Saturday, October 03, 2009

Love Food, Will Travel: Yunnan by Daniel O'Sullivan

Love Food Will Travel: Yunnan, China
By Daniel O’Sullivan

Ask anyone in China to name his or her favorite place in the country, and Yunnan, in the southwest, will invariably crop up. Even amongst those who have never been, the province enjoys a special, almost mystical reputation as a place of stunning landscapes and diversity. It's easy to see why. In the north, rugged mountains mark the outer fringes of cultural Tibet, while in the south, borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar are the point where China drifts seamlessly into Southeast Asia.

One thing not commonly celebrated about Yunnan however, is food. In China, neighboring Sichuan, with its reputation as the "culinary capital" usually garners the honors in that respect. Elsewhere in the region, the proximity of the hot and tangy tastes of Southeast Asia also mean that the flavors of the province usually receive little more than a footnote in the traveling gourmand's recipe book.

On a recent trip through the region however, I discovered that Yunnan has as much, if not more, to offer as its neighbors. My two-week journey encompassed several towns and villages in the north, the capital Kunming, and the area close to the Vietnam border. Whilst there, I found that the province not only excels in its own style of Chinese cookery, but is also home to a number of distinct culinary specialties and traditions.

One of these is goat's cheese. Anyone who has ever spent any time in Asia will testify that lactose lovers are generally not too well catered for here. In Yunnan, however, all that changes. Yunnan goat's cheese is usually unsalted and much more subtle in flavor than in the West. Large slabs of it are served grilled with ham and eggs as part of a "Naxi breakfast," and it's also sometimes used in noodle dishes in place of tofu. When grilled, the cheese takes on a squeaky, halloumi like texture, that wouldn't be out of place marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and rosmary and thrown onto a barbecue.

The region's homegrown coffee, although in need of further refinement, was also giving me butterflies. The province is responsible for 80% of all the coffee grown in China, and in recent years, Yunnan Coffee has been going from strength to strength (if you'll excuse the pun.) Typically, a cup of Yunnan Joe is strong, slightly bitter, and has a thick, velvety consistency. Despite these advances however, the quality of the bean remains to be hampered by the fact that there is no real domestic appetite for the stuff. The Chinese are steadfast tea-drinkers, and despite Starbuck's best efforts it is likely to remain that way for some time.

Another aspect of the food in Yunnan that continually surprised me was the availability of freshly made bread. Yunnan bread, or "baba," is a type of flat bread usually made by shallow frying dough in a centimeter or so of oil. It can be heavy, lightly oiled and ciabatta-like, or light and bubbly like pita. In the town of Lijiang, in the north of the province, I found Yunnan bread at it's finest. To make Lijinag Baba, the cook rolls out a thin disk of silky, springy dough, pops it into a frying pan, and then cracks in an egg and adds some chopped spring onions. As breakfasts go, this one is close to unbeatable. The baba also comes with two tart and spicy chili sauces - a real wake up call.

My hands-down favorite Yunnan discoveries however, were the noodles. Noodles in Yunnan come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be flat, round, thick or thin, and sometimes they are simply shaved off a gelatinous block with a cheese grater while you wait. Yunnan's most famous noodles are "across the bridge" noodles. This dish, named after the daily food delivery of a dutiful wife to her scholar husband, is a "do-it-yourself" affair, as you add various bits and pieces to a steaming broth. Elsewhere, street stalls and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops do countless variations of cold noodles. These dishes are assembled rather than cooked, and usually involve raw onions, crushed peanuts and up to a dozen sauces, oils and pastes. The result is a tongue dazzling mélange of flavors, and just enough savory/spicy leftover liquid to embarrass yourself slurping.

Despite my best efforts, the food in Yunnan was so varied that it was impossible to try it all in one visit. I did find out, however, that there is more to Yunnan than just scenery. The province is home to some of the most interesting - not to mention appetizing - cooking I've ever encountered, and I'll definitely be going back for seconds.

You see more of Daniel O’Sullivan’s adventures at