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Yunnan Cuisine

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 27, 28, and 37

Yunnan is China’s sixth largest province. It is known for its three rivers, five large lakes, and its many streams; and well-known as home to large numbers of the more than two dozen of the country’s recognized minority populations. Kunming, also known as 'Spring City' or Yunnanfu, is the capital of this huge province of some 380,000 square kilometers. It is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains. The province is beautiful, too; its name meaning 'South of the Clouds.' We once went in summer when they got monsoonal rains. Almost two-thirds of their annual rainfall comes then, from June through August. Think about when to travel there, especially in the south as it gets more rain than the rest of the province.

About fifty million people live in this three climactic zone province that borders on Vietnam. The climates are temperate, subtropical, and tropical and this province is directly below or south of Sichuan. To locate it more specifically, look west of the Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. What makes Yunnan so very different from the rest of China is that about one third of the people are not Han Chinese. Another difference is that milk is part of its culinary. The use of this dairy product probably comes from two different sources. One is from India more than two thousand years ago, the other from the Mongols who arrived about 1,200 CE as part of Qubilai Qan’s (also spelled Kubla Khan and other ways) forces; they consumed lots milk, albeit most as mare’s milk. Yunnan, part of China’s high plateau, is where hominoid fossils were found that were deposited there millions of years ago; exactly when is still in dispute. These early relatives of man are related to the early homo erectus that became homo sapiens. They are the start of human presence in China. There is a great man to see in Yunnan, outside of the capital, the Leshan Grand Buddha. He is carved into a cliff and is the largest Buddha statue in the world.

Yunnan has great diversity in topography, climate and vegetation, with most of its land mountainous. No wonder it is called the high plateau region of China. There is a saying about Yunnan’s many special products: They get lotus root from East Lake, many kinds of carp from West Lake, Milkfan from Dengchuan, and special rice from Jiangwei. Milkfan is a high protein high fat milk product made by pouring milk into a big pot of acidic water and stirring it with long chopsticks until it curdles. The milkfan is then poured out onto large flat surfaces, smoothed somewhat, and then dried. It can be made sweet or salty, and can be roasted. The sweet variety is soaked in tea, the salty type fried in oil and sprinkled with, you guessed it, more salt. Both are eaten with some roasted half-cooked pig dipped in a special sauce. The meat is very tender, the skin very crisp. Both are eaten with a fish casserole sometimes made with osmanthus flower jam. That particular food, osmanthus, was featured in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 9(4) on pages 7 and 8. They also make it with Yunnan ham, and with wild mushrooms.

Yunnan produces lots of rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, potatoes, sugar cane, peanuts, soybeans, peas, rape, tea, oranges, bananas, pineapples, coconuts, and walnuts. It is rich in many minerals, tropical plants, and flue-cured tobacco. It is also home to the giant panda and the golden-haired monkey.

The foods in this province vary and are influenced by the large numbers of minorities, many of Muslim heritage, and by the fact that this province was on what we now refer to as the Silk Road. The most famous dish, Across the Bridge Rice Noodles has a lovely story about how it got its name. It seems that a woman needed to bring her scholar-husband his meals. He was studying on the South Lake in the Mengzi region. His food, particularly his soup with noodles always arrived cold. One day, when she included chicken, duck, and spare ribs, the fat on its surface maintained the heat as she crossed the bridge; hence its name.

Yunnan has many lakes including Dianchi Lake, which is China’s sixth largest, and one of its most beautiful, and so there is no shortage of aquatic foods, none of mountainous herbs, and actually, none of any staple foods, either. The province has many well-known dishes, other include Ginger Chicken in Earthen Pot, and Hot Fried Potatoes. The region is famous for some specific foods, too, including Yunnan Ham, Toasted Goat Cheese, Jizhong Mushrooms, and a very special black vinegar.

Cabbage is a winter staple, cucumbers used slightly pickled in black vinegar, and because the province is close to Sichuan, Stir-fried Cauliflower, is often made with chili paste and black vinegar. The Yunnanese people like to dip their ham, duck, spare ribs, and chicken in a pepper-salt mixture. They eat lots of beef and pork and they use flat breads, often filled with honey and seasoned with ground nutmeg. In this province we once had a delicious scrambled egg dish cooked with green tomatoes and chili, and a stuffed fish served with a mint and tomato salad. Though these dishes may not sound Chinese to many, Yunnanese food is different and delicious and it includes many unusual Chinese food items including a wonderful headcheese. In this province, they eat lots of yogurt, goat cheese, and fried milk curd; and they make a smashing sweet and savory ham with pears and a delicious koumiss, to say nothing of their great mushroom dishes garnered from the mountains, no doubt, and their wonderful pickled pigs heads.

In Yunnan, some say all delicacies come from the mountains. That includes very special mushrooms, edible wild herbs, and lots of sea foods. There are special foods of the minorities that live in this province that should not be overlooked, either. There are special teas such as san dao and tou cha, and special wines including ones made from roses, safflowers, and rice. The Yunnanese pickle lots of tubers, meats, and leafy vegetables, too.

This province has much to offer visitors besides seeing how the minority populations live. There are more than six thousand plant species, four hundred and fifty bird species, and thirty endangered animals including the snow leopard, red panda, and the aforementioned golden monkey.

The Yi are the largest ethnic minority in southwest China. More than four million of the almost seven million Yi live here, the rest live elsewhere throughout the entire country. Other minority groups with large populations living in Yunnan include the Bai, Benglong, Bulong, Dai, Dulong, Hani, Jingpo, Jinou, Lahu, Lisu, Miao, Naxi, Pumi, Tibentan, Wa, Yao Yi, and Zhuang. One-third of all of the minority populations in the People’s Republic of China live in this one province.

Yunnan meals include lots of mutton, lamb, and beef, and with influences from the Moslem minority peoples, many dairy products besides curds from goat cheeses, and yogurt, and fried milk. There are many fungi and herbs, a plethora of game from the mountains, many nuts and fruits, and that terrific head cheese. I can still taste the two different kinds we had when there. On the fruit scene, Honey Pear Ham, already mentioned, is a fine sweet and savory dish, pear liquor abounds and is used in other dishes, and pears are used medicinally for sore throat, coughs, and colds.
Crossing Bridge Noodles I
1/4 ounce chicken breast, sliced very thin and cut into thin strips
1/4 pound any white flat fish, sliced thin, and cut into thin strips
1/4 pound shrimp, peeled with veins removed, sliced in half then cut into thin strips
4 slices ginger, peeled and sliced thin, then cut into thin strips
2 Tablespoons pear liquor
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 scallions, sliced thin
1/2 pound rice or egg noodles, thin ones preferred
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced into thin strips
6 cups superior chicken broth
1. Dry chicken, fish, and shrimp slices and mix them with ginger, pear liquor, soy sauce, and scallion and set aside.
2. Boil rice or egg noodles until half done, drain and set aside.
3. Put cucumber pieces in each of eight bowls, and divide the noodles among the bowls. Then put one eighth of the meat-fish-shrimp mixture into each bowl.
4. Bring broth to a rolling boil, pour one cup into each bowl, stir it well, and serve.
Cucumber on Rice-noodle Sheets
Ingredients for cucumber salad:
1 cucumber, peeled, leaving some strips of dark green, seeded and cut into thin two inch strips
1 Tablespoon mature black rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon white rice vinegar, Swatow rice vinegar preferred
1 teaspoon ginger juice
Ingredients for the rice noodle sheets:
1 cup rice flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup potato starch
1/4 cup corn or another light vegetable oil
1. Mix all ingredients for the cucumber salad and let this stay, not refrigerated, for two hours.
2. Mix rice flour and the two starches and add two cups of water. Mix very well being sure there are no lumps and let this pancake mixture rest for two hours.
3. Take a baking sheet and lightly oil it. Prepare a large pot cover to use with it.
4. Heat an eight- or nine-inch omelet pan and drizzle a few drops of oil on it. Spread this around with a pastry brush, then put one-quarter cup of the pancake batter on it and tilt the pan to spread this batter evenly. Be careful not to have the heat too high. Cover the batter and make a pancake cooking it only on one side. It takes about two minutes until the top is set. Turn this upside down onto the baking sheet and put the pot cover over it. After two minutes, put the pancake on a plate oiling the other side of it. Repeat until all the pancakes are made. They can be stored in the refrigerator overnight.
5. Thinly slice about half of the pancakes made, tossing them with a tablespoon of the oil. Heat them carefully stirring them in a wok or a fry pan. Slice then add the rest of the pancakes, and when hot, put them all into a serving bowl. Put the cucumber mixture on top, then serve. Toss just before serving.
Yunnan Cabbage and Potatoes
Ingredients for the cabbage:
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1 small savoy or Chinese cabbage, about a pound, chopped finely
1 slice pork butt or bacon, about two ounces, cut into one-quarter-inch pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 hot red chili, seeds removed and mnced
1 star anise
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
Preparation for the cabbage:
1. Heat oil and stir-fry the cabbage and the pork or bacon pieces for about three or four minutes.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients to the cabbage mixture and cook until the cabbage is soft and has lost its crunchy texture. Put this on half of a deep serving platter. Then prepare the potato mixture.
Ingredients for the potatoes:
1 pound potatoes, peel and cut them into half-inch diced pieces
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 cup of a mixture of chives, scallions, and garlic shoots, minced
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
Preparation for the potatoes:
1. Boil potatoes for about six or seven minutes, until almost fully cooked. Drain and toss in hot pot to be sure to dry the pieces.
2. Heat oil and fry the chive mixture about two minutes, then add the potatoes and cook this another two minutes, stirring at all times. Put out on the other half of the deep serving platter. Then serve.
Ground Beef with Yunnan Pepper-salt
Ingredients for the salt-pepper mixture:
1 Tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper, ground immediately before use
1. Mix salt and pepper just before using it.
Ingredients for the meat:
1/2 pound very lean beef, hand-chopped until well-minced
1/2 cup minced coriander leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt-pepper mixture
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1. Mix meat, salt-pepper mixture, and the minced coriander leaves and make this mixture into eight thin patties.
2. Heat oil and lightly fry the meat until your desired doneness, cooking it lightly on each side of the patty (and keep in mind that the Yunnanese eat this meat raw or almost raw), then serve.
Green Tomatoes and Eggs
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon corn oil
3 green tomatoes, cut into half-inch pieces
2 scallions, sliced thin
1. Break eggs and beat well with salt and peppers.
2. Heat oil and fry tomatoes for two minutes, then add eggs and stir continuously, just until they start to set. Add scallions, and serve.
Honey-filled Flat Bread
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
6 and a half cups all purpose flour (an extra half-cup may be needed
1 Tablespoon salt
4 Tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. Put two and a half cups warm water in a bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Add six and a half cups of flour and mix well. Cover and let rest for half an hour, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap for four more hours.
2. Then sprinkle the salt on the dough and knead until the dough is soft and no longer sticky. Should it remain sticky, knead in up to an extra half cup of flour. Divide the dough into twenty pieces and roll each one into a five-inch circle.
3. Stir the honey and the nutmeg together and spread a scant teaspoon on each rolled circle, but not to the edges. Then, bring the edges together and pleat them like a dumpling, and flatten them with the palm of the hand.
4. Heat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and put a large baking tile on each of two oven shelves. Then bake the breads, two at a time, for four or five minutes. Do not let the bottoms of the breads burn. When done, remove them from the oven and put them on a cooling rack. Bake the next batch of two breads, doing two at a time until all twenty honey filled breads are baked.

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