioned. In pre-SARS days, Guilin was a hotspot for exotica like civet, pangolin and other even rarer things that would horrify environmentalists, but most of that scene has been driven even farther underground. However, if you read your menu carefully (and Michael, I assume you read Chinese), and ask the right questions, you can still find quite wonderful things that are out of the ordinary. At a completely random little restaurant in the city center (on Zhong Shan Lu), I looked up at the specials listed on the wall and ordered a delicious lunch of stir-fried ye (wild) jiu cai (mountain chives) and another stirfry of horsemeat and wild mushrooms (ye tsun cao ma ruo). I did not manage to find Miao and Dong eateries in Guilin itself although I did have several very interesting Miao and Dong meals elsewhere in the province (everything from the ubiquitous zhutongfan to dishes made with the very delicious wild chicken to bamboo rats to homemade rice wine-there's excellent rice wine being made in this province BTW). The residents of Guilin (Guilinese?) are very proud of their mi fen and stands featuring this noodle soup can be found everywhere from break of dawn to way past midnight; but to be honest, of almost a dozen versions I tried throughout the city, not one single bowl really gripped me in the same way that random versions of Guizhou's mi fen can. This said, there are many humble little stalls here and there in odd corners of smaller streets that produce simple but quite delicious snacks (soups with miniature handmade dumplings etc). I am writing all the above from memory: I will look at my notes again when I get home and maybe more details will come to me. Finally one non-local item. Walk north along the central throughfare (Zhong Shan Lu), staying on the left sidewalk. Around Yang (yang of yin/yang) Chiao (Sun Bridge), look for a kind of kiosk set right in the middle of the broad sidewalk. You are looking for a fairly large kiosk that produces a marvellous version of that magnificent Xian sandwich called "mo" surely one of the great sandwiches of the world (and if I could just find the time one of these days, I still need to put together my notes on that fabulous food city Xian in a post). The mo (most similar European form is perhaps the English muffin//but this is still quite different) is made right in front of your eyes (and the version here seems to incorporate three processes-bake, steam, grill-to produce a very dense but soft interior with a crackly crust). A large hunk of pork is taken out of a large steaming vat of stew and chopped/shredded by the carver to be stuffed into your mo. After trying several versions in Xian itself, I still consider this stand (so far away from Xian) to make some of the best mo anywhere. And they even feature mo with lu rou except I couldn't get any when I was there as this had ran out!!! It was my last few hours in Guilin when I discovered this place so I couldn't go back for mo :0( (sorry ;0) )
Guilin's cuisine is not remarkable, though when I was last there, around a year or so ago, we went to Yangshuo where there were a couple of places that served a cooked-in-the-serving-dish meal of rice with meats and egg that, while simple, was very tasty. Also a traditional dish there is fish cooked with beer, which you will also see in Guilin. We were told that the key to that dish being good is the use of local fish (and presumably local beer) and that most places catering to tourists don't use the good stuff. I recall being disappointed while in Guilin that the food was not more interesting, though we did find a good food street that had bbq meats that were pretty tasty. I have never been to Hunan, though I would expect that the food there should be pretty good in general.