A flavour punch in remote China

Sitting on the China-Tibet border, Yunnan province is home to uniquely flavoursome food.

Australia's most popular food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, samples the rural delicacies on offer in China's Yunnan province.

I am often asked if I ever worry that I’ll run out of things to blog about. With food, I don’t imagine that I’ll ever run out of things to write about. It’s a topic that is full of discovery.  Even if you picked one cuisine to write about for the rest of your life, you’d never run out of things to say.

A lot of the Chinese cuisine in Western cities are based on Cantonese cuisine, which is why I’m so excited to be in the Yunnan province, an enormous area that stretches all the way up to Tibet. The north of Yunnan gets so cold that truffles are grown there, while the south in Xishuangbanna (zish-wun-banna) is distinctly tropical. Here, the Dai people (a minority ethnic tribe of people similar to Thais or Laotians) coexist with Yao and Yi tribespeople.

The day starts at 9am with a tour arranged for us by the Anantara Hotel as we take the two-hour drive to the Sky Tree Park, an area that has become a popular tourist attraction. Your reverie may be broken with flocks of tourists and leaders wielding megaphones. Some cross the swaying, rickety bridge, which is not for the faint hearted. I suffer vertigo so I wait downstairs on the canopy floor and watch as a Yunnanese version of a food truck unpacks and sells soup noodle to the workers and staff. The food looks and smells so good and I rue the early morning workout and light breakfast.

Not far away from here is a local restaurant where we’ll have one of the best meals of the trip. We were warned that it wasn’t glamorous by any standards. Indeed, the Anantara Hotel had packed us filled baguettes, fruit and juice for lunch, but we are utterly charmed by the idea of visiting a local rural restaurant. The first place is full and turns us away, but the second place with its very unassuming decor and friendly shirtless patrons waving “Ni hao!” is more welcoming, and our hunger beckons.

This is a Yao restaurant with food from the Yao ethnic tribe. The Dai, Yao and Yi tribes live together quite peacefully with the only conflicts coming from property disagreements or if crops are destroyed or eaten by the animals from a neighbouring tribe. Yai people plant indigo, which they use to dye white cloth a  dark blue. We take a look around the restaurant and directly opposite the fridge is an adorable baby girl sleeping on the single bed. Pet dogs patter in and out and we take a look at the fridge. Our guide Anapa orders for us. Everything is wonderfully fresh and, while others had reservations about eating here, these misgivings are quickly dashed.

We peer into the rustic kitchen. Little dogs jump around hoping for scraps. They are lightly tapped to get out of the way by a cook’s foot. The beers are sizeable (550 mls) and full of flavour. The smells coming from the kitchen are tempting. Before long, the plates of food are set down in front of us. First is the tiny little pea-shaped eggplant, similar to the slightly bitter Thai eggplant.

The fried fish are small river fish that are deep fried and to be eaten bones and all. They remind me exactly of a fish dish that my mother made for me with whiting when I was little.

Graph for A flavour punch in remote China

I thought that the eggs and tomato would be a basic scrambled-egg dish, but this isn’t at all. It’s a flavour powerhouse and perfectly seasoned and there are murmurs of this being the best meal on trip under $200. Indeed the whole meal ends up costing 600 yuan, which is about $100 for 10 people.

On our way back, we stop by some people selling mushrooms and honey on the side of the road. The honey is sold in plastic 1.25 litre containers and some is collected from bees that build nests on branches. Our guide tells us the price-80Yuan or ($12) a litre, twice its normal price. The mushrooms must also be consumed on the day of purchase or they become poisonous.

About 10 minutes away from the resort is the local market. We watch as an adorable boy pretends to drive his American-style tank car while his cherubic baby sister looks on. Even thought the locals in Xishuangbanna don’t often see foreigners, they’re incredibly friendly, stopping and posing for photographs and waving.

The food market that we’re visiting is a market that caters for locals and the hotel doesn’t buy the food from here. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating experience. Alongside baskets of mangosteen, twigged lychees and rambutan is a slightly tart rose red fruit with little segments, tasting almost like a citrus fruit inside. The stallholders offer lychees and rambutans to taste, and they’re sweet and delicious.

Graph for A flavour punch in remote China

Walking further in, the main part of the market is housed in a huge covered hall. Little children run from end to end, stopping to play with stall holders. Some munch on snacks, their eyes as wide as saucers. Others are asleep in their mum’s carriers. We see all sorts of unusual vegetables and large slabs of tofu along with yellow and white bean jellies sold in a solid form to be sliced up into noodles. Soft rice flour cakes are sold in rounds.

There is one stand with almost 300 herbs displayed in large wooden boxes. There are spices that I have never seen before. I pick up one that looks like a miniature log section and ask what it is for. They answer that it is to dry the body out and it is needed here because the area is so humid. Small spiky balls with tiny round holes in them are another unusual spice. Underneath the display of 300 spices is a cupboard full of a thousand spices...

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