Chinese regional cuisine: Yunnan - noodles and unique ingredients served up in Hong Kong restaurants
There is undoubtedly something special about food from China’s Yunnan province. Three Hong Kong restaurant owners hailing from the province talk about the ingredients they love, and how they incorporate them in their dishes
Yunnan province in southwest China prides itself on its colourful ethnic minority groups, picturesque landscapes and rich biodiversity. It is also a destination for health-conscious food lovers to explore, many of whom are drawn by the chance to get a true taste of nature. One thing they search for in particular is the province’s best-known crop: wild mushrooms.
More than 5,000 types of mushroom can be found in Yunnan – nicknamed the “kingdom of mushrooms” – thanks to the province’s regular rainfall and mild temperatures. Of those, 500 species are edible, says Winnie Li, a Yunnan native who runs the Ashima Yunnan Restaurant in Hong Kong’s Tai Koo neighbourhood. Raise the subject of Yunnan mushrooms and Li’s eyes light up.
“There’s a rule of thumb when cooking Yunnan mushrooms,” Li says. “Each species of mushroom has a distinctive aroma and taste, and a natural sweetness. For that reason, don’t season them heavily or overdo it when cooking. Avoid cooking them with ingredients that have strong flavours, otherwise their original characteristics will be outshone or even spoiled.”
Niu gan jun or Boletus edulis, a type of porcini, is beloved for its rich flavour and silky, crisp texture. It has over 50 varieties, with the black, white and yellow types commonly used in Yunnan kitchens. While this type of mushroom is available year-round in preserved forms (dried or flash frozen), it is most coveted in the harvest season of May and June, making the price soar.
“Each kilogram could fetch a staggering 1,000 yuan [US$160],” Li says. “We don’t buy until the price cools down a few months later. We persist in offering friendly prices so that ordinary customers, not only wealthy diners, can access luxury mushroom dishes.”
It is essential that the mushroom is cooked properly as it is poisonous if improperly treated. “It must be boiled over high heat for as long as 15 minutes to eliminate the poison,” Li says. “When our chefs deal with the mushroom, they prefer to thoroughly cook it by deep frying.” This, she explains, adds crispness and intensifies its aroma. For diners ordering the mushroom as an ingredient for hotpot, a mini-hourglass is provided to help them control the cooking time.
Taking advantage of the mushroom’s versatility and accessibility, Li’s restaurant offers dozens of delicacies that feature it. Li strongly recommends the sautéed niu gan jun with sliced dry-cured ham. “It’s simple, typical fare in Yunnan households and familiar to indigenous people.”
Yunnan dry-cured ham plays a supporting role in many local dishes, and local families make their own hams through the year. Ashima makes a variation of it, and near the kitchen doorway hangs a row of marbled pork fillets.
“We marinate the meat overnight in a mixture of herbs and spices,” Li says. “We found there’s good ventilation near the kitchen, so we hang the cured meat there, letting the natural air dry them. After two days they are ready to use.”
The ji cong mushroom, also known as the termite mushroom, is a rarity among edible mushrooms. Its supply is irregular, Li says, because it is a highly seasonal product. It gets its name because termites act as farmers of the fungi, contributing to its growth. The mushroom grows on termite nests, with its roots extending deep into the ground. “Interestingly, when you pull them with force, they withdraw downwards as if they sense a threat,” Li says.
The mushroom has a mild, chicken-like taste, and is best used fresh. “We simply stir-fry them with green peppers, or tear them into shreds before putting them in steamers. It is also often pan-fried with butter, which is also delicious.”
Yunnan mushrooms are named after their shapes and flavours, Li explains. For example, morels are shaped like lamb’s tripe, leading to its Chinese name yang du jun (sheep’s stomach mushroom). This famous fungi is snapped up at peak seasons, resulting in exorbitant prices as high as 2,000 yuan for half a kilogram. Hu zhang jun gets its name for resembling fuzzy tiger claws, while it also has the pungent, gamy note of the big cat.
The seasonal qing tou jun, known as the green head russula, can be identified by its green cap. Yunnan chefs draw on its aromatic light flavour and intense aroma when air-dried by using it in soups, with bold-flavoured mushrooms such as hu zhang jun and niu gan jun added as balance.
While much of the world goes wild for truffles, the favourite mushroom for Yunnan people is gan ba jun, or dried beef mushroom. “It is supremely fresh and sweet,” Li says. “I can’t put its flavour into words. But I’m sure you will instantly love it.”
She is amused by the preference for truffles in Italy and France. “[In Yunnan] it’s feed for pigs.” Because truffles grow on rocks that cling to the roots of pine trees, she explains, they are difficult to harvest. Preparation is also demanding. “We have to rub and rinse them repeatedly with flour, which could take hours.”
Over at a restaurant in Kwun Tong, whose name translates to Yunnan Old Friend Black Mountain Goat Rice Noodle Soup, customers gasp as a large deep bowl is placed on the table. Translucent soup with a milky hue fills the bowl to the brim, soaking the snow white rice noodles topped with slices of meat.
The woman bustling around the packed shop is Wendy Ho, who started the business in 2002 with her Australian husband. Their first store, hidden on the ground floor of an industrial building where the rent was cheap, specialised in Yunnan-style rice noodles, or mi xian. Business was quiet in the beginning, but the gamy aroma from their soup was so intense that it wafted all the way to the upper levels and out onto the street. People began to come in, following the seductive scent.
The secret is to choose the right breed of goat, Ho says. “We use the free-range Yunnan black goat. They are an athletic breed, roaming and running on mountains every day and night and feeding on grass only, so their meat tastes sweet, fresh, firm and tender.”
The broth is just as important in making a good bowl of noodles. “We stew the bones in a big vat every day. It takes four hours to fully draw out the essence of the bones.”
During Ho’s recipe experiments, she found that a layer of oil would form while stewing, but would evaporate as the stock bubbled away. Considering this a waste, she starting collecting the oil by skimming it off once it surfaced. Now, before every bowl of noodles is served, she adds a spoonful of the fat to the soup.
“The oil works wonders in scenting the soup, even making it more silky and creamy. You’ll find every bite of noodles consistently savoury as they are coated by the grease.”
It is a tradition in Yunnan that soup noodles are served in generous portions, Ho says, who was born and raised in the region before moving to Hong Kong. New customers are surprised by the large, heavy bowls, and more experienced diners choose a smaller portion or share with friends.
Yunnan has the highest number of ethnic minority groups in China, with 25 out of the country’s 56 groups found in the province, including the Bai, Miao, Dai, Naxi and Hani. The unique cooking and preparation methods employed by each ethnic community have contributed to the diversity of Yunnan’s food culture.
Ho, a Miao descendant, says she was brought up in a Han environment and is somewhat “sinicised”, so she has limited knowledge about the Miao influence on Yunnan cuisine. But she has fond memories of her childhood, when she would follow her father as they plucked mushrooms in the mountains during the rainy season in May and June.
“My father ran a rice noodle store in my hometown until he died. I used to help him in the kitchen and happened to learn some secret recipes,” she says with a grin. Her restaurant’s house-made chilli sauce, for example, is her father’s creation.
She also talks about a childhood sweet dessert she used to eat – goat’s milk cake – which she cannot find in Hong Kong. This Yunnan speciality is a by-product of fresh goats milk and has a tofu-like texture. It can be eaten fresh with a dash of syrup or chilli sauce, or served pan-fried. “I miss it so much that I’m thinking of replicating it in our restaurant. Hong Kong people will love it.”
Another delicacy often associated with Yunnan is “crossing the bridge” rice noodles, or guo qiao mi xian. The stories behind the name vary, but the most plausible one says that a man in ancient China was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. During his imprisonment, his wife brought him dinner every night crossing a long bridge. The food was cold by the time it got to her husband, so she invented a dish of chicken broth noodles that involved putting a layer of chicken fat on top to keep the noodles beneath warm. Later, people gave the dish this name to sing praises of the dutiful wife.
Luckily for those in Hong Kong, you don’t have to cross any bridges to Yunnan to eat it as it is available in the city. Yunnan-Style Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles, a low-profile eatery in Sham Shui Po, was immediately popular after it opened 20 years ago. Owner Yip Yuk-mei immigrated to Hong Kong from Yunnan with her parents in the 1980s and launched the business to make a living.
There were lots of Yunnan immigrants in Hong Kong back then, Yip recalls. “Many of them were anti-Japanese war soldiers coming from Yunnan and Kunming, and they missed their home and food.”
The restaurant’s inexpensive bowls of noodles are served in hearty portions. “The busiest time starts from 12.30pm every day when students and office workers stream out for lunch,” Yip says. “I know they need nutrition and energy to recharge, so I would heap more in their bowl.”
A Yunnan-style feast is not complete without steam-pot chicken or qi guo ji, also available at Yip’s restaurant. It is a unique dish thanks to the ingenious design of the clay cooking pot and its effect on the ingredients inside.
The pot is shaped similar to an earthenware basin, with a funnel-shaped structure in the centre that collects steam from a saucepan of boiling water placed underneath the pot. The steam rises from the funnel’s chimney and is keep contained by the pot’s lid, cooking the chicken and other ingredients for around two to three hours. With no water added into the soup and the lid tightly sealed, the chicken flavour is concentrated and locked in the container. Yip bought the pots from Shenzhen after vain attempts at finding them in Hong Kong.
Yunnan food might not be among the few most popular regional Chinese cuisines in Hong Kong. Yunnan restaurateurs, however, are all convinced that their hometown delicacies will start creating a buzz in the city before long, given that their healthy focus – the key appeal in the province’s culinary culture – resonates with many discerning food enthusiasts.
Three places to eat Yunnan cuisine in Hong Kong
Ashima Yunnan Restaurant, Shop 003-004, Cityplaza II, 18 Taikoo Shing Road, Taikoo, tel: 2560 9666
Yunnan Old Friend Black Mountain Goat Rice Noodle Soup, 35 Shanghai Street, Jordan, tel: 3483 6218 / Shop D, G/F, Kwun Tong Industrial Centre Phase 1, 472-484 Kwun Tong Road, Kwun Tong, tel: 3482 3328
Yunnan-Style Crossing Bridge Rice Noodle, Yuan On Building, 134 Camp Street, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2361 5002