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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.