In the shade of the palm and banyan trees that flank the courtyard of her restaurant, Aka Village, Su Ying is preparing to give me a cooking lesson. She is dressed in a black cotton suit with embroidered panels, and a hat covered in silver ornaments and pompoms that quiver as she moves, the traditional garb of the Hani minority in south-west China. Her ingredients are neatly laid out, including fresh herbs, ground spices, bright red chillies, garlic and ginger. But she has no pots and pans – instead she is going to cook the food in banana leaves and tubes of fresh bamboo on a small fire that blazes under an iron tripod in a corner of the yard. Su Ying takes up her cleaver and starts to chop the herbs.
Nearly a decade has passed since I last visited the tropical prefecture of Xishuangbanna in the far south of Yunnan province in south-west China, close to the border with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Here in Jinghong, the main city, we’re some 1,500 miles from Beijing, as distant as Moscow is from London. Now, as then, I’m struck by how different Yunnan is to other parts of China, and how distinct the food is from the country’s far better-known cuisines soy sauce and vinegar, both Chinese staples, are absent from Su Ying’s kitchen. Her herbs – sawtooth, lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander and mint – seem more south-east Asian than Chinese; some of the spices are uniquely local, such as false camphor tree fruits and a wild variety of Sichuan pepper. As Su Ying works, she chats away to her colleagues in the staccato tones of the Hani language, which is incomprehensible to me, a Mandarin speaker.
Su Ying tosses a mixture of wild vegetables with lemongrass and chilli and parcels them up in broad banana leaves. She seasons sliced beef with chilli, herbs and spices and tumbles it into a tube of green, freshly cut bamboo, stoppering the tube with a scrumpled banana leaf and propping it up in the embers of the fire. Another tube is filled with a more exotic delicacy: live bamboo worms, wriggling, ivory-coloured grubs which she mixes with herbs and spices, tubes up and thrusts into the fire.
Later we gather around a table, laid with a cloth of banana leaves and topped with bamboo bowls, cups and chopsticks, to try her food. The banana-leaf parcels of meat and vegetables are sliced open to emit zesty, herbal aromas. Eggshells filled with minced pork and cooked in the ashes of the fire are served on a bamboo tray; a leaf-lined platter of raw vegetables arrives with a fruity dip (the local version of Thai nahm prik). The herb-spiked worms are juicily delicious. Even the rice has been cooked in bamboo tubes in the fire. “This is the kind of food I used to eat when I was small, growing up in the mountains,” Su Ying tells me.
Even for many Chinese, Yunnan seems exotic. Historically, it was a wayward province, ruled by local kings and chieftains, until the 13th century when Kublai Khan’s troops brought it into the vast Mongol empire. Yunnan is home not only to Han Chinese, who make up over 90% of China’s population, but 24 ethnic minorities, including Su Ying’s Hani people and the Dai, close cousins of the Tai of Laos and Thailand.
Yunnan encompasses a startling array of terrains and climates. In the north-west of the province you’ll find the thin air, snowy mountains and grazing yaks of the Tibetan plateau. Drive south from the capital Kunming, a recognisably Chinese city with a spring-like climate, and the landscape shifts from temperate to tropical, lush with banana, rubber and coffee trees. The green vegetation is splashed with electrifying colour.
The province is a global hotspot of biodiversity and the range of local ingredients is staggering. Most famously, the summer mushroom season yields some varieties of 300 edible fungi, including delicacies such as savoury matsutake and dark, crinkly ganba, a fungus with a striking umami flavour. Banana and pomegranate blossoms are just two of myriad edible flowers; there are countless wild plants and a cornucopia of bugs and grubs. One of the region’s renowned products is Yunnan ham, produced during the cool, arid winters in the north-east.
Yunnan’s remoteness has spared it much of the overdevelopment and pollution that have blighted other parts of China. So in recent years it has become a magnet for Chinese idealists in search of the good life, chefs seeking out wild and artisanal ingredients and hordes of domestic tourists. Many people have been exposed to its culinary delights for the first time and Yunnan restaurants have opened across the country. Yet the cuisine is almost unknown outside China apart from a handful of restaurants in cosmopolitan cities such as Los Angeles and Melbourne. “Cooking South of the Clouds” by Georgia Freedman, an American journalist, is one of the first cookbooks to trumpet the region’s gastronomic traditions.
Given the distinctiveness of Yunnan food, the cuisine is unlikely to find its way out of China unless Yunnanese chefs move abroad. Immigration regulations in most countries make that unlikely. An even greater obstacle to the popularisation of Yunnan food abroad is its sheer diversity.
No one restaurant or chef could represent a region that’s such a patchwork of terroirs, languages and cultures. There is no single overarching Yunnan cuisine, but a selection of overlapping ones. And, more than anywhere else in China, a large proportion of the ingredients used in Yunnan are stubbornly local and unavailable elsewhere.
Xishuangbanna alone is full of gastronomic revelations. One sunny winter morning, Ye Zengquan, a master chef and president of the local catering association, took me on a tour of Jinghong’s main food market. Dai women had laid their produce out on banana leaves: pork and beef cured in salt and chilli, white and purple rice cakes, home-made pickles and gnarled medicinal roots. Ye introduced me to dozens of ingredients I’d never encountered before. “Yunnan”, he told me, “is a gene bank of plants, animals and medicines.”
On another day we drove out of town along the graceful sweep of the Lancang river – known as the Mekong farther south – to Manzha village, where Dai people live in wooden houses. We stopped at a restaurant where starfruit and papayas hung heavy on trees. Perched on bamboo chairs we enjoyed Dai specialities including barbecued chicken, belly pork and herb-stuffed fish, all aromatic and charred from the grill. Later, for a taste of Xishuangbanna’s famous exotica, a tattooed hipster chef in Jinghong produced a banquet of bamboo worms, ant eggs, shiny beetles and – most sensationally – the brush grub, a long, pale worm that tastes exactly like sweetcorn and has to be extracted from a grassy stalk at the table.
Yet the food of Xishuangbanna is just one of Yunnan’s many gastronomic faces. On my trips to the province over the years I have dined on Tibetan staples such as toasted barley flour and yak butter tea in a town now known as Shangri-la, high on the Tibetan plateau. In the north-east I gorged on spicy hotpots, and even farther north I visited the centre of ham production in Xuanwei, where I supped on delicate soups and stews. Here in Xishuangbanna, I was tasting the sour and hot flavours and fresh herbs of the tropical south.
The cuisine is like a fractal: the closer you look the more it expands into an infinity of possibilities. In an age of globalisation, when privileged urbanites can sample delicacies from practically anywhere without leaving home, Yunnan is a reminder that for a real taste of local culinary culture, sometimes you just have to go to the source.•