We have talked before of Yunnan’s unique position within China geographically and culturally. These factors combine to create a diverse cuisine which brings together the tastes and ingredients of the surrounding provinces and countries.
Around Shangri La (Zhongdian)
To the North of Yunnan is Tibet and the Tibetan plateau from where the Khampa Tibetans of North Western Yunnan come. Meat and dairy traditionally feature heavily in their diet, in which Yak and its subsequent by-products feature heavily. Yak is revered as a companion in work and supplier of milk and meat. The consumption of meat, this hints at Tibet’s old links with India and Hindu reverence for the cow and its dairy products. Another example of this cultural influence is how Buddhism entered Tibet and indeed the rest of China via this route.
Yak meat is found throughout Deqing prefecture and is consumed wind dried like jerky, grilled, stewed and even made into delicios Westerner friendy burgers. Yak milk is used to make the butter found in yak butter tea and also turned into yogurt and cheese. Kham Tibetans also grow barley which is used as a staple food, but also fermented to make a sweet traditional beer. In Shangri La and other parts of Yunnan this tradition is now being influenced and developed further by European ex-pats.
Top Tips: 1 BBQ stalls in Dukezong serving Yak, Beef, Goat, Chicken, Pork, Vegetables and mushrooms. A great place to sample Matsutake! 2 Yak Burger and ‘Black Yak’ craft beer at Soyala 3 Yak stew and crispy vegetable balls at Khampa Caravan 4 Crispy pork belly and duck takeaway from South West corner of main market in the new town. You can sit and eat it in the restaurant opposite and add some very cheap, very nice dishes from the chef!
Throughout China and the world, Sichuan cuisine is becoming more and more popular. The people of Sichuan are rightly proud of their cuisine and as the centre of the ‘Go West’ programme, Chengdu has gained international recognition as a foodie destination. Located as it is to the East of Yunnan, it has been influencing its cuisine far longer than other regions of China and throughout Yunnan you will find both red and green Sichuan pepper for sale in the markets. When it’s this fresh it’s unique numbing heat or ‘Ma La’ is even more intense and even more……moreish! MaPo Dofu, a staple of Sichuan cuisine can be ordered in pretty much every restaurant, especially in the North.
Dali and Around
As you head further South the landscape, climate changes, as does the food.The Bai people who inhabit the areas around Dali cook with a lot of chilli and vinegar, making their food very spicy and very sour. They also cook with a lot of fresh local produce and I can’t remember ever seeing such a variety of meat, fish and vegetables in small markets as I have done in the areas around Dali. Pork is the most popular meat, but fresh water fish and crawfish as well as a veritable cornucopia of local, seasonal mushrooms and funghi make this a great place to eat.
Some of the mushrooms are incredibly expensive so it’s best to check before ordering in a restaurant and the matsutake which are harvested around Shangri La top the list for both expense and delicious flavour. The Japanese market for these mushrooms make harvesting them big business in this part of the world.
Dairy products are still used further south, more so than in the rest of China and in Dali you will find Bai ladies selling grilled cheese (Rushan), which tastes a lot like Halloumi and is delicious with sugar! Dali also has Erhai lake on its doorstep providing lots of fish for the local fish casserole which is very tasty indeed.
Top tips Dali: 1 ‘MaLa Tang’ (Hot and numbing soup) on Renmin Lu East 2 BBQ stalls on Renmin Lu East 3 ‘Baba’ in Xizhou (kind of like tear’n’share bread) 4 Good Panda for English menu and fixed prices for local specialities 5 South Gate noodle stores. Shaxi: 1 ‘Wandou Fen’ with noodles. This is cold noodles with sliced bean paste, peanuts and chilli. AWESOME and available from stalls in the market 2 Spare ribs with crispy mint 3 Minced beef with rice and pickles 4 MaPo Dofu
As you reach Kunming you will find a large number of different ethnic minorities and most of their food is represented. It’s hard to pick only a couple of dishes which sum up the city of eternal spring but I will go for ‘crossing the bridge noodles’, perhaps Yunnan’s most famous dish, and local crispy roast duck served in muslim restaurants.
Crossing the Bridge noodles were, legend has it, invented by a resourceful wife who carried her poet husband’s dinner to him every night. By the time she reached him his noodle soup would be cold so she decided to seal in the heat with a layer of oil. Be warned, this method really does work and the broth stays piping hot for much longer than you might expect. Think of it as a hotpot for one and it’s well worth taking the time to allow the accompanying meat and vegetables plenty of time to cook before tucking in, as a burnt tongue or gums really put a downer on your dinner.
Top Tips: 1 Heavenly Manna near Yunnan University 2 La Mien 3 Crispy Duck restaurants 4 Crossing the Bridge Noodles!!
Yunnan’s Muslim Cuisine
Yunnan has had a long and often tumultuous relationship with its muslim community, ever since Kublai Khan’s army set up posts here. In Kunming there is a very visible Islamic community, mosques and some of the best La Mien (literally pulled noodles) we have tasted. Another dish I cannot recommend highly enough is the crisp skinned duck to be found in one street in Kunming near Wen Miao Park. Here, 5 or 6 restaurants all specialise in this method of cooking the duck in a clay oven very similar to a tandoor and designed specifically for this purpose. You can watch the duck roasting in the ovens as you approach and the method for serving it is very similar to Peking Duck. Indeed I think these guys challenge that region when it comes to pure deliciousness. The skin is sliced off and served with pancakes, plum sauce and spring onion, rolled up and eaten as you would expect. You can then choose how the rest of your little ducky is cooked, opting for very spicy, sweet and sour or any number of other ways. It is delicious and inexpensive and a huge meal can be eaten in these places for a very reasonable sum.
One other place with a famous dish all of its own is Jianchuan in the South East of the province near the border with Vietnam. Here a special pot has been designed in which the local speciality is cooked. Imagine, if you will, a tagine but one in which there is a hole in the centre of the lid. Through this hole protrudes a funnel which completes the tagine like silhouette. Inside this pot, chicken is steamed with medicinal herbs to provide a delicious, wholesome and according to some extremely healthy medicinal stew.
This is only a glimpse and brief overview of the food of Yunnan. I hope to update more specific accounts as time goes by….