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Kunming: China’s Hidden Food City, In 7 Savory Dishes

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea "cold noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea "cold noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Josh Wand

Yunnan may not be on most Western foodies’ radars, but for those in the know, it’s one of the most exciting food spots in the world.

The province, which sits in a mountainous area that borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichuan, is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. It’s also the most culturally diverse part of China.

For a quick tour of the region’s specialties, all you have to do is get to Kunming. The city is a lovely stop on any trip to China — it’s famous for its mild weather, its flowering trees and its laid-back way of life. A few meals in the city will give you a taste of all the best that Yunnan has to offer.

Here are seven particularly fascinating (and delicious) dishes to try when you get there:

Shaguo mixian

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Look for rice noodles at small hole-in-the-wall stands. Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

Rice noodles are one of Kunming’s most popular foods — but you won’t find them in fancy restaurants. They are served at little hole-in-the-walls and streetside stands. The most popular are shaguo mixian, or “sandpot rice noodles.” These noodles are put into individually sized glazed clay bowls with stumpy handles, topped with broth, ground pork, pickled mustard greens and dried ground chile, and cooked on a high stove. The dish is often eaten right from the pot. Try them at the unnamed noodle spot on Jieshao Alley, just off Qingnian Road.

Mushroom hotpot

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city's mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Yunnan is well-known for its mushrooms. Try them at one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

Yunnan produces 400 tons of mushrooms every year, and foragers crisscross the mountains looking for matsutakes, porcinis and summer truffles to sell to exporters. The most prized specimens end up in restaurants and stores in Japan, Korea and the United States, but much of the bounty is eaten right in Yunnan. Every restaurant in Kunming offers a few mushroom dishes, but the best way to try the local fungi is to head to one of the city’s mushroom hotpot restaurants. On Guanxing Lu, near Baohai Park, there are three to choose from in just two blocks: Laozihao Wild Mushroom Restaurant, Junshuyuan Wild Mushroom Restaurant, and Wild Mushroom Emperor.

Grilled rubing

Grilled rubing, a type of firm cheese, is grilled with thin slices of local ham, or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Grilled rubing is a type of firm cheese grilled with thin slices of local ham or served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into. Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

China is not known as a good place to eat cheese. But cheese has a long history in Yunnan. Different minority groups around the province have long eaten grilled, stir-fried, and toasted cheeses. The most delicious version is grilled rubing, a type of firm cow’s milk cheese. You can find it at Lao Fangzi, where it is grilled with thin slices of local ham, and at 1910 La Gare du Sud, where it is served with bowls of salt and sugar to dip it into.

Chrysanthemum greens

A tasty salad is made with feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

A tasty salad is made with chrysanthemum greens, a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and thinly sliced chiles. Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

Han Chinese also shunned raw foods, but many raw dishes can be found in Yunnan. One of the most surprising and delicious dishes in Kunming is a simple salad of feathery chrysanthemum greens dressed simply with bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and some thinly sliced chiles. It can be found at any restaurant specializing in Yunnan specialties (including Lao Fangzi and 1910 La Gare du Sud).

Ghost chicken

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Ghost chicken is a combination of black-foot chicken, chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

Yunnan’s most famous minority cuisine comes from the Dai people who live along the province’s borders with Laos and Burma. The Dai are part of the same ethnic group that populated Laos and Thailand, and their food is reminiscent of those cuisines, with lots of fresh chiles, herbs and chile-based spice pastes. Perhaps the most representative Dai dish  is “ghost chicken,” a bright combination of silky black-foot chicken, fresh chiles, cilantro, sawtooth herb and lime. To try it — and other Dai specialties like pineapple sticky rice and vegetables grilled in banana leaves — head to Yinjiang Dai Restaurant, which has three branches in central Kunming.

Liang fen

Liang fen is made with slick, cool jello that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick "noodles." Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Liang fen is a slick, cool jello-like food that is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

If you’re looking for quick snack — or just an entirely new and delightful eating experience — try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” These “noodles” are actually a jello-like dish that is made like tofu but uses ground chickpeas instead of soybeans. The slick, cool jello is cut into cubes or sliced into thick “noodles,” and dressed with vinegar, soy sauce, ground dried chiles and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s even topped with chopped nuts and a slice of freshly made tofu. The dish can be found all over the city, including at food stalls in Cui Hu Park.

Yiliang roast duck

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing's famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Try the delicious roast duck in Yiliang, based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks. Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand

Since the Qing Dynasty, the small town of Yiliang, just 90 minutes outside of Kunming, has been producing remarkably delicious roast duck. The recipe is based on Beijing’s famous method for roasting ducks until their skin is crisp and their meat is moist. But this version uses a local breed of ducks and roasts them over longs twists of pine needles, which gives the meat an exceptional flavor. If you’re heading out to the Stone Forest, a famous tourist spot, make sure to take the time to stop at Xue Cheng Restaurant.

Main photo: If you are looking for a quick snack, try ji doug liang fen, or chickpea “cold noodles.” Credit: Copyright 2017 Josh Wand



Zester Daily contributor Georgia Freedman is a freelance food and travel writer who specializes primarily in exploring Asian foods and cultures. Formerly the managing editor of the food magazine Saveur, Georgia is a frequent contributor to the Off Duty section of The Wall Street Journal, and she has also written for Afar, Roads and Kingdoms, The Art of Eating, Imbibe, BonAppetit.com, and other publications and websites. Having studied East Asian cultures and Mandarin Chinese in school, Georgia spent a year and a half living in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, studying the foodways of the region’s many minorities and chronicling her discoveries at www.chinasouthoftheclouds.com. She currently resides in San Francisco but returns to Yunnan and other parts of Asia regularly.

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