A Taste of China, Episode 1: Hand-Pulled Noodles in Yunnan, 9.15.20
A Taste of China is an online series in partnership with WildChina exploring the different areas of China through its unique tastes.
In the series premiere, we traveled live to Yunnan, one of China’s most diverse regions, to explore the unique flavors of China’s southwestern borderlands. Guide Frank Shan (FS) took viewers to Dali to observe the local tradition of hand pulled noodles, then we talked food and culture with cookbook author Georgia Freedman (GF), journalist and author David Eimer (DE), and Yunnan native Mei Zhang (MZ), founder of WildChina.
Full Video of A Taste of China: A Bowl of Noodles and the Secrets of Yunnan
Dinda: Today we are traveling to beautiful Yunnan on China’s southwestern frontier. It is known for its breathtaking landscapes and deep culture.
ZM: Dali is my hometown, in the middle of Western Yunnan. On the tea and horse caravan route that stretches all the way to Tibet. Because of its location and its topography — the 20,000 ft peaks and sea-level valleys — it shaped our food. Rather than try to define, let’s go to Frank Shan (FS) our WildChina guide.
FS: Wei Shan is one of 11 counties in Dali. Until now, it has preserved ancient streets and building of the Ming and Ching dynasties. Today we are showing you the restaurant owned by Mr. Su, whose family has run this business more than 40 years.
One 4-5KM long noodle will feed 300 people! 10 layers of noodles go on the plate.
And all these noodles will cost 10 yuan ($1.40)
Dinda: You’ve spent a lot of time in Yunnan. It is a region exploding with diversity. Why is it so unique in China and why did you fall in love with the area?
DE: The key word is diversity and you can break that down to ethnic and geographic diversity. Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse province in province. 25 of the country’s 55 minorities are living there- almost 40% of the local population.
There isn’t a distinct Yunnan culture. There is a huge amount of architectural diversity and religious diversity. Beijing doesn’t regard any group in Yunnan as a threat. One of the really interesting things, is that many are transnational people so they are spread into the neighboring countries as well. So many have a different concept of homeland and they aren’t defined by borders or frontiers. Because they aren’t seen as a threat they get more leeway than other minorities may get. The minorities move across to Laos, Myanmar, Thailand very easily.
Dinda: As modernization sweeps through all of China, how is Yunnan changing?
DE: (Domestic) tourism is evolving. They may have expected dancing minorities in their costumes initially but Yunnan has done a pretty good job of maintaining its diversity. Like Mei said, some cultural heritage is going. The sad thing for me is that the languages are not being spoken as much as they used to…that will have an impact.
MZ: ‘Who you are is defined by your ethnic culture.’ That is the best line I have heard. …to Georgia Friedman, (author of Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories from China’s Yunnan Province) why is Yunnan not recognized as a traditional Chinese school of cooking?
GF: There isn’t one (Yunnan) cuisine. Yunnan is the single most bio-diverse part of Asia. There are 800 different varieties of mushrooms found in Yunnan. There are over 6,000 sub-varieties of rice grown in Yunnan. There are lots of chili’s: dried or fresh…pickled foods are popular; some people pickle dark vegetables, some do quicker pickles, in the south and west you have pickled bamboo shoots. So, there are many things but how they are used can be different. It is the time for mustard greens now! There is also a lot of foraging in Yunnan!
I was introduced to Yunnan when I had a break in college and a friend and I took a week and explored Qingming.
MZ: What are some of your favorite dishes?
DE: The ‘crossing the bridge rice noodles’ were one of my favorites. I also visited some ham makers…they are slicing bowls and bowls with flavor. …One woman coats the bowl with ham and cooks it with potatoes and it is simple and amazing.
MZ: Yunnan food is getting hip in Beijing and Shanghai.
DE: Now we are getting better quality food than if these places opened 10-15 years ago. Like Plenty of Clouds in Seattle or Watersong in Baltimore…these are restaurants where you get a really high quality (product).
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