A taste for the old ways
Almost no one had heard of Lijiang, a city in Yunnan province, until an earthquake in 1996 attracted news media - which led to the discovery of a lost gem of an ancient city (actually, a series of them), still mostly intact. Some people claim that subsequent development has turned it into an amusement park. But while there are pockets of commercialisation - 'Would you like to take a photo with my falcon?' - much beauty and culture remains.
It's clean and peaceful, and easily accessible on foot. The dominant ethnic minority is the Naxi, a people whose cuisine is rich and pungent, and heavy on vegetable dishes using peppers and pumpkins and all manner of cabbage. The produce is extraordinary. Talk to a local about organic agriculture, and he'll say: 'That's how we've always done it.'
Winters are cold but ultra-dry and sunny - a time when meat is air-dried and green vegetables hang from everything from fire hydrants to bicycles, in preparation for being preserved. Vegetables are at their peak in summer, the rainy season; and early autumn is when wild mushroom foraging takes place.
The dining is delightful, and here are a few notable examples.
Ya Jun Xiao Chao Wang
For many this will be a first time in a restaurant featuring Qinghai cuisine. The floor requires constant sweeping, the air carries wafts of cigarette smoke, and it is noisy - but, oh my, the food. The signature dish is 'big plate chicken' - or, in a smaller group, 'small plate chicken' - but the name offers no idea of the complexities to come. This dish is basically potato, and the poorer provinces surely know how to make humble vegetables delicious. In this case, the quartered potatoes are slow-cooked in a gently spiced gravy of tomato, cumin, ginger and onion, and combined with diced chicken, long fresh green chillis and long dried red chillis.
912-5 Hua Ma Street, Lijiang. Tel: +86 (888) 513 9869
Qing Xiang Xiao Chi
Market stalls used to be clustered around the Old Town but the central market has now moved to the edge - although it hasn't lost a touch of atmosphere in the process. This is the place to buy fabulous dried mushrooms, packs of seeds and traditional yak cheese. On every corner there's somewhere to eat, and the rice noodles are famous. They can come served in the lightest and purest of chicken broths, cooked perfectly al dente, and topped with chunky preserved vegetables, minced pork with chilli, and spring onion. Pay just about six yuan (HK$7.40) per bowl.
Zhongyi Market, Lijiang Old Town
The restaurant at this 16-room boutique hotel is not officially open to non-residents, but if you look like a foodie and knock on the door, you will be let in. Or just opt to stay there. The large kitchen garden grows a huge variety of local vegetables, and individual roof gardens are planted with all kinds of experiments, to see just what types of herbs, for example, might flourish here. The cooking may not be authentically local, but the ingredients are - including fabulous yak cheese from Shangri-La, rapeseed honey, home-made cornflakes, and roe harvested from market trout.
16 Zhonghe Cun, Shuhe Old Town, Lijiang. Tel: +86 (888) 512 9449
Tian Han Ge
For Naxi cuisine, this restaurant hits the high points, set around a traditional courtyard - where various cuts of pork as well as sausages air-dry in the crisp winter air. The chicken soup is the ultimate, brimming with thick-cut ginger, black fungus and tuber chunks. Air-dried boiled pork is full of flavour, as is the black sausage, which tastes great dipped in a chilli sauce. One of the cuisine's most typical dishes is the pan-fried lentil jelly, topped with a thrilling medley of spring onion, Sichuan peppers, crunchy white radish and carrot, all in a chilli-tinged soy sauce.
Ren Li Lu Hong Yi Xiang, Shuhe Old Town, Lijiang. Tel: +86 (888) 517 8123 Sun Family Sichuan Restaurant
It might rise to 25 degrees Celsius at lunchtime on this February day, but right now it is barely above five degrees, and a great time for steaming xiao long bao. The dough is fabulously soft and moist, and the pork filling is completely integrated. This little restaurant also serves local flat breads, one being salty and stuffed with Yunnan ham, the other topped with black sesame seeds and stuffed with red bean paste accented with essence of rose. By the market and next to the Flat Bridge, Shuhe Old Town