Elephants are a beloved symbol of Xishuangbanna, location of China’s protected Asian elephants reserve. Statues of elephants can be found all over the city.
Back at the end of January I flew to Yunnan Province in China to visit some good friends. Yunnan is located in the southwestern region of China, bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma). This warm, tropical, and mountainous region is known for having the largest minority population in China as well as the richest diversity of plants and animals. People know Yunnan Province for its bountiful produce, especially its wild mushrooms (over 800 varieties!), Pu’er tea, and wild foraged greens.
I visited Jing Hong (景洪 ), the bustling capital of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), the southern autonomous prefecture of this region. Jing Hong is a small city by Chinese standards, with only half a million people. This city feels very different from other cities I’ve visited in China, largely because of strong influences from the minority groups as well as the surrounding Southeast Asian countries. In many ways, the architecture, the local dress, and the food reminded me a lot of Thailand.
The name Xishuangbanna comes from “sipsong-banna” which means twelve thousand rice patties in the language of the Dai tribe, the largest minority group in the region. The area grows a huge amount of rice, thus a very fitting name.
The pace of life is slower here. The streets aren’t as crowded, traffic isn’t as congested, and the buildings are much lower in height. Compared to Shenzhen, cash is still used a lot (though WeChat pay is available too, even at street stalls!).
I had so much fun walking through the local vegetable market. As I mentioned earlier, Yunnan is famous for its abundant agricultural products, and everything in the market was beautiful, insanely fresh, and super cheap. It’s like living in California, but with much more exotic vegetables!
Check out the cool conical cabbage or the prickly bumpy bitter melon. I’ve fallen in love with eating celtuce (萵筍 -“wo-sun”), the long green stem-like vegetable behind the pink radishes.
At left are numerous types of duck eggs, everything from thousand year old eggs to salted duck eggs, and even blue ones! At right is salak, or snake fruit, a sweet, juicy tropical fruit with a scaly skin that looks like snake! [close up shot of the inside]
We bought a ton of fresh tropical fruit at the market and had a lovely lunch of mangos, red and white dragon fruit, passion fruit, salak, pomelo, papaya, pineapples, persimmons, and jujube fruit!
They love grilling all sorts of stuff over an open fire. Picture above are slabs of fresh, flattened fish slathered with chili paste and herbs!
People in Yunnan love their noodles, and the rice noodles (mǐ xiàn米線, 米线) are fantastic here. Freshly made noodles are easy to get anywhere, whether it be at a street stall (mixed with your choice of “toppings”) or at the market for you to cook at home. There’s really no point in keeping dried noodles at home.
For me, it was a bit overwhelming to choose between so many options! Behind the counter the lady asked me to choose a noodle shapes (ribbons! ropes! strings!), plus a meat, a broth flavor, and toppings. After selecting from those options and receiving my basic bowl of noodles, I still had another set of sauces, condiments, and pickles I could add.
The fresh noodles were fantastic (I went for the wide ribbon-like ones!), and the flavors were intense, spicy, and very satisfying for an early breakfast.
The region is tropical, so it’s pretty hot all year round. As a result, cold noodles are extremely popular. One of my favorite types was simply called “Lemon Noodles” (sort of a misnomer because they are actually using limes).
The these “lemon” noodles were incredibly fresh, and the sauce was refreshing and flavorful, a combination of lime, cilantro, soy sauce, chopped peanuts, and chili.
We chose two different noodle types. One was the rope-like rice noodles (mǐ xiàn 米線, 米线), the other was a jelly-like noodle called liáng fěn (涼粉), served with ice cubes to keep it cold in the sweltering heat!
Gaozhuang Night Market (告莊夜市) is a really fun place to visit at night. It’s easy to spend a whole evening there marveling at the wide variety of food and goods available at the numerous stalls. The place is very clean and quite pleasant to explore, though it can get crowded as it is quite popular with tourists.
Bamboo, which grows plentifully and sustainably, is a popular ingredient in all types of food. They stir fry the young shoots and cook all sorts of things in its leaves. Pictured above is a bamboo leaf wrapped red sticky rice “pocket.” It’s mildly sweet and has that nice chewy texture that you’d expect from glutinous rice.
These fire baked “crackers” are light and crispy, reminding me a bit of Indian papadum.
There were sooooooo many endless rows skewers! All kinds, including seafood, various types of seasoned meats, pineapples, apples, potatoes, bamboo shoots, and more.
And then there was EVERYTHING you could imagine deep fried – including . . . . insects!!!
I have NEVER eaten a whole grasshopper, bee larvae, or a bamboo worm. I swear I would not have had the guts to try these were it not for the intense peer pressure from my friends, all of whom (for some reason??!) were quite willing to try.
I was definitely very, very resistant (you can tell by my reaction!).
How was it?
Well, they deep fry them and coat them in a pretty salty and flavorful powder, so the flavor is actually quite good, dare I say almost addictive? The grasshopper was the best because it was quite crunchy, not too different from the crunchy outer shell of popcorn kernels. The bamboo worm was nutty and a bit creamy inside. The overall flavor was mild, but the texture was a bit off-putting. The bee larvae was the worst. It had a stronger weird flavor, and was quite mushy inside. *shudder* I still feel squeamish thinking about it!
The end of my trip was rewarded with a gorgeous lunar eclipse. The sky was clear that night, and our friend had a balcony that had the perfect view of the moon. If only I had brought my 200mm lens! Alas, my food camera didn’t do too bad of a job photographing the moon!
Aside from the weird insect eating experience, I absolutely loved the food in this less-visited region of China. I loved the fresh rice noodles, the incredible abundance of fresh produce (especially wild, foraged plants!), as well as the vibrant mix of flavors from a richly diverse group of cultures. I felt that my time there was too short. I can’t wait to go back and try more of the unique foods of Yunnan Province!
Stay tuned for two more posts highlighting the cuisines of the two biggest minority groups, the Dai and the Akha.