Thursday, September 13, 2012

Yunnan: Cuisine and Kitchen Of Its Own

Chinese Greens and Lamb Meatballs
Six years ago I made a trip to a less frequently visited area of China deep in the Southwest.  A week of eating in homes, restaurants, and street stalls left a permanent mark on my understanding of “Chinese” food.  The food of the Southwest was a far cry from the xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) of Shanghai, the Muslim influenced lamb and wheat noodle dishes of Xi’an, or the multitudinous small plates of Hong Kong’s dim sum parlors.  It was at times reminiscent of the Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, neighbors to the south, while also feeling inextricably linked to faraway cities within the nation’s borders, like Beijing.  The result was less a facsimile of Chinese and Southeast Asian recipes than a food culture uniquely its own.  This was Yunnan cuisine.

One night I would eat barbecued oysters slathered in garlic sauce and a cold plate of thousand-year-old eggs and fermented tofu doused in black vinegar, all decidedly Chinese flavors but somehow fresher, more straightforward. On another night the plates would trend more to the flavors of Southeast Asia- fried rice served in pineapple boats, lemongrass grilled chicken, and smoky mashed green eggplant.  Then there were the bowls upon bowls of Crossing the Bridge Noodles, a pile of meats, noodles, and quail egg in fragrant broth topped with a slick of chili laced hot oil- it is a dish as legendary in this region as the story for which it is named. 

Flash forward a few years and the interest in regional Chinese cuisine continues to grow within both China and the rest of the Chinese-food loving world.  And the Yunnan has finally been given its due in New York with a restaurant dedicated to cuisine of the Southwest.   

Cold Chicken with Taro and Tamarind
Judging by the Sunday night crowds on a recent visit to Yunnan Kitchen in the Lower East Side, it isn’t just me who is curious about the food of this region.  To be fair, Travis Post, the chef, is not Chinese, simply passionate about the cuisine and channeling that interest into this new project with owner Erika Chou.

At first glance of the menu only a few items brought back memories of that long ago trip- lemongrass chicken, charred eggplant, three kinds of fried rice.  A plate of perfectly spherical fried potato balls was so light they could have levitated.  Dipped in the accompanying vinaigrette I was firmly brought back to earth with the grounding balance of soy, vinegar, and chilies.  Lamb meatballs were plain only in appearance.  The seasoning was heavy on cinnamon and cumin a reminder that a Southwest branch of the Silk Road passed through the Yunnan, a delivery route for tea, gemstones, spices and other precious goods bound for India and beyond. 

Fried Potato Balls
But it was a monochromatic plate of chicken and taro that really caused a jolt to my memory bank.  The chicken was served cold, shredded and piled high above a cylinder of creamy mashed taro root.  A drizzle of burnt orange hued tamarind dressing saved the plate from being the color of paste, while a hefty pile of fried matchsticks of taro added texture.  Taro, chicken, tamarind- sweet, earthy, tangy- these were flavors I knew well.

Even in these times of frequent flying, so few people from America make it to the Yunnan I doubt many will be debating the authenticity of say, the lemongrass chicken as they might a soup dumpling from a Shanghai-style restaurant.  But those visitors to Yunnan Kitchen might recognize one thing: the menu there is its own sort of tour guide, a variety of thoughtfully arranged tastes from a land of many peoples, languages and customs not enough people get to experience first hand.  Maybe after tasting Travis Post's earnest interpretation of Yunnan cuisine they'll reconsider sticking to the standard tourist itinerary when planning their next China holiday. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell


  1. So jealous of NYC! I live in London where there's no Yunnanese restaurants. My experience of Yunnan food is limited to restaurants in Beijing but I'd love to see it become more prevalent in the west.

  2. Let's hope, Mr. Noodles! I'm very excited by the Yunnan invasion of NYC. Promising developments and excellent to see such a positive public response.