Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Yakking it up in Yunnan

Fluffy warm bread. Goat cheese. Fresh cherries. French-fried potatoes. Hot porridge. Cool yogurt in a glass bottle. This is Chinese food? Welcome to Yunnan!

But, but...I don't like Chinese food! Or, at least, I thought I didn't. I definitely don't like the Chinese food you get in America, with its limp vegetables, rogue shellfish, and too-salty, too-viscous sauces. So, as our bus rolled across the Laos border and into Yunnan province, I worried. Would I find anything to eat? Or would I end up crawling bashfully into McDonald's at the end of each day, desperate for nourishment?

That's a negative on the McDonald's (though I did have a tasty yak burger in the mountain town of Shangri-la). Chinese food in China, it turns out, is approximately 100 million times more delicious than any Chinese food I've ever had in the West. It varies enormously from region to region, so maybe we just visited all the right regions, but I never had a meal I didn't like. In fact, many meals I loved. And what better place for this love affair to start than Yunnan, the most beautiful corner of China?

Our first stop over the Laos border was Mengla, a small city where our bus paused for an hour so everyone could find dinner. We only had about $3 of Chinese money from changing our leftover Lao cash at the border, and couldn't find an ATM, but luckily there was plenty of cheap food available. At a restaurant with a picture menu, we pointed to what looked like your standard noodles with pork and peppers. Turns out that that guy in the corner stretching a handful of dough was making the noodles fresh! First surprisingly delicious meal of China.

Breakfast on the street the next morning in Kunming--steamed pork-filled buns, or pao. Pao seems to be the one snack you can find pretty much anywhere in China, and it fills you up nicely when you've only got 75 cents to your name (yup, still can't find an ATM).
Finally cashed up, we find an old lady on another street selling these fruits. Free sampling is popular in China, and she lets us taste. They taste like cherries, my favorite! When I ask her how much they cost, using my best memorized Chinese phrasing, she gives me a price per kilo. "But," Andy whispers, "She doesn't have a scale." As if on cue, she pulls an ancient-looking, one-handed scale out of her shirt and weighs my bag of fruits on it. That is the last time we will underestimate old Chinese ladies, especially when commerce is involved.
Our first foray into a Chinese supermarket (OK, technically it's a French supermarket, Carrefour, but they're all over China and sell live frogs and turtles in the seafood section, so I think they now count as honorary Chinese) yields the following goodies: very cheap ice cream, fresh-soybean-flavored yogurt, and a cake. Only the cake is good, but it's all in the name of experimentation!This Kunming restaurant had really tasty-looking food, but no English menu. We must have looked pretty pathetic hanging around the entrance, because the staff went and found the manager, who spoke a little English and shepherded us through the ordering process. I ended up with a delicious cold-noodle salad with peanuts, turkey meat, lightly-cooked veggies, and a not-at-all gloopy sauce, while Andy ended up with a slightly less exciting noodle soup.
On to mountain-ringed Lijiang, where the minority Naxi people cook up treats that might seem more at home in Switzerland than China. Here's a typical breakfast of corn porridge and sweet fried Naxi-style bread.
Second trip to a supermarket yields coconut sandwich "cookies" (more like two Ritz crackers with coconut cream between them--not bad, actually), blueberry "ice cream" wafers (either blueberries taste like orange in China, or they messed the packaging up), and knockoff Oreos that tasted like burnt cookies with margarine filling. Maybe we should stick with the fresh food.
Ah, that's better. Warm, fluffy, Lijiang-style bread--not as dense as the Naxi-style, but still nicely greased. Beats the cold on a chilly April morning.
More supermarket experiments. Very cheap buns, which turn out to have nothing in them, and some unexciting veggie-filled dumplings on the left. On the right, a pink boxed drink that turns out to be peach yogurt (yum), and...walnut milk, which is delicious! Perhaps our grocery-store luck is changing.
The nice thing about eating at a night market is that you can just point to stuff and then see if your purchase taste as good as it looked. That thing on the right turns out to be made of fried potato and is kind of like a very crunchy Swiss rosti. The thing on the left is just what it looks like...a ball of sweet goo on sticks. I let Andy eat most of that one.
Here is a boat filled with sticky rice from the same night market. We are both looking at this picture now and can't remember for the life of us what the white things were.
Burned by the fake Oreos, we spring for real ones, which cost about three times as much. Asia has the most fun Oreo flavors--this time, it's green tea ice cream. Well, fun in theory, anyway. Like the blueberry ice cream ones we got in Indonesia, these taste kind of like menthol.
Yak's milk yogurt is sold all around Lijiang in lovely little glass bottles. You poke a straw in the lid, drink up, then return your bottle to the vendor for reuse. Environmentally friendly and delicious! (Well, I guess it'd be more friendly without the straw, but in China, free straws seem to be something of a national right. Shopkeepers were always foisting them on me. Apparently, if a lip touches a beverage bottle in China, the world will end.)
A few vendors were selling this weird-looking stuff out on the street in Lijiang. They let us taste it, and we determined that it is some perversion of honey. Perhaps honey that was buried in the ground until it crystalized? Or honey that was exposed to a chemical spill? All we know is that it comes in two shades--crazy yellow and crazy orange--and that, though tempted, we didn't buy any.
"Across the bridge noodles" are a Yunnanese specialty. They are made by dropping very thin slices of raw meat, an egg, and some greens and noodles into broth so scalding that it immediately cooks the meat. The story behind the name is that a woman had to bring lunch across a bridge to her scholar-husband every day, and this version was his favorite. When we move back to the States, I am going to get Andy to bring scalding-hot broth across a bridge to me every day at work--maybe the George Washington.
Some more Yunnanese specialties: sauteed potatoes (yum) and grilled yak on a stick, both of which you dip in a fantastically tasty, red-peppery spice mixture. If you don't know what a yak looks like, you can look at Andy's last post to see pictures of live ones (this here's the dead-ish version).
Speaking of dead, here are some skewered eel fetuses!
Hahaha, gotcha--those were mushrooms, not eel fetuses. What kind of barbarians do you think we are? Yunnan is known for its various and tasty fungi, and grilled up and dusted with that magical red spice mixture, these were very tasty.

I'm pretty sure that these dried and sugared disks are hawthorn fruit, which we later learned is also a popular street snack in Beijing. They're pretty good, and can stand in for pepperoni if you are making a candy pizza.
Mystery meat from a Lijiang restaurant. Maybe yak? Neither of us can remember what this was, but you can bet that we dipped it in that spicy red powder you see in the corner.
Same restaurant--this one was some kind of smoked pork. Very delicious.
Final dish from that dinner: fried goat cheese! Another Naxi specialty. I was surprised when it came with a little bowl of sugar for dipping, and even more surprised when dipping the cheese in the sugar improved it considerably. Those Naxi are on to something.
The magical Yunnanese seasoning that makes everything delicious. Where can I buy this stuff?

I took myself out to dinner while Andy was hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. Since he had the camera, he told me to make sure to draw a picture of anything interesting I ate. My rice noodles with yak meat weren't so exciting, but this tasty coconut drink I had sure was!
How was I to know that you can find this drink all over China, and that we'd be able to take a picture of it the very next day?
On to Shangri-la, and a harder drink. Chinese beer is pretty weak, with only around 3% alcohol, meaning that even a wimp like me can down a giant bottle without getting too drunk.
Giant yak-burgers all around! Strangely, yak sometimes tasted like beef to us (as in this burger), but sometimes was much more like chicken (like in those kebabs earlier). Either different cuts of yak taste very different, or some of the meat we ate was counterfeit yak. But if it wasn't, I don't like to think too far in this direction.
In case you were too lazy to click over to Andy's post, here's a picture of live yak and not-so-live yak together. Supermarkets in Yunnan sell about 20 different varieties of vacuum-packed dried yak (say that five times fast), and since we can't read Chinese, we could only decide which one to buy by package color. Red was pretty good.
We will call this dish "lunch-stop pork," because we had it twice at different roadside eateries on the long bus rides from Shangri-la to Deqin and back. The pork is cooked in a lot of spicy oil with a bunch of green peppers and is insanely delicious.
Our lovely Tibetan driver to the Mingyong Glacier took us to his house after for walnuts and Tibetan barley whiskey. You may conclude from the size of this jug that Tibetans drink quite a lot of it. He smirkingly poured us each a large teacupful and sat back to watch (he still had to drive us home) what would transpire. Andy passed, of course, so the honor of the team rested with me as I drained my cup o'booze. I thought I was holding it together pretty well until I started to lose feeling in all my limbs back in the car...
Felai Si, the small village we stayed in outside of Deqin, has no supermarkets, so we were forced to continue our packaged-goods experimentation at the local minimart. Thumbs up for the peanut milk in a can; thumbs down for these brown things, which turned out not to be chocolate (but what were they??).
This dessert sounded so good on the menu: honey guilin paste. Turned out to be slightly bitter jello tricked with some dark runny honey. Even that description makes it sound better than it was.
Breakfast options in Deqin were rather limited, but Andy did manage to find a bakery selling this unique pastry filled with sweet whipped cream and topped with spicy pork floss. Well, it was better than the honey guilin paste.
Back in Shangri-la, we decided to have an all-out yakfest. There was slice yak rib meat...
...and yak steak frites. A big shout-out to all the yaks of Yunnan for feeding us so well during our stay there.
The next day began with porridge on the square in Shangri-la.
It continued with a sugary peach drink for Andy and some drinkable red date yogurt for me. Understandably, this is a much more popular flavor than the soybean one I had in Kunming.
Little round walnut cakes, made by machines that squirt batter into waffle-iron-like, semispherical molds, are popular in Shangri-la and Lijiang. The finished product is probably better when served hot (ours weren't).
Amazing French fries on the street in Shangri-la, dusted copiously with magical Yunnan seasoning. Lunch is served!
Back in Kunming, Andy buys snacks for the 36-hour train ride to Shanghai. Sadly, these sticky-rice triangles looked more fun than they tasted.
I leave you now with a shot of the classic Chinese sleeper-train food: Instant noodles! Every car is equipped with a hot (scalding, more like) water dispenser that people use to make their instant soups for meals. Bringing our own noodles on board, we thought we'd fit right in, but it turns out that most Chinese people like the ones that come in their own cardboard bowl and gave us some very strange looks for eating ours out of Tupperware. Ah, well--it's not like we were going to blend, anyway.
I was sad to leave Yunnan, where I liked the food so much more than I had expected to...but whole new regions of Chinese cuisine awaited me. As our train sped east, I was no longer afraid of the meals to come, but hungry.

1 comment: