Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation

Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. A villager in Yunnan preparing Nukian fish.
A villager in Yunnan preparing Nukian fish.

What ultimately gave me that sought-after enlightenment wasn’t any of the above, but a deceptively small ingredient common to most Yunnan cuisine – the Yunnan chillies.

Traveling, especially the extended kind, is often said to be perspective altering. A sunrise here and an encounter there throws the unexpected travellers off on a tangent forever changing their beliefs. The interesting thing is, we never know where, when, and how it will occur.

We anticipate it like a practicing monk awaiting for the moment of enlightenment, but it rarely occurs when we are actually expecting it. We arrive at that postcard location only to find swarms of tourists photographing other tourists. And for $39.99 we can also have our turn at dressing in local costumes partaking in their “daily activities”.

Instead, those revelations often happen under the most ordinary situations when least expected. Take Yunnan as an example. When I was getting ready for a trip to Yunnan, I was prepared to be overwhelmed by the splendour of its landscapes, its ethnic diversities, and its traditional architectures.

Armed with a camera and some local knowledge, I was ready to fill up my memory cards faster than Madonna could fill Madison Square Garden. Little do I know, what ultimately gave me that sought-after enlightenment wasn’t any of the above, but a deceptively small ingredient in most Yunnan cuisine – the Yunnan chillies.

Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. The back kitchen of a local restaurant in Shilin, Yunnan. Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. A typical village restaurant. In smaller villages, daily ingredients are usually picked fresh in the morning. They are put on racks in the kitchen or displayed outside the restaurant. Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Slices of pork hanging outside a restaurant of Bai tribe in Dali, Yunnan.

I know my conversion is total and irreversible when I started scheming how I could take the spice through the airport security. The only thing left is to convince family and friends back at home the worthiness of my new fixation.

Yunnan, as well as its more well-known neighbour Szechuan, has been the spice capital of China since the imperial dynasties. Each region of Yunnan boasts its own flavour of spice slightly different than one another. Unlike the woody and herbaceous peppercorns or the slightly sweet and hot chilli peppers, there is only one word to describe the first taste of Yunnan chillies – fierce.

This blistering hot herb lit my sensory path on fire the moment it made contact, scorching anything in its way and resisting any attempts to be neutralized. After learning the prevalence of this ingredient in most Yunnan cuisine, I wondered whether I could survive the two weeks without resorting to instant noodles and Wong Lo Kat (a popular herbal drink in China).

To my surprise, the night went by without emergency room visits. And day by day, not only do I find myself getting better at discerning the subtly underneath that menacing persona, I start to see – and taste – Yunnan cuisine in an entirely different light.

Aromas, wild mushrooms and fish in particular, open up like never before. Flavours burst with such intensity and depth they start to take on an imaginative dimension. Even the multiple hues of red begin to capture an aesthetic appeal commonly reserved for paintings of the Old Masters.

I know my conversion is total and irreversible when I started scheming how I could take them through the airport security. For the last few days, I visited shops after shops to taste as much as my stomach would allow. Like a souvenir-hunting tourist, I finally found a few batches I could take home. The only thing left is to convince family and friends back at home the worthiness of my new fixation.

In hindsight, I feel fortunate to have been forced into this diet of non-stop spice long enough to acquire the taste. If I were to try this elsewhere, I might have just given up on spot and changed to something else entirely. And because of it, I developed a more intimate understanding of this place and this magical herb.

Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Wild mushrooms on display in front of a village restaurant. Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Left: Insects are part of Yunnan cuisine. Bamboo Grubs are usually fried for a crunchier taste. Right: fresh Yunnan wild mushroom on display. Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Wild herbs on display in front of a village restaurant in Yunnan.

Aromas, wild mushrooms and fish in particular, open up like never before. Flavours burst with such intensity and depth they start to take on an imaginative dimension.

The spices are most extraordinary when the food they accentuate is of top quality. And Yunnan is definitely not in a short supply of remarkably fresh ingredients. One example is the Nukian fish, a type of ray-finned fish found in the wild rivers of Northwestern region of Yunnan, Hengduan mountain range in particular.

This smooth-skinned fish features little-to-no scales with unusually fresh and tender flesh. Because it is caught from the unspoiled Nujiang River, locals often prefer it over other farmed species. The most traditional way to prepare this delicacy is to water-boil it with chilli oil in copper pot, preferably augmenting the flavour with sour cabbages.

Another Yunnan speciality is the wild mushroom, which is gaining international fame for its exquisite taste and health values. There are over 250 species of edible wild mushrooms in Yunnan, and that is more than half of the total edible species in the world. They range from common culinary ingredients to prized rarities.

Take the Ganba species for example, 500 grams of this mushroom can go up to 350 USD in local price before exporting to major buyers like Japan and Italy. The most common way to prepare them is to stirfry with chillies. They also complement other dishes nicely, like Yunnan steam pot chicken and sanqi herb, fish hotpot, and Jidou Liangfen.

Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Clockwise from top left: 1) Yunnan fried pork ribs with tea leaves, 2) Shuangse Niugan mushroom in Yunnan chill, 3) Nukian fish in Yunnan chilli, and 4) Nukian fish head and tofu in Yunnan chilli. Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Fried bamboo grubs and locust. Yunnan Cuisine: A Spicy Revelation. Clockwise from top left: 1) Yunnan steam pot chicken in ceramic pot, 2) Rubing (fried goat milk), 3) Fried pork skin, and 4) Xuanwei ham.

 

NEWSLETTER

Receive beautifully crafted in-email photo stories from around the world, direct to your inbox.

Your details are protected and will not be passed on to any third parties.