Tasting Yunnan: Bai Minority and other Delights in Dali and Lijiang

Tasting Yunnan: Bai Minority and other Delights in Dali and Lijiang
Credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias
Why you need to know

The diversity of Yunnan's cuisine is matched only by the kindness of its people.

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Yunnan is one of China’s most distinct provinces - with an ever-changing landscape, from dreamy, rolling rice terraces, to vast Tibetan plains 10,000 feet above sea level, this charming land is host to the largest number of ethnic minorities in China. With the diversity in its people comes diversity in food.

The city of Dali is a hippy haven of snacks, tie-dye, and Bai minority architecture. Nature is important to the restaurateurs here, who pride themselves on the fresh quality of their vegetables, meats and fish, all displayed in abundance outside each restaurant. With a mind to avoid the inevitably touristy main streets of the old town, I took a recommendation from a coffeeshop owner, who knew a great local place, though apparently it "didn’t have a very nice environment".

I knew this would mean a not-quite-clean kitchen and humble decorations – but this is generally where the most authentic and delicious food is found.

It was indeed a simple establishment, without so much as a menu to peruse. Locals instead choose ingredients from a glass-fronted fridge and have them cooked to order. I choosing beef and asked for suanla, sour and spicy, a flavor typical to Yunnan cuisine. The waitress nodded in approval, and I was promptly served smackingly spicy minced beef, peppered with pickled vegetables, giving it that succulent, sour edge.

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Credit: Olivia Contini
Fresh produce is proudly displayed outside many Dali restaurants.

There were three workmen on their lunch break sitting opposite me, each with a cigarette hanging from their mouths the entire meal. Upon seeing me eating alone, a Mr Du kindly invited me to join them, saying that it was better to share in these kinds of restaurants. I thankfully agreed, and my bowl was immediately filled with a hearty helping of thick soup. I identified oats and a lot of pig’s blood. Though I often find that dishes containing blood are overpowered by the rich flavor, this dish was perfectly balanced, to the point that I gladly accepted a second bowl. I also tasted spicy fried pork, tiny anchovies from the lake stir fried with tofu, and a clear broth with spinach and tofu.

The kindness of the Dali residents didn’t end there. I made friends with a student my age, Li Wenchao. On revealing my love for Chinese food, he didn’t hesitate to invite me for lunch, eager to show me local Bai minority food.

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Credit: Olivia Contini
Preparing vegetables outside the Bai minority restaurant.

We arrived at a restaurant where the waitresses were busy preparing the ingredients for the day, washing and chopping lush vegetables, and preparing large bowls of a sliced, white meat. I was told that it was a Bai delicacy that we were about to try. Before eating, it was dipped in a thick, spicy chili sauce. It tasted salty and was a little chewy… after a few mouthfuls I was told it was raw pig skin! On seeing the slight horror on my face after the revelation, Wenchao assured me that it was OK to eat, and that you could even eat raw chicken if it was fresh enough. I assured him that I was happy to enjoy the pork!

We tried a cold dish of thick corn flour noodles with a fatty texture, tossed with bean sprouts and dressed in a sesame, chili and peanut sauce. It was both spicy and refreshing at the same time. We also had one of the best roast beef dishes I have ever had in China -- 土罐秘制烤肉 translates as "earthen jar secret recipe roast beef". As such, I am not sure what exactly went into this dish, but the beef was oh-so-tender, almost purple in color, with a flavor-packed crispy crust. More interesting than the beef itself was the bed of greens it was displayed on. I guessed that this crispy green was some kind of seaweed, but was surprised to discover it was actually deep-fried mint leaves. Clearly Yunnan soil gives locally grown herbs and greens their own unique flavors.

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Credit: Olivia Contini
Roast beef featuring sunflower seeds and the thick corn flour noodles.

Lijiang was my next stop, being one of the most popular destinations on a traveler’s tour of Yunnan. As such, this stunning little town that’s all rooftops and sunshine has become a bit of a tourist trap, with souvenir shops occupying the majority of the traditional buildings. Nevertheless, it is still a joy to lose yourself in the narrow, winding streets, and from the top of Lion Rock you can catch that stunning rooftop view – or pay a whopping 50 yuan (about US$8) for a coffee to enjoy the view from an open top café.

On a quiet side street, I decided to try an unassuming noodle shop. Upon entering, I saw no owner, just two young kids, about five and three, doing their homework at a table. I had a look at the menu while waiting for the owner, when the older boy asked “What do you want to eat?”. I was a little taken aback but decided to roll with it, asking him for a recommendation. He said the ersi noodles were a little tough, but really good. I asked which meat would pair best, to which the younger girl piped up: “Try the beef!”. I wasn’t going to argue, and the boy told me to sit down, then ran out of the shop shouting “Mama! There’s a customer!”. He ran back in with his mother close behind, who smiled at me and went into the kitchen to prepare the dish. The boy returned to his homework.

What was then placed in front of me was one of the most delicious bowls of noodle soup I have ever had, and trust me I have eaten my fair share of beef noodle soup. Starting with the beef itself, not only was the dish full of ground beef, but also a few cubes of thick, tender chunks too. The broth had not been ignored, flavored by a large collection of spices: chili, spring onion, mala Sichuanese peppercorn, peanuts, some pickled vegetables and garlic. I savored every sip, and getting greedy near the end, I picked up the bowl and drank the whole thing, eating all the spices at the bottom – Sichuanese peppercorns included!

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Credit: Olivia Contini
A little girl does her homework at a noodle joint in Lijiang.

I was so enamored by the soup that I paid little attention to the noodles – ersi noodles are a type of rice noodle unique to Yunnan made from erkuai, a dense rice dough. They were indeed a little tough as the wee boy had warned me, but in a chewy and satisfying way that really hit the spot. After slurping up the final morsels, I told the kids that it was really delicious, to which the little girl nonchalantly replied “we know”. Though this was a treat and a half for me, for her this kind of dish was nothing special at all, just the good, simple food that she eats every day.

There are many delicacies left to experience in Yunnan, from tender Yak meat hot pot in Shangri-La, to the multitude of native mushrooms. One thing connecting all the region's colorful flavors is the people that serve and enjoy them. While the food itself was unique, it was the generosity of the locals and their casual appreciation of their food that will bring me back for seconds.

Read Next: How did Taiwan Lose the Battle of the Noodles?

Editor: David Green

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