I spent two weeks in Southern China in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan which rivaled Bangkok as a wandering eating paradise. I enjoyed orienting myself in a city for a few days, checking out a couple of temples or hiking in Yunnan’s Himalayan foothills. I spent time in four cities, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Chengdu. Kunming and Chengdu are standard southern Chinese metropoli, crowded, booming and oriented towards feeding their local population. Dali and particularly Lijiang market themselves towards Chinese tourists, but both still have plenty of local street food options if you know where to look.
Both Yunnan and Sichuan grow a variety of different produce, which makes the street food fresher and tastier. Fresh mint appears in all sorts of Yunnan dishes, including my favorite, Yunnan potatoes. In both Kunming and Dali, Chinese women stand on streets corners with giant woks of hot oil, mixing the ridged potatoes until they are apporpriately fried. For about five yuan, you can get a large cup of potatoes mixed with chili, mint, and other delectable herbs and spices. On a brisk late afternoon, this makes a great late afternoon snack or second dinner.
Mint was also integral to Yunnan noodle soup, which helped me ball on a budget throughout my China travels. One interesting cooking technique for making noodle soup was putting the mint, noodles and sprouts into a wicker basket, then plunging the basket into a giant vat of boiling broth. If you want to feel at one with the peasantry, this most Maoist of meals ready for a long march.
But noodle soup is boring and functional. Sometimes you want to splurge on a variety of flavors. One great option is Chinese barbecue. I found a great spot in Lijiang thanks to two friends I made at my guesthouse. One was a fellow great eater, a man from Shanxi province who had moved to Lijiang looking to start a business. With the crew cut style of an ex-Red Army, he was an avid hunter and eater of animals. The barbecue joint he pointed me towards was typical in style, a family of three setting up grill with a small one room open-air store for customers to sit. They offered all sorts of meat and vegetables on skewers, which you could then pick out for eating. And when I say all sorts I mean bacon, octopus, chicken hearts, chicken feet, lotus root, green onions, eggplant, beef, lamb, quail eggs…the list goes on. Everything was spiced with a delcious mix of cumin, chili powder and flower pepper. Squatting down on stools with a Tsingtao or Dali beer, this feast made for a perfect nightcap after a day of biking around to various villages. You can even get oysters!
Sichuan’s food has the reputation for being China’s best. To one-up Chinese BBQ, Sichuan offers a special kind of shao kao, where the BBQ is deep fried first and then grilled. The results are unsurprisingly delicious although afterwards you feel somewhat unclean (probably because the oil hasn’t been changed since the late Ming dynasty.) The ultimate shao kaoed item was this fish, appropriately Sichuaned out with chilies.
So if you go to China, don’t spend all your time in fancy restaurants. Make sure to pick something up from street vendors. You won’t regret it. Unless you get really really sick.