Yunnan is quickly becoming known as one of China’s premier food destinations.
In a country full of dedicated foodies, Yunnan is where everyone goes on vacation to eat. But the dishes you’ll find in this mountainous province—which borders Tibet, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi—are nothing like those in the rest of the country. Cooks in this tiny province pull from a variety of Chinese, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian flavors and influences and have access to an astonishing variety of locally foraged ingredients. Many are also members of China’s dozens of minority groups, each of which has its own culinary traditions. Depending on where you go, you’ll find everything from Tibetan momos to grilled fish stuffed with fresh chilies and herbs to pho-like rice noodles. Here are some dishes from around the province that will completely change what you think of Chinese food.
There is a popular stereotype that the Chinese don’t eat dairy. While this was historically true in many parts of the country, it definitely does not apply in Yunnan. In the north of the province, you’ll find firm, sweet-sour Tibetan yak’s milk cheese; in central Yunnan you can eat squares of mild rubing, or “milk cake,” browned on a wok and served with bowls salt and sugar to dip it into; in Kunming you can even find funky goat’s milk cheeses stir-fried with vegetables. The province’s most famous cheese is the rushan or “milk fans” of Dali. Cooks in this old Bai minority town stretch and knead this cheese like mozzarella, then pull in into ribbons, wrap it around bamboo poles, and let it dry in the sun. To try this dish, look for vendors along the streets of historic Dali Old Town; they’ll grill a piece over hot coals for you and slather it with local rose petal jam.
Chrysanthemum Greens Salad
Like cheeses, raw vegetables are something that most people in other parts of China do not eat; in fact, historical Chinese documents associate raw foods with outside “barbarians.” Many of Yunnan’s minority groups, however, have long eaten salads of raw vegetables, including this one of bright, fragrant chrysanthemum leaves. In Kunming, you can try this dish at Old House Restaurant, a local stalwart that serves dishes from all across the province. In their version, the leaves are dressed with nothing more than a drizzle soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil and topped with slices of fresh Thai chili.
Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, is covered in flowers—you can find them in the parks, on the trees lining residential streets, and, even, on your plate. The most popular dish made with flowers here is a stir-fry of egg studded with jasmine flowers (a popular dish at Cloud Seafood Yunnan Cuisine restaurant Kunming), but when in season, restaurants across the province will stir-fry daylilies, aromatic sophora flowers, and many others. In the tiny city of Jinping, near Yunnan’s border with Vietnam, Safe and Peaceful Restaurant offers stir-fried banana blossoms, squash blossoms, or other blooms, depending on what’s in season.
Like many rural areas, Yunnan is home to a number of locally preserved meats, including spectacular aged, salted hams. Though hams are produced in many parts of the province, the most famous come from the city of Xuanwei, where they are made from a breed of black Wujin pigs known for their muscle quality and high-fat content. These hams are considered one of the best in China and have a flavor and texture reminiscent of high-quality Spanish jamón Iberico. Local cooks use this meat in rich stews, stir-fry slices of it with fresh chilies, and steam it with potatoes. In Kunming, head to the restaurant 1910 South Railway Station to try Yunnan-style ham prepared in various ways.
Multi-Colored Sticky Rice
This colorful dish, found in many parts of eastern Yunnan (near the border with Guangxi) is made with sticky rice that high-fat with a variety of flowers and leaves that give the rice a yellow, pink, purple, and even black hue. Once the rice has dried, the colors can be cooked separately or mixed together so that when it is steamed it looks like a plate of confetti. At Buyi Three Lakes Farmhouse Restaurant in Luoping, this rice is served with a dish of local honey to dip it into, while at Dragon Spring Restaurant in Babao it is an accompaniment to hearty dishes like stewed duck.
Summer is mushroom season in Yunnan. The mountainous province is home to more than 1,000 edible species of fungus, including some of the world’s most coveted varieties, like matsutakes, summer truffles, and rich, flavorful porcinis. While the best mushrooms are shipped out to markets around the world, the remainder flood into local markets and restaurants, and you can find prized porcinis for a fraction of what they would cost in other countries. In the capital city of Kunming, you can try an assortment of different mushrooms at restaurants like Laozhihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant that specialize in mushroom hotpot, or just head to any local restaurant and ask if they have porcinis (niu gan jun); most places stir-fry them as simply as possible, with just some sliced garlic and dried or fresh chilies.
Foods Grilled in Banana Leafs
Grilling food in a banana leaf it one of the simplest cooking techniques you can imagine—and probably one of the world’s oldest. It’s an extremely practical way of making food; all you to do is wrap up your meat or vegetables in a leaf pulled from a nearby tree and make a fire, and soon you have a hot meal, no pans or woks needed. In the subtropical areas of southern and western Yunnan, cooks use this technique to prepare a wide variety of ingredients, from minced offal to meat studded with herbs and chilies to simple green vegetables with garlic. At the Taste of Dehong Restaurant in Mangshi (in Western Yunnan), try fatty pork belly mixed with ginger, herbs, garlic, and fresh chilies—as the leaves are heated on the grill, they release a green, vegetal scent that perfumes all of the ingredients inside.
Erkuai is one of Yunnan’s most unique dishes—a rice cake made from non-glutinous rice that can be shredded into springy noodles or sliced thin and stir-fried. In the morning, many locals have a flat, tortilla-like version for breakfast; the rounds (which are sold by street vendors across Kunming, and can also be found in Dali, Tengchong, and other cities) are grilled over coals until they are soft and puffy, then slathered with a sweet or spicy sauce. Depending on where you are, you might end up with some shredded stir-fried potatoes or a long piece of youtiao (long Chinese fried crullers) in the middle. In Kunming, look for this treat before noon on Luofeng Street or Yuanxi Road.
Cold Pea Curd
This snack, known as liang fen (and sometimes translated as “pea jelly”) is common across western Yunnan and into eastern Myanmar, where it’s known as Shan tofu. The base is a cool, smooth, slippery aspic-like jelly made from one of a variety of legumes (usually yellow peas, chicken peas, or mung beans) that can be cut into cubes or sliced into noodle-like strips. These are then topped with a variety of flavorings and toppings; at Yan Bao Farmhouse Fun restaurant, outside of Jinghong, they are dressed with a mix of vinegar, soy sauce, and chili oil and topped with garlic, fresh chilies, sunflower seeds, and cilantro.
'Bubble Ru Da'
Tapioca pearls, agar agar jelly, coconut, milk, and sometimes even Melba toast come together under crushed ice in this sweet street snack. This dish is likely descended from Persian and Indian faloodas—treats that are historically made with thin noodles, ice, and rose water and can contain milk, fruit, and basil seeds. Yunnan’s versions are popular with market-goers in Western Yunnan and can take many forms. Outside the Number One Comprehensive Market on Menghuan Street in Dehong, you’ll find versions made with fruit and versions made with sticky rice, some served in a bowl with a spoon and some thin enough to drink through a wide straw.