The province of Yunnan, situated in the southern part of China, is home to more than 20 ethnic groups. The cuisine of the province commonly referred to as Yunnan cuisine is quite varied and influenced by the food tradition of each of these ethnic groups, as well as the neighboring countries of Southeast Asia.
Yunnan cuisine, especially that of one of the most famous towns of Dali, is characterized by mostly fresh, green ingredients such as locally grown vegetables, flowers, fruits, and bamboo. The moderate taste of the dishes is enhanced by adding sour and spicy elements that balance the flavor. Most dishes are very addictive, as their distinct aroma tantalizes the nose before you even take a bite.
Yunnan and Dali cuisine is also sometimes known as “Dian” cuisine. Mushrooms are frequently featured in most of the dishes in Dali, which tend to a bit spicy as well. Some of the most popular traditional Yunnan dishes are as follows:
1. Steamed Pot Chicken – as the name suggests, this dish is served in an earthen pot and contains chicken cooked with fresh vegetables. It can be made very spicy, but certainly delicious and healthy. The chicken is kept in the pot, along with the vegetables and spices, and steamed for a few hours to get the desired thickness and consistency. Served mainly with noodles or rice.
No matter where you’re traveling in Yunnan, you can easily taste this dish in any of the restaurants that specialize in local dishes, or hotels that cater to tourists. Yunnan restaurants around the world, including the US, also serve this popular dish.
2. Xuanwei Houtui (Ham) – if you are someone who loves ham or meat in general, you should certainly try this ham dish, which is very common in Dali. The recipe for this dish originated in the city of Xuanwei in north-eastern Yunnan, and over the years it has become very popular with travelers to Dali, and even some restaurants internationally.
Xuanwei ham is distinct due to its bright color, strong aroma, thin skin, rich taste, and tender, thick meat. It’s so popular and unique that it won a gold medal at the Panama World Fair in 1915. The ham is widely available in any of the shops in Yunnan that sell processed meat. Also served at most restaurants in Dali, particularly along Renmin Road.
3. Earthen pot fish – an ideal dish for fish lovers, this dish is served in an earthen pot, similar to the steamed pot chicken. Earthen pot fish is the traditional dish of the Bai, an ethnic group that lives in and around Dali. It is made from freshwater fish, usually caught in the nearby Erhai Lake, and cooked in spices and vegetables.
The dish is nutritious, refreshing and delicious, and is usually served with steamed rice. Sometimes, bean curd or tofu is added to the broth, adding some texture making it more palatable. Adding bean curd thickens the broth and provides the dish with a distinct taste and flavor. Note, unlike some other dishes on this list, the fish is not very spicy or hot, making it ideal for those with sensitive taste buds.
4. Bamboo Rice – a specialty of the Dai people, who live in the southern Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province. In order to prepare this dish, sticky rice is first soaked in milk or water for an hour or two. After that, the mixture is placed in a bamboo joint and a banana leaf is used to cover the opening.
The bamboo is then placed into a charcoal stove to cook the rice and to provide the mixture with a distinct, smoky flavor. Other ingredients include peanuts, onions, and vegetables such as tomatoes and carrots. Usually served with fish or chicken, this dish is available across Yunnan, but is best in the southern part of the province.
5. Mooncakes – yes, it’s true that mooncakes are found in places across China, but the traditional mooncakes that are made in Yunnan are very different. Yunnan is famous for its “rose” flavored moon-shaped cakes that are made from roses, honey, sugar, cooking oil and flour. You can find them in most bakeries and shops that sell pastries.
Special roses that grow in Yunnan are used for making these cakes, which are fragrant and crispy. They are mostly baked during autumn to mark the change of season and to celebrate the final harvest of the year.
Apart from the above, there are many other dishes that you can try in Yunnan, such as Erkuai, Pineapple Rice, Rubin, and the famous “Across the Bridge” Mixian noodles.