Category Archives: Yunnan Province

Was I Truly There??? China? Vietnam? Cambodia?

Me in Front of Storefront, Dali, Yunnan, China

Here I am in Front of a Storefront in Dali, Yunnan, China

It is hard to believe that only a few weeks have gone by since my return from Asia; I am so completely into the swing of things at home in the Boston area. It is ALMOST as if I never left. I can just barely “touch” China (where I lived and travelled from September 2013 until the end of March 2014) and Vietnam and Cambodia (where I travelled afterwards). They are elusive memories. And yet, profoundly, as I was out and about yesterday a large group of Chinese walked past me. Suddenly, a familiar feeling marked me and tied me to my time in China – I had a pleasantly warm and physical sensation throughout my body. My brain reminded me that I did, in fact, have particular experiences at particular times.

I left China feeling indifferent to the place, or so I thought. Now, I find that I miss it. I never thought I would and yet I do… I cannot figure out what it is that I miss; it is completely intangible – especially since while I was there I had mixed feelings about the country itself. But I realise there is something intangible about life there that I wish I could put my finger on. No matter. China did get under my skin and into my heart. I may not recall all of it, and certainly not necessarily on demand, but my past makes me who I am, now. The reality is, I truly was there.

Below is a small sampling of the photographs I took during my final three weeks in China: Shaxi, Dali, Fujian Province.

Shaxi, Yunnan Province China:

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters ("If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan" -- jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province, China:

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Fujian Province, China:

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Shaxi, Yunnan

 

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (

Shaxi, Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi, Yunnan Province:

Shaxi is a small, quiet, even sleepy village, situated in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains, a three-hour bus ride northwest from Dali. As you walk about, you see locals labouring in construction, working in small shops, or selling food or vegetables on the street.  The fields are tended mostly by women, while the men herd goats. The Bai are very industrious but also seem to take their time as they work. It appears that they embrace their traditional lives. It is a friendly village and Yulan (a friend from Kunming) and I were able to strike up a number of conversations with the minority villagers. Shaxi is beginning to see its share of tourists, and the stores, cafes, and hostels/hotels designed for people like us, yet it is still primarily a town of locals, and many of these sites are mostly empty. At the moment, its interest in outsiders is only secondary – although this will almost certainly change in the next few years.

Buildings in Shaxi (and Dali) are made of a foundation of locally quarried stone and the walls are constructed with rammed-earth, covered by slaked lime and decorated on the outside with grey or blue ink-and-wash paintings. I have been told that nails are not used and instead, a system of double brackets supports the roof atop thick wood pillars. Like elsewhere in Yunnan, and the rest of China, the rooves are covered in round roof edge tiles. These tiles are used for decoration or for very specific symbolism (represented in the colours of the eaves, the specific roofing materials, and, finally, the roof top decorations). Old Town Shaxi is a maze of criss-crossing narrow alleyways, with one main street leading in and out of the village and a second, narrower street (filled with tourist shops, cafes, etc.) that leads to the old village square. A Friday market is held each week, as it has been for many, many years!

Shaxi, Building a House

Shaxi, Building a House

Shaxi, the Writing is on the Wall (pay up time to landowners of yesteryear?)

Shaxi, the Writing’s on the Wall (c.1940s? perhaps record-keeping when landlords collected rent from peasants who used their land, or, harvest records? – we were not able to get an answer for these calculations. if anyone knows what these numbers actually refer to please let me know. thank you!)

Saxi, Lime Wall with Horse Hairs and Straw

Shaxi, Lime Wall with Animal Hairs and Straw

On our first day in Shaxi, Yulan and I saw a few men leading donkeys with rattan baskets filled to the brim strapped to their backs. Women, both young and old, carry their produce and goods on their backs, hunching over to steady themselves and balance the baskets, whose straps stretch across their foreheads and are held onto on either side of their heads.

Shaxi Alley, (soy bean curd sheets drying in the sun)

Shaxi Alley, (soybean curd sheets drying in the sun)

Our second day in Shaxi was spent wandering the alleyways, speaking with more locals, and having breakfast and supper at the Long Feng Muslim Restaurant. The women who work there are welcoming and talkative, and laugh a lot!. The food is excellent, and the place is impeccably clean. At the front of the restaurant is the kitchen – open to the street. Behind this area and the main eating area is a small courtyard where the vegetables are prepared. Aging beef hangs from beams throughout the restaurant and courtyard. Breakfast consisted of a bowl of noodles in a spicy beef broth, with pieces of beef and vegetables. As is common, one can add extra condiments such as garlic, Sichuan pepper, pickled vegetables, hot pepper, etc. I think this soup may have been the best I have eaten in China. At supper we ordered a bowl of vegetable stew, as delicious as was the morning’s soup.

Shaxi, Long Feng Muslim Restaurant

Shaxi, Long Feng Muslim Restaurant

Lunch took us to Ben Tu Ren Jia, where we had two local dishes: zha ru bing (fried goat cheese sprinkled with sugar) and fen pi chao jidan (broad rice sheets mixed with egg and spices). Excellent food, again.

The streets of Shaxi are a pleasure to meander through and the countryside is perfect for walking in the fields and exploring the many nearby villages via bicycle.

Shaxi, Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll

Shaxi, Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll

Shaxi Doorway

Shaxi Doorway

Shaxi Doorway (detail)

Shaxi Doorway (detail)

We stayed at the local International Youth Hostel, which was inexpensive but very nondescript and dingy and dark. However, if you are on a budget this is a good enough choice. It is just not a place where you will want to chill (in fact, it was freezing there since its outer walls are literally made of plywood). I have been told that if you want to treat yourself,  a nice place to stay is the Old Theatre Inn — about a 15-minute bicycle ride from Shaxi. Breakfast is included and apparently the rooms are extremely comfortable, with all the amenities and a great view of the expansive farmland just beyond its doors, nestled among the villages and surrounding mountains.

Accommodation:

Places to Eat:

  • Ben Tu Ren Jia on the cobblestoned main street leading to the Town centre.
  • Long Feng Muslim Restaurant on Shaxi’s main road

 

Dali, Yunnan

Woman Resting, Dali, Yunnan, China
Woman Resting, Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province:

Yulan (one of my four teachers at Keats School in Kunming – and now a friend) and I travelled by overnight train (on a hard sleeper) to Dali, at the beginning of its Spring season. The capital of the Bai Autonomous Region, Dali is rich and fertile, and full of villages and farmland in the valley that surrounds the banks of the 40 km long Erhai Lake (洱海) (“er” = see; “hai” = lake or sea); the lake is shaped like an ear which is called “er” although the character “er” is written differently: 耳. The Bai heavily populate this area, and their traditions flourish despite the many tourists. There are also many expats who run a number of places in the town, including the guesthouse where we stayed. Older women dress in their traditional blue scarves and jackets. While we were there, the Bai community was celebrating the March Fair, which is held from March 15th to 21st of the lunar calendar, and, we were told, celebrates peace with traditional music, burned incense, and foods offered in sacrifice.

Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Holiday, Dali, Yunnan
Bai Woman, Dali
Bai Woman, Dali

On our first day, we cycled 65 km., exploring the countryside and small villages in the greater Dali area. The local farmers were busy in their fields and children were fishing, with nets in hand and wearing only underwear. In one of these villages we found a lovely couple who makes bing (bread pockets which can be filled with many things, (we tried them with onions).

Man in Village Near Dali
Man in Village Near Dali
Woman in Village Near Dali
Woman in Village Near Dali
Onion Bing, Dali, Yunnan, China
Onion Bing, (in village outside of Dali)

We stayed at a quiet guesthouse, Sleepy Fish, just inside the new east gate of the old town, and awoke to the sound of roosters crowing in the morning. At the start of each day, we went around the corner to eat shao er kuai (roasted rice flour cakes). This is a common Yunnanese dish; a roasted, thin, round, pancake-like er kuai, that is usually brushed with a peanut-sesame sauce and/or chile sauce (tian de / la de –> sweet and spicy), and wrapped around youtiao (deep-fried bread sticks), hotdogs, julliened potatoes, or other ingredients, depending on the vendor.

On day two we walked around the old town, where the main roads are overrun by tourists. Dali is known to have been “discovered” by backpackers and is still inundated with them, as well a new generation of young hippies. On these streets one sees small stores full of artisanal goods (including coffee shops), people doing bead-work on the streets, and others selling mass-produced embroidered fabrics, jewellery, etc. Dali is a town for tourists, but if you can get off the beaten path, you can still catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the people who live here, such as the farmers who sell their produce on the street. People still work their plots in the farmland that borders the old town. Some corners of Dali are real surprises – just by turning onto a side street you can happen upon a wide variety of glorious flowers and trees growing in small courtyards. This reminded Yulan of the poem written by the Song Dynasty Poet Ye Shao Weng’s poem Failure in Visiting the Garden:  “Spring air’s too overfull to be shut in the garden, Over the wall one red apricot-twig had to crane.”Spring in Dali really was in bloom; pear and apricot trees were flowering and outside town golden fields of rapeseed flowers, which bloom annually, were in striking abundance. 

 Dali, Apricot Tree in Bloom


Dali, Apricot Tree in Bloom (photograph courtesy of Hou Yulan)

Fields of Rapeseed (with old town Dali in the background)

Fields of Rapeseed (with old town Dali in the background)

Dali Street Scene

Dali Street Scene

Dali Street Scene, Renmin Lu

Dali Street Scene, Renmin Lu

Dali (Renmin Lu)

Dali Street Scene, Renmin Lu

Dali Alley

Dali Alley

Dali is full of excellent food (both on the street and in restaurants). For lunch on our second day we ate at Zai Hui Shou. Their specialty is lian ji mixian (cold rice noodle w/chicken, greens, peanuts, and a mix of a sweet and spicy sauce) and wan dou lian fen (cold yellow pea doufu – topped with peanuts, green onions, and a similar but slightly different sweet and spicy sauce). Suppertime took us to the four-generation-run restaurant,  Zhen Hua Fandian, where we ate: suan la yu – sour and spicy fish with an extremely flavourful and complicated broth; tang cou pai gu – sweet and sour pork ribs; and cha shou gu – mushroom with hot peppers). The third night in Dali we dined on braised pork, lotus root, and bamboo shoots  – at another highly recommended local restaurant, Xiao Duan Chu Fang. The atmosphere was pleasant in this spacious restaurant and the food was excellent (although more expensive than the two other somewhat simpler restaurants).

Wan Dou Lian Fen (cold yellow pea doufu)

Wan Dou Lian Fen (cold yellow pea doufu)

Accommodation:

Places to Eat:

  • Xiao Duan Chu Fang (Duan’s Kitchen) – 12 Renmin Lu
  • Zhen Hua Fandian – 181 Renmin Lu
  • Zai Hui Shou on Renmin Lu — 135 Renmin Lu

Kunming Train Station Attack

Much has been said these last few days of the train station assault in Kunming this past weekend; I have little to add. However, I want to make mention of Saturday night’s attack since I am currently in Kunming and actually heard shots/bangs (of some sort), from my bedroom, at the time that the event took place. Having experienced two weeks of Chinese Spring Festival fireworks and firecrackers, I knew that the sounds I heard were not of that ilk. I listened for sirens but did not hear any, so my moment of concern was short-lived. I was quite surprised and horrified to hear about what occurred Saturday night when I woke up on Sunday and received emails of concern from friends and family. These last few days, Kunming has seen an increase in police presence with guns. In this city it is common, here, to see police on almost every other corner (vans, or little cubicles are permanently posted at these sites). At night now, the lights have been flashing so that people may easily access them should there be a need/emergency. Today, Chinese state-run media has reported that all eight suspects have been arrested or killed. None-the-less, security is still stepped up and SWAT teams continue to patrol certain Kunming streets.

The Chinese government is blaming the Uighur (Muslim) community. I realise relations between the Han majority, who dominate this country, and the Uighur minority from the western province of Xinjiang is not easy. When I asked a local Muslim restaurant owner if his resto would remain open during the Chinese Spring Festival he said, “Of course! We never celebrate the Chinese holidays.” At that moment, I understood there might be animosity between the peoples. Regardless of who is to blame for this weekend’s attack, here is a link that may be of interest with background information about the Uighurs and the Chinese Han: http://chinachange.org/2014/03/03/excerpts-from-my-west-china-your-east-turkestan-my-view-on-the-kunming-incident/

Travels with Steve: Kunming, Xingping, and Beijing

Travels with Steve in China (Here we are in Xingping, Guangxi Province)

Steve and Tamar in Xingping, Guangxi Province (Photograph courtesy of Jeannette Bajon)

Joining me in China for almost three weeks, Steve and I spent two full days in Kunming, more than a week in Xingping, and almost a week in Beijing. Below are his comments with judicious censorship by me and a few photos to go along with each section.

Kunming. Yunnan Province

Capitalism is rife in Kunming, Steve has noticed. Young people trying to be hipper than hip by dressing as au courant as they can. Hand-helds are always at the ready. Hear that sound? It is Mao doing the circular shuffle in his grave. Steve is proud that Tamar has figured out all these little alleyways and niches for herself — she is a regular at the baozi storefront as well as the local soy milk and fried dough breakfast stall. She knows the bowling alley and the best massage parlours, as well as the most scenic parks in the city. Finally, she can find good food. What more does she need? Here are a few photos from our two days spent together in this Spring City, South of the Clouds:

Kunming, Wall in Daguan Park

Kunming, Wall in Daguan Park

Kunming, (Salt) Peanuts!

Kunming, (Salt) Peanuts!

Kunming, Man Drinking Tea at Confucius Temple

Kunming, Man Drinking Tea at Confucius Temple

Kunming, Man on the Street

Kunming, Man on the Street

Xingping. Guangxi Province

Who would have guessed that we would have spent ten days here? Not us. This place is home to the surreal landscape of Chinese scrolls and water colour paintings. Karst mountains all around the rivers that populate this area, including the Li River, which is minted on the 20RMB bill.  We’ve hiked and biked and visited the local market. Steve climbed a mountain while Tamar rested and studied. We took a “plastic” bamboo ride on the Li river, sauntered through groves of oranges, mandarins, kumquats, and pomelos. People working in the fields were generous and offered/gave us fruit during our various hikes. We have must have said, “Ni Hao!” to strangers a million times. Tamar had her brain re-wired speaking French to other tourists at the hostel while she was also trying to speak Chinese to the staff and friends of hers who work at the hostel.  We had plans on staying for five days and then go northwestward to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces but a bout of Mao’s Revenge (poor Tamar) kept us here and we were just as happy with that. Below are a few photos from our 11 days spent together in Xingping.

Xingping, Countryside, Li River in the Background

Xingping, Countryside, Li River in the Background

Xingping, Old School House

Xingping, Old School House

Xingping, Countryside

Xingping, Countryside

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Xingping

Beijing. China’s Capital City

Steve expected a landscape of massive modern skyscrapers, spewing an endless supply of young people dressed like lawyers, hustling and bustling to build the perfect State, as serious as the day is long. Nope. Like Kunming and even like Xingping –  but more so – Beijing rings with the sound of frantic, petty, business. Everyone is buying and selling in the streets, in the little tiny first floor shop fronts. Apart from the Givenchy and Chanel shops this place is okay!

Steve wanted to see the embalmed Chairman but poor timing on our part made us miss our appointment with him.  We walked a stretch of the Great Wall; God help us if the Chinese ever get so motivated again. Our trip to Beijing: walking and eating and walking and eating and walking and eating as well as visiting friends. Steve thinks Peking Duck is AOK. And based on a conversation with a friend in Beijing we discovered that in October 2013 the Canadian population was 35,295,770 compared to Beijing’s December 2013 approximate population of 21,229,000 (“unofficial estimates put the population at around 21-22 million”). Unfathomable. These are the top three biggest landmasses by country (remember — Beijing is JUST A SMALL DISTRICT in China).

Number
Country
Area (km2)
Area (miles2)
1.
Russia
17098242
6601668
2.
Canada
9984670
3855100
3.
China
9706961
3747879

And finally, here photographs from our five days spent together in Beijing:

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing

Beijing

Beijing, The Great Wall

Beijing, The Great Wall

Beijing

Beijing

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Beijing, Outside the Forbidden City

Kunming’s Streets and Alleyways

Kunming

Kunming

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, China, is known as the Spring City because of its year-round spring-like climate. Although it comprises mostly large avenues and high-rises it is still fairly laid-back because it retains pockets of overlooked but vibrant alleyways. These alleyways are worlds unto themselves; people live, play, and work in these narrow and somewhat hidden streets. Many of the alleys are near the Keats School (where I study Chinese) which is on Dongfeng Dong Lu and a stone’s throw from the heart of downtown. Below are photographs that I took in some of these alleyways as well as along a few of the major streets that take me there – mostly of people who I approached and who allowed me to work with them.

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

People and the Street-11

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Alley

Kunming, Cityscape

Kunming, Cityscape

Kunming, Cityscape

Kunming, Cityscape

Have You Eaten Yet?

Man Eating on the Street, Kunming

Man Eating on the Street, Kunming

“Ni chi fan le ma?” is a greeting in China that is rooted in the country’s history and literally means, “Have you eaten rice yet?” but is also away to say “hello.” In previous centuries life, in many ways, was simpler and yet harsher. Taking care of one another meant trying to make sure that no one went hungry. Asking a person if s/he has eaten is the same as asking how somebody is.

At the time of the China’s Great Leap Forward (1959-1961) the country was forced to confront the difficult reality of famine. China recovered but the Chinese remember and embrace their history; in fact their collective memory goes back thousands of years. Perhaps because of this time of dearth, the Chinese have a significant obsession with food and eating. Today, the government is working hard to ensure that there is enough to eat in its country; Mainland China alone consists of over 1,300,000,000 people – the world’s largest population- and the country may well have trouble feeding its ever-increasing numbers.This problem is exacerbated by the dangers of land erosion, climate change, urbanisation, pollution, etc. However, to the casual observer (i.e., me), it appears that food is currently plentiful.

Snack Stall

Snack Stall

“Ni chi fan le ma” remains a greeting that you occasionally hear on the streets. Sometimes it is just a hello, when bumping into a friend, but other times it is meant as an invitation to join someone for a snack, meal, or drink. Any event may prompt family, friends, acquaintances, or business associates to feast together; eating is an important social activity. China strikes me as a nation that is preoccupied withfood, eating, and all things related. I am a “foodie” in the west and in China I have now learned that I am a “chihuo” – someone who gets excited about food. Many people in this ever-growing and prosperous country are chihuo.

China divides itself between North and South – two approximate regions with which, I have learned from my teachers, people identify themselves. The food is divided accordingly. Northern food tends to be heartier and more full-flavoured (it is colder in the north, after all), and incorporates more wheat, in the form of bread and noodles. Southern food is mostly rice-based (which includes rice noodles), due to the warm, rainy conditions in the region, that are conducive to growing this particular grain.

There are other culinary divisions as well. Each region, city, and town has its own native delicacies. In Kunming (a city with a population of more than 5,000,000) and across Yunnan that may mean: a) Pu-er tea (Pu-er tea undergoes fermentation and aging; apparently it can help lower cholesterol levels); b) Across the Bridge Noodles (Yunnan Guoqiao Mixian – which consists of three parts: a bowl of hot chicken broth, various slices of meat, including chicken, fish, seasoned meat, and rice noodles – all served in a very particular order); c) Steaming-Pot Chicken (Qiguo Ji – a dish of steamed chicken in a pot with a hollow tube in the centre. It is cooked for hours with ginger, shallots, salt and pepper, and water and steam in the tube flow into the pot to make a broth with the chicken) and; d) Lao Nai Yang Yu (recipe below) – a dish that is essentially mashed potatoes but stir-fried with oil, shallots and onions, and sliced or minced hot green peppers. The people of Kunming are also crazy about hotpot  – although this is not a dish specific to Kunming or Yunnan Province. However, in Kunming, hotpot includes not only meat, fish, and vegetables of all kinds but also a large variety of mushrooms because of the enormous number of species grown in Yunnan. Of course, there are numerous other local dishes that may be added to this very short list.

Street food in Kunming ranges from deep fried grubs/beetles/larvae (which I have tried and taste, to my mind, like crunchy cardboard) to more commonly seen dumplings, steamed buns, tofu, potatoes (cooked in multiple ways), grilled corn, sweet potatoes, meat and fish, sandwiches (made by spooning out dough onto an oily hot surface and frying it into a flatbread which is then spread with a spicy paste and wrapped around onions, cilantro, lettuce, and a fried egg), and tea eggs (stewed in a salted tea that also often includes soy sauce, anise, and Chinese five-spice powder). All of these snacks cost less than 50 U.S. cents.

Baozi Steam Pots Stacked in a Row

Baozi Steam Pots Stacked in a Row

At the same time, one can find all sorts of lavish dishes in high end restaurants; prices can easily top $40USD/dish. I discovered this recently when I ordered one minuscule piece of shark meat at a dim sum restaurant some friends and I had ventured to. On occasion I study in a cafe inside a pricey mall where, for $4.50USD, one can get an excellent cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

Kunming, because of it’s particular history and location has a wide range of food and it is easy not to repeat a meal for a very long time. Kunming street (stall, and restaurant) food is unique in China because of the many minority Chinese who have gathered in this city. Over 20 of the 55 minority groups in the country live in Yunnan Province, which shares borders with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Kunming was the last Chinese city on the southwestern silk route into South Asia so it is a melting pot of races, religions and cultures. Because of this confluence of cultures there is a myriad of nibbles in Kunming. The food in Yunnan is called Dian cuisine, which combines the cooking styles of the different ethnicities in Yunnan Province.

For example, Islam came to Kunming approximately 700 years ago and the Muslim community comprises about a third of the population in the city’s central district. Men in white caps stir vats of roasted coffee beans, make flatbread, and grill halal kebabs as well as cook other foods.

Flat Breads (savoury)

Muslim Flat Breads (savoury)

The Muslim quarter is a short walk from my school. I enjoy getting lost in the alleyways and tasting the offerings there.

Dai minority food is also fairly well represented in Kunming. It combines sour, spicy, and sweet flavors. The Dai practice Buddhism and are related to the Thai and Lao. Among the variety of tastes in these dishes, spiciness is usually predominant. Dai food is prepared in different ways – by roasting, steaming, boiling, frying, and pickling. Unlike in the rest of China, fresh vegetables often make up part of the meal, particularly if they have medicinal properties. Herbs are heavily used and coconut milk and/or fish sauce are frequent ingredients.

Dai Pineapple Rice

Dai Pineapple Rice

The Dai make a sweet glutinous rice (like that in Laos) that is often mixed with pineapple pieces and served in a hollowed out pineapple – a dish that is called “buoluo fan” (tribe rice). It is also common for the Dai people to grill fish or vegetables in banana leaves.

Most Kunming food vendors sell their wares in small shopsHowever, many simply carry out their business from a cart or even from a pot or wok over coals on the ground. There is a wide variety of local delicacies to be tasted here. People in Kunming (and Yunnan in general) tend to like their snacks and meals salty, savoury, and spicy. They do a lot of both grilling and deep frying – particularly deep fried potatoes of various sorts (my favourite is mixed with dried hot pepper, cilantro, spring onions, and garlic) and tofu in different forms (I love fried tofu, made quite similarly to the potatoes – mixed with scallions, cilantro, and sprinkled heavily with dried hot pepper). Hot oil is the start to many eats on the street. My eight (plus) weeks in China have proven to me that the food here is delicious and diverse. Almost everywhere you turn you can order something to consume as you walk, or you can just pull up a low plastic chair at a plastic patio table to sit, rest, and nibble right there. Starve I shall not!

Woman at Potato and Doufu Stall

Woman at Potato and Doufu Stall

Noodles are a popular favourite in Kunming. I don’t know for sure but I suspect more people here eat noodles than rice. In fact, noodles (made of rice or wheat) are often the highlight of a meal, and cold noodle dishes are traditional. Potatoes are also grown in this province, and as mentioned above, are prepared in assorted ways.

Thanks to the the Bai and Sani minorities of Yunnan province, another local specialty is goat cheese. Raising goats is one way for them to make a living on mountainous land that may be unsuited for growing crops but can support animals. The cheese is made by heating fresh goat’s milk with an acidic agent until it becomes firm. Once hardened, the cheese is often pan-fried or steamed. However in some  restaurants that serve Western food you can find it in bite-size pieces in salads.

Not surprisingly Kunming (like the rest of China) is changing. I’ve been told that the Muslim quarter in the old city district used to be filled with wooden houses and eaved roofs.These are gone now – replaced with many new buildings and shops including Carrefour  and Walmart. As much as I avoid these two stores (except to buy milk and almonds) they are experiences to be had — especially if it is food that you are interested in. At Walmart, for instance, not only can you find a carton of regular whole milk, but also mung bean, sesame seed-flavoured, and other non-western milks. There is produce of all sorts, including various Chinese cabbages, mangosteens, durians, and many other Asian fruit and vegetables. There are also bins filled with wheat, buckwheat, and rice noodles of various shapes and sizes as well as bins of meats, sausages, whole chickens (head and feet included), dozens of kinds of kimchi and other pickled vegetables, fish in tanks of water, and strips of raw beef  — all sold there as they are in nearby wet markets (i.e., markets that sell fresh and cooked foods). The dry goods section has every kind of Chinese packaged food imaginable. It is a store for the locals.

Despite many signs of the encroachment of Western corporate influence, Kunming is a laid-back city and is not as money-oriented as some of the other urban centres in the country (the few extravagant “designer” shops I’ve seen here are always empty!). It is a good and affordable place to eat whether you can read a menu or not. In fact, many have photographs of the food that is offered. Some restaurants and stalls do not even have the dishes advertised since they only sell one or two items. Even If a menu is written only in Chinese it is still easy to scan a crowd of diners and point to what looks tasty.

A Man Sits and Eats Doufu and Rice Sticks for Breakfast at the Table Across from Me. I Do the Same.

A Man Sits and Eats Doufu and Rice Sticks for Breakfast at the Table Across from Me. I Do the Same.

At the Keats School, our cook, Yi Yanling – who we call Ayi (auntie) – makes a dozen dishes, or so, for both lunch and supper. They consist of vegetables, tofu, and some meat but the majority are vegetarian due, no doubt, to the favourable vegetable-growing climate in Yunnan. Breakfast is predominantly Westernstyle, composed of fruit, fried eggs, bread, cakes, yogourt, and coffee; in addition there is always fried rice, a soup of some sort, tomatoes and cucumbers, and occasionally dumplings. Ayi has cooked over a hundred different dishes for us since September and I have been told she has at least two hundred recipes in her repertoire.

Rice Sticks

Youtiao (Deep Fried Twisted Dough Sticks)

On the weekend we are on our own and I go to the alleyways behind the school toorder my favourite breakfast: hot soy milk and dough stick (here is a youtiao recipe), a tea egg, and/or baozi (steamed buns) filled with mushrooms, or tofu, or vegetables.

Baozi

Baozi

Kunming is a city of innumerable and delicious foods. Mushrooms, potatoes, noodles, and spice (which can also include Sichuan peppers)  – and the cooking of the many minority groups  – make eating an endlessly enjoyable activity.  Both the city and province offer countless dishes to taste and to savour. What more can a “chihuo” ask for?

As an aside, here is a link to China’s CCTV’s “A Bite of China” — seven 50-minute theme-based episodes filmed throughout the country by several of China’s filmmakers.

Below are three recipes for common dishes made in Kunming, Yunnan Province, and/or China.

Suhongdou (Crispy Red Beans) — Crispy red beans are made with mint or with the greens of the sow thistle plant (kucai – bitter vegetable). If youprefer you may substitute kale for the kucai or mint.

  • 1 1lb. cooked red or azuki beans
  • 1 small bunch (approx. 2 oz.) mint (kucai or kale), leaves chopped
  • finely diced red or green pepper (optional)
  • finely diced garlic (optional)
  • 2 oz. flour
  • salt
  • oil

Put the flour in a bowl and add in a handful of beans. Coat the beans well with the flour. Transfer the beans to a plate, keeping as little flour as possible along with them and  repeat this process until all of the beans have been covered. Add extra flour to the bowl if needed.

Heat 4-5 tablespoons of oil in a wok, allow it it to get very hot, then add the beans. Fry the beans for 3-4 minutes. Stir occasionally. Remove the beans to a plate, leaving any oil behind in the wok.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok. When hot add the mint/kucai/kale, peppers, and garlic to the wok. Fry for 30 seconds then add the beans back into the wok. Add salt and stir until the ingredients are well mixed. You may mash the mixture slightly before serving on a plate.

  Image Courtesy of the Keats School, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Laonai Yangyu (Grandmother’s Potatoes)  — In Yunnan potatoes are called “yangyu” whereas in the rest of China they are called “tudou.” Laonai means paternal grandmother, however it is also commonly used by children to address an old woman.

  • 1 lb. potatoes
  • 1/4-1/3 cup oil
  • 3-6 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 4 whole dried red chilies OR 1-2 fresh jalapeno or Serrano peppers, diced
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Peel the potatoes, chop them into large chunks and boil in salted water. Meanwhile, slice the garlic, cut the dried peppers with scissors into small pieces or dice the fresh peppers, and chop the green onion into very small pieces. When the potatoes are cooked, drain them, transfer them to a cutting board and roughly chop them.

Heat the oil in a wok on medium to high heat and add all of the ingredients except for the potatoes. Stir for one minute, then add the chopped potatoes. Stir the whole mixture, making sure that the potatoes are well coated with the oil and mixed thoroughly with the other ingredients.

Now, with the back of a spoon or spatula, flatten the potatoes in the wok so that they have maximum contact with the cooking surface. Allow them to cook for another minute. Stir the potatoes and repeat the flattening once or twice before transferring to a plate.

Laonai Yangyu (Grandmother's Potatoes)

Laonai Yangyu (Grandmother’s Potatoes)

Chayedan (Tea Egg) — Tea eggs are a popular savoury snack throughout China. I buy them on the weekends along with two baozi, as part of my breakfast.

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/8- 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
  • 4-8 whole cloves
  • 2-3 whole star anise
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 4 Tbsp. loose black tea or 4 black tea bags
  • 12 eggs

Place the eggs in a pot so that they are covered with water. Bring the water to a boil. Once the water boils, reduce heat to medium low and cook for 4-5 minutes. Remove the eggs and save the water. Once the eggs are cooled, crack the eggshells with the back of a spoon, with a knife, or on the countertop. The more cracks, the more designs on the eggs’ surface.

Add the remaining ingredients and the cracked eggs into the pot of reserved water. Bring this mixture to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer for 40 minutes. Turn the heat off and marinate the eggs further for two to six hours – and up to a day or two. The eggs will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.

The dark tea concoction imparts a sweet flavor that will be carried right to and through the yolk and adds a sepia marbled tint to the white of the eggs along with the cracks.

Tea Eggs

Tea Eggs

A short video on proper eating etiquette in China

A short video on fighting for the dinner bill – something I experienced: I literally fought and grabbed for the bill, making quite the scene with my Chinese friend in Beijing

 

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