Just what exactly is Yunnan cuisine?
The diversity of province's cooking makes it difficult to identify
Three years ago, on British television's University Challenge, contestants were asked to name a province in China beginning with "Y". They were unable to answer the question. For foodie travellers familiar with Yunnan, the country's most southwesterly province, a further question is often raised: How would you define its cuisine? Does it have an identity that's as distinctive as, say, Sichuan cuisine?
What is distinctive about Yunnan is not only its extremely varied topography and climate, but also its demographics. Of the country's 55 classified ethnic minorities, 51 can be found in Yunnan, and some live only in this province. Many have their own cooking styles, such as the hot and sour of Dai (around Jinghong), and the spice-rich dishes of the Naxi, who are concentrated around the beautiful old city of Lijiang.
"I think we have many rather than one type of Yunnanese cuisine, as each ethnic group has passed down over the years, from mother to daughter, different styles of food and cooking," says Aw Hwee Ling, manager and co-owner of the award-winning boutique hotel Bivou in Shuhe, just outside Lijiang. She adds, however, that many of these cooking styles are influenced by neighbouring regions. Dai cooking is similar to that of northern Thailand, for example. Naxi and Bai are in several ways close to the cooking of neighbouring Sichuan province; and the Tibetan food of the north around Zhongdian (Shangri-La) is straight from Tibet.
Cornell Wu, from Kunming, who studied at IFT in Macau and is currently taking a master of tourism programme at Monash University in Melbourne, says the multicultural background of Yunnan makes it necessary to classify local Chinese cuisine into different sub-varieties. He mentions Dian (after the province's ancient name) cuisine, a term which is used to describe the food of Kunming as well as various other parts of the province. He cites Cross the Bridge Noodles from Mengzi county, roast duck from Yiling county, and ham from Xuanwei county. He also mentions the wild mushrooms found in the mountainous, forested parts of the province, for which it is famous. We could also add to this list the bounty of wild herbs and edible ferns, many of which are unique to Yunnan, or even to a particular region of Yunnan.
Certainly, the sense of place is very important. Long-time resident Linda Chia, from Australia, who helps producers to achieve export-quality products, such as local cheese, says: "Yunnan has distinctive produce - but not a cuisine." She doesn't believe that locals relate to something such as a Yunnan/Dian cuisine.
Andrew Chen, a heritage management graduate from Yiliang, went to boarding school in Kunming, just one hour away. But he refused to eat the noodles there, citing their inferior quality, and waited until he was on a home visit to eat them. Xuanwei might be regarded as the best place for ham, but chef Zhang Lifen, who lives and works in Dali, believes the best is from her home town of Luxi. Others now think the pigs raised by the banks of Nujiang river, on the upper stretch of the Mekong as its passes the narrow gorges near Lijiang, produce the best.
What's striking here is that we're discussing the daily practices of selecting, cooking and eating food, largely seasonally, as opposed to a coherent body of dishes, the sum of which becomes greater than the component parts. Luxi Yuan, from Sichuan province, runs a cooking school in Dali, Rice & Friends, which also offers culinary tours. She says there is such a thing as Yunnan cuisine.
"It is just hard to conclude what exactly it is, since it is so diverse. Or maybe we can put it this way: there are many cuisines in Yunnan!"
Others argue that even though there might be a Dian cuisine, it just isn't good enough to be called a cuisine. Hong Kong importer of wild mushrooms, Nelson Wong, takes this view. He and his sister, Winnie, inherited Luen Kee Hoo, originally Hong Kong's largest garlic business, from their grandfather. In 2003 they began to import Yunnan mushrooms and Wong travels there frequently.
"There isn't much variety in terms of Yunnan ways of cooking," he says. "With such good quality of wild produce, I hate to say that the natural flavours of ingredients are buried by chilli hotness."
Cantonese and Sichuan people, in particular, don't believe that Yunnan chefs can cook, but can only eat.
Ida Chow, a Malaysian Chinese who owns a holiday home at one of the Banyan Tree properties in Yunnan, does not think there are many good restaurants outside five-star properties. The local restaurants, she says, are quite simple, serving local fare. "They cater to normal tourists who want simple Chinese food with local ingredients at low prices," Chow says. Hong Kong restaurateur Lau Kin Wai, who runs both Sichuan restaurant Yellow Door Kitchen and Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant Kin's Kitchen, says he finds Yunnan cooking too simple.
"They have more than 800 different wild mushrooms, but they have fewer than 10 ways to cook them," he says. "I think the most significant change in Yunnan food in the past 20 years is the big influence of Cantonese cooking. I don't think it is a good phenomenon."
Certainly, in Kunming the "star" restaurants are likely to be Cantonese or Sichuan, and even in "ethnic" restaurants, food provision has become rather mixed up. While Wu says that most Han Chinese in Yunnan enjoy some of the cooking of the ethnic minorities, particularly Dai and Hani, rapid tourism development is commoditising ethnic minority cultures, with ethnic restaurants often run by Han people rather than members of the minority.
In a very successful Naxi restaurant in Shuhe, Tian Han Ge, the famous Dai rice cooked in bamboo, and Cantonese-style fried fish, are served alongside traditional Naxi dishes such as lentil jelly and black pudding dipped in dried ground chilli. Dishes of neighbouring Myanmar are showing up on menus, as are Thai dishes, not to mention Western food. The Mei Mei café in Jinghong, Dai territory, is owned by a Bai woman from Dali whose chef is Akha, and kitchen staff are variously Bulang, Akha and Jinuo.
Market demands are changing, too, putting culinary provision into a state of flux. Where once no one would have dreamed of eating mushrooms out of season (the season typically runs from July to September), and eschew dried ones altogether, Tony Xiong, executive sous chef at the fashionable Angsana Fuxian Lake resort, says he is now required to flash-freeze mushrooms as visiting wealthy urbanites like to enjoy them all year round. Traditional preparation sees them fried with pieces of dried chilli, a piece of fatty ham, garlic and a few local green chillies in a process which takes about five minutes. Meanwhile, Xiong, who moved to Yunnan from Chongqing, is often asked to prepare them with foie gras.
Annabel Jackson is the co-author of The Yunnan Cookbook - Recipes from China's Land of Ethnic Diversity