There are few recipe books focused on Yunnan cuisine, partly due to the fact that some of the ingredients would be difficult to obtain outside China, and even Yunnan itself.
One popular dish is made from banana flowers [芭蕉花 bājiāo huā] which are often barbecued in banana leaves or simply stir fried. However banana flowers, and even their leaves are impossible to obtain in the West.
Rǔbǐng [乳饼] is another speciality served up in many Yunnan restaurants. Rǔbǐng is a firm goat’s milk cheese which is often sliced, fried and served with granulated sugar in which to dip the cheese before consuming. The nearest one will find in the West is haloumi, or halumi, a Cypriot cheese made from goat's, ewe's, or cow's milk. While haloumi can also be fried in the same way it is very salty compared to rǔbǐng.
Insects and grubs are also eaten, and are commonly seen on restaurant menus. Fried bees, grasshoppers and bamboo worms are particularly popular, though not to everyone’s taste.
Not all ingredients are so exotic. However some of the sauces are difficult to replicate. One sauce used in Yunnan cuisine is zhāotōng jiàng or zhāotōng sauce [昭通酱]. It consists of finely ground fried soy beans, salt, dried chili and spices including star anise, galangal, black cardamom, fennel and orange peel. One dish using this is Yúnnán zhá jiàng miàn [云南炸酱面] and consists of some noodles over which minced beef fried with zhāotōng sauce, ginger, soy sauce, sugar, salt & MSG is added.
Less difficult to make is Yúnnán lěng bǎn tiáo [云南冷板条] , a cold noodle dish consisting of flat rice noodles mixed with shredded cucumber, ground peanuts, chopped coriander and a simple soup consisting of water, ground pepper, chili powder, dark Chinese vinegar, peanut oil, soy sauce, and sugar.
However, one of the most famous of Yunnan noodle dishes is Mǐ Xiàn [米线] or rice noodles. The dish consists of fresh rice noodles served in a rich broth, often made with chicken, and topped with various condiments including chopped chilli, spring onion and soy sauce.
A famous variation is guòqiáo mǐxiàn [过桥米线] or “Crossing the Bridge Noodles”. Again the dish comprises of a rich soup to which fresh rice noodles are added. In addition a plate of other ingredients is served which may include raw vegetables, thin slices of ham, pickles, quails egg and tofu skin chives.
The name of the dish is said to have originated from many years ago when a housewife allegedly took a bowl of noodles to her husband on a long journey which is said to have involved the crossing of a bridge. However she found the long trek resulted in the noodles becoming too soft and the soup getting cold. Thus she devised the idea of creating a fatty soup whereby the fat on the top insulated the soup and prevented heat loss. Meanwhile she would carry the other ingredients including the noodles in another receptacle.
Pickles feature much in Yunnan cuisine and may be eaten by themselves or added to dishes. Old Grandmother’s Potato or lǎonǎi yángyù [老奶洋芋] is a simple and easy to prepare dish using just such an ingredient. The name is said to have been born out of the fact that the dish could even be eaten by toothless grandmothers!
It is in some ways the Chinese equivalent to bubble and squeak. Finely chopped pickled mustard greens are fried along with finely chopped spring onion and a few dried chilies before mashed potato is added.
Being a landlocked province Yunnan is not known for its fish dishes, though there are a few that stand out. Whilst prawns, crayfish and eels may be spotted at markets, it is river fish that is in abundance.
A very popular dish is served up by the Dai ethnic minority. Xiāngmáocǎo kǎo yú [香茅草烤鱼] or fish grilled with lemon grass evokes tastes less of China but of Vietnam and the Laos, both countries with which Yunnan borders.
The gutted fish may stuffed with a mixture of chopped spring onion, ginger, garlic, green chilli, fresh coriander and salt.The fish is then wrapped and tied with lemongrass before being grilled over a charcoal fire.
While pork is popular in Yunnan, as in the rest of China, chicken is one of the most widely consumed meats. Perhaps the best known dish is "steam pot chicken" or qìguōjī [气锅鸡]. It consists of chicken steamed in a special earthenware pot with or without other herbs and spices.
Of course one cannot hope to cover every dish that Yunnan has to offer in a single article but we hope this has wetted your appetite. We’ll be back soon with a few recipes.