“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 shops. However, 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!
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.
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 Western–style, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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