For our family vacation, my father had one primary criterion: he wanted to go to a place like nowhere he’d ever seen before. The trip had to fit within his budget, the likelihood of contracting a gut-busting illness had to be fairly low, and the destination had to be challenging enough that it merited going now, before the aches and pains of age sweep it off the list. After a couple of years (years!) of deliberation and my brother’s design of a multifaceted, weighted rating system (no, really), we settled on two provinces in southwestern China, Guangxi and Yunnan.
Hear stories and see photos from the trip in this, my first attempt at an audio slideshow:
You might not know these provinces by name, but you’ve probably seen pictures of the limestone karst peaks pointing into the sky like stone fingers along the Li River in Guangxi, and you may have heard of Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, one of the world’s deepest gorges. While the southern part of Yunnan, which borders Myanmar, is low-lying and tropical, the mountainous northern part where we were rises toward Tibet, to the west, and Sichuan, to the north. Its cuisine is influenced by both those cultures and by its position on the ancient trade routes along which tea, spices, and so much else flowed west to India, Central Asia, and on to Europe.
In both provinces, “cooking” is nearly synonymous with “stir-frying.” Most every dish we tried had undergone some sort of transformation in a wok, even eggs over-easy (which turn out puffy and crisped on the edges) and apple turnovers (pure decadence). The fact that everything is cooked at such high heat is good news for travelers, since bacteria have little chance of survival when submerged in a pool of boiling oil.
Many of the foods we tried were reminiscent of dishes we were familiar with from decent Chinese restaurants in the States: fiery ma po dofu (tofu fried with red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns that gently numb your lips and tongue), stir-fried pork with snow peas, garlicky Chinese cabbage. Others were new: spindly lakeweed stir-fried with chicken and chilies, a crispy tuile of deep-fried goat cheese dribbled with sweet rose petal syrup, chunks of eel simmered with cilantro in a spicy, numb-hot sauce. The yaks that roam northern Yunnan showed up on our table in various forms: raw yak meat that you cook yourself in bowls of boiling soup, bone-coating yak butter tea, crumbly yak cheese dipped in sugar, grab n‘ go yak milk yogurt that you drink through a straw for breakfast.
As much as I love eating out, the real food highlights of the trip for me were the cooking classes and market visits we did. This is where I learned, for instance, that Chinese cooks cut everything from pig’s legs to scallions with cleaver, and that a fairly good one can be had for the equivalent of about $9 at the market. (Of course I bought one.) I reveled in the umpteen varieties of dried mushrooms for sale, the aromas of spices I couldn’t identify, the mounds of lumpy mangosteens and spiny lychees.
Our warm and knowledgeable teacher at Rice and Friends Cooking School in Dali, Luxi, helped us identify a few fruits we’d never so much as heard of: the spherical yellow ren shen guo (ginseng fruit), which tastes like a cross between a tomato and a melon; and wax apple, which is shaped like a baby red bell pepper but tastes like a mildly sweet apple covered in waxy skin.
A huge thank you is due as well to Tanya and Alex Wang of Backroads of China Tours, who made the trip possible in the first place, and our local guides Bob and Mr. Mu and our trusty drivers, without whom we would have been utterly lost.