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Dali: Its Old and New Cities

by Jacqueline M. Newman

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

Summer Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(2) page(s): 5 - 6

In a prefecture, correctly and completely called the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, are the old and new cities of Dali. Both are near Erhai Lake, the old one shows off many historic cultural relics. The new one just that, simple and new. In both, the majority of the residents are of the Bai ethnic minority. These cities are located at the edge of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the west-central region of the Yunnan Province, and the government of the prefecture administers eight counties, three autonomous counties, and both of these cities of Dali.

Many believe old Dali is the cultural birthplace of the Yunnan Province. Archeologists advise it and many other sites in the region, particularly those around Erhai Lake, date back to Neolithic times. Old Dali is on the lake's western bank and can be seen on the left side of the map. The new city, on the same side but at the southern tip of the lake, is the communication center of the prefecture. It is called Xia Guan, and on the map is written as Xiaguan; many Chinese two-character words can be written with or without the space between the syllables. These two cities are close but certainly not in walking distance, that is unless you like long hikes.

Ancestors of both Bai and Yi minority populations probably originated here during Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 220 CE). Both cities have subtropical climates with temperatures that vary little year round; but they do have distinct dry and rainy seasons, the latter usually May to October.

On the culinary front, these cities and the region around them are known for snow white pears, walnuts, green plums, compressed tea in toucha shapes, water chestnuts said to be 'spiny,' and many medicinal plants. Many Bai people live in both of these cities; they are the region's largest ethnic minority population.

Dali is a popular tourist destination, a crowded place in season. Peaks of the Cangshan Mountains, also known as the Azure Mountains, are on one side of both cities, Erhai Lake is on the other. Folks come here to see heirs of the Nanzhou State (738 - 937 CE) and their monuments and temples. They come for terrific foods, frequent festivals, watching elder Bai ladies do embroidery, and they even purchase some.

Religious and folk festivals are well attended by the more than fifty percent of the population who are members of one or another minority group. Recent census data says the Bai are two-thirds of them. For these Bai people, March Festival is the most important holiday. Read about it and other Bai festivals, traditions, places, practices, and culinary pleasures elsewhere in this issue and in other places that discuss Bai and other minority people and their celebrations.

Near the old city of Dali are seventeen grottoes; they are in the Shizhong Mountains. Nearby are many national park areas and a plethora of Buddhist temples. When in the old city, take a walk on Longwei also known as Dragon Tail Street. It is famous and worth walking up and down several times so as not to miss anything. Some half dozen blocks long, this ancient city street is a handicraft center with many old-style shophouses worth looking into. Stop to enjoy the South Gate, the Wu Hua building, the museum, also the An Yuan Gate at the other end, among other things.

What is called old Dali or the ancient city of Dali did exist a couple of thousand years ago; people still live there today. Walk around and imagine life in its earlier days, and see locals dressed in earlier garb, that does help. Purchase and eat foods that show off what they probably ate then; that helps, too. Walk midway between the two gates, and go into Yu Er park; check it out. Also check out the skits performed on various stages that tell tales of earlier and current local history.

Over the years, many Bai did intermarry with Han, so telling who is and who is not a Bai person is often impossible. Take time to go to Erhai Lake and meander along some of its periphery. This, the largest fresh water lake in China in terms of capacity, is more than six thousand feet above sea level and shaped like a human ear. Erhai means 'ear lake.' The Erhai Park at Tuanshan Mountain is ancient, too, once a royal deer ranch of the Nanzhou Kingdom.

In Dali, visit the many Buddhist pagodas, some built believing worshiping at them calms local earthquakes and floods. Take bus number 19 to the Three Pagodas from the northern gate, see it and know it was built for worshiping holy saints. The largest temple among them is Qianxunta. That was built during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 90c7 CE). Note its four bronze birds thought to be monsters of the sea. One can see them from far away but better to do so up close.

In the old city, we were fortunate to be invited to breakfast by a couple, the Yangs. They sell typical Bai clothing, fabrics, and artifacts. This family, and many Bai have the surname Yang. They treated us to a rice dough they called dumplings, items cut with a cleaver from a block of pre-made rice, water, and salt. We watched them silently fall into the boiling water.

These are similar to knife-cut noodles, but a different shape. When they float to the top, they take them out with a wire strainer and add them to individual bowls along with two poached eggs. The latter were previously browned on a grill. Both of these, put in atop some lard, were joined when Yan's wife added some sugar and stirs. Her husband adds the hot water and he hands us chopsticks, a soup spoon, and a cup of green tea. We enjoy this delicious Bai breakfast and are told that some days they make noodles, other days a rice soup or one or more kinds of bao. From them, we learn the Bai eat three meals a day and vary their breakfasts. For lunch, they like crispy beef milk skin otherwise known as Cattle Skin with their tea. Not served, later we buy some to try it and select the fried and sweetened version. They prefer theirs stir-fried or baked with meat and vegetables, or deep fried with a spicy sauce on the side.

A few days later, in Dali's new city on a six-lane bus-clogged street, we are treated to a fifteen course Bai meal at a local hotspot called the Duan Family Restaurant. It is on Tai An North Road in New Dali. By pre-arrangement, we meet a local lawyer and his two young doctor friends. All tell us the dishes they order for us are popular, local, and typically Bai.

Here, again we enjoy Cattle Skin, locally known as rushan, and again it is made with sugar, then deep-fried. This time it is served with mung beans. Next, we enjoy pork with hot peppers; that is called Roast Pork. To our uneducated Bai-cuisine eyes, it looks stir-fried, but they call it 'roasted.' We are also treated to stir-fried Er Kuai tossed with slivers of pork, scallion, carrot, and garlic. This creative and yummy use of er kuai includes, as do most other dishes, many pieces of hot peppers and several pickled vegetables.

Next comes a dish of mixed wild and local mushrooms including some wonderful green ones we actually had the day before. We do have hot tea but only drink a little as everyone is given a can of Yanbi, a local walnut-milk beverage.

Among the fifteen dishes served is an order of boiled salted duck eggs specifically ordered as a wish for our safe journey. No reason given, but they come before some sea vegetables in soup, pork battered with egg and flour, and many other dishes. Plates of Bai dishes keep coming, clearly too many, but we are delighted to learn of and taste so many typical Bai foods.

Our host tells us this is a typical Bai send-off meal. After it, he drives us to the train station for our overnight trip. Clearly, we are sent off in style, stuffed and happy, but unable to fall asleep in our triple-layer train-bunks for the ride back to Kunming. Must confess we are glad our host did not order Black Moss Pie or Casserole Fish, both local specialties in Dali, because truth is, we literally had no room for either one, or anything else for that matter.

We learn that Dali has many fine breakfast foods including Xizhou Glutinous Rice Cakes, Rice Cakes made with cassia flowers steamed in bamboo tubes, and Water Chestnut and Mung Bean Porridge. They are mentioned at that dinner. Though we do want to taste them, we are glad they did not appear on our table that evening. We also appreciate not having their Three-Set Dinner which is popular in Old Dali. It comes with eight dishes, eight plates, and eight bowls; need to try that on our next visit to that city when our stomachs are not as full.

These breakfasts and dinners are reasons to return to both old and new Dali. So are the many scenic spots pointed out on the maps with this article. Must 'fess up' and advise we find out about them after our return. If you are going, take a copy of the map on this page, we could find no maps there. A friend at home gave one to us, the source she did not know. She also gave us a recipe for Moss Pie. It in this issue.

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