The Food Nomad – Scales the Mountains of Yunnan, Lijiang, in search of Culinary Gems
A number of stereotypes surface when we hear the word “China”. Often, images of pollution-choked, congested cityscapes crowd our vision. However, the story of China goes far beyond the industrial capitals of the East, and spans across some of the most diverse climates and ecosystems in the world. Yunnan, a province whose terrain ranges from snow-covered highlands, to misty Shangri-la canopies, contradicts every common stereotype we project on China. Home to 11 unique ethnic groups, of which the Naxi and Tibetan people make up the majority, Yunnan celebrates its diverse cultural fabric, under a crystal-clear, azure sky. Pristine landscapes, awe-inspiring scenery and well-preserved traditions make Yunnan the mecca for travellers looking for a soul-wakening destination. We recently traveled to the UNESCO heritage city of Lijiang to bring you snapshots of this mesmerising province, and almost didn’t want to return to Hong Kong! Follow us, as we weave through ancient stone-paved towns and heart-pounding Tiger Leaping Gorge, before scaling 4500ft to Jade Dragon Mountain.
Several ancient towns dot Lijiang, and Shuhe is by far our favourite. Conveniently located just a 5 minutes walk from our stay at Banyan Tree, this quiet little village is possibly the best preserved ancient town in Lijiang. Small rickety houses line narrow streets bordered by softly gurgling streams. The small streams funnel icy water from the snow-covered mountains, and are so clear that we can see the lush, green river grass growing underneath. You will find locals chilling bottles of beers and sodas in these streams. The nearby organic farms produce strawberries that tastes like liquid sunshine, and brought me back to my childhood sneaking ripe berries from my grandpa’s garden. There are plenty of little cafes and eateries for visitors to meander through, and stop for a bite or a sip.
Please note: Due to the nature of the weaving streets of these old towns, it is near impossible to locate any restaurants using a map. Hence, I have not included any addresses, and instead, would advice visitors to show the Chinese names to locals and ask for directions.
The name of this humble diner literally means “coarse tea bland rice”, which is a common term used to describe simple, everyday food. Rest assured, the food here is nothing close to bland. Comfort food reign supreme here. Make sure to load up on LOTS of mushrooms, as nearby Shangri-la produces some of the finest, and rarest of fungi. A must-order item is matsutake mushroom (松茸), a fungi so rare it could almost rival in price to the truffle. It only grows in pristine environments like the Shangri-la forests, and are foraged by locals after rain showers when these mushrooms emerge. Matsutake must be eaten within 2 days of harvest to preserve their intense yet fragile flavouring. I remember paying outrageous sums for this mushroom during a trip to Tokyo, so I made sure to load up on these during this trip, fresh from the source!
Overlooking a little river, and decked out with comfy wicker sofas, this simple restaurant serves up hearty local favourites such as scrambled eggs with jasmine flower buds and glacier ice-water fish. The latter is possibly the most peculiar fish I’ve eaten to date. Our server explained that these fish are raised in pools of ice-cold glacier water, and have robust skin and meat that allow them to withstand the freezing temperatures. The best way to eat this fish is with local chilli and herbs, to accentuate the freshness of the flesh. It came to the table looking like any regular fish, but our first bites convinced us we were on to something special! The skin is unusually thick and sticky with gelatinous collagen, and reminded me of pork belly. The flesh is robust and flaked into meaty chunks. Very unusual yet incredibly delicious.
Lijiang Old Town 丽江古镇
By far the largest of the ancient towns, but also the most commercialised, Lijiang Old Town houses the decadent palace (木府) of a powerful Naxi ruler, who was so in favour with the emperor that he was granted a vast household modelled after the layout of the Forbidden City. Lijiang Old Town is definitely worth a visit, although too crowded and rowdy for our taste. There is a mind-boggling array of bars and restaurants here, all tucked into ancient grey-tiled shop houses. Make sure to visit the Food Street to ogle at the fantastic spread of local eats, such as inky chickpea flour noodles, chilli-topped seared tofu and the curiously-named “fried cream fan” (炸乳扇), which is a crispy roll of fried cheese.
A local favourite, this sizeable restaurant is located next to the landmark waterwheels. Make sure to grab a seat on the outdoor verandah beside the little stream for some people watching. An ideal place to try local Naxi delicacies such as the “ba ba”, which is a savoury flaky pastry filled with briny Yunnan ham. This portable meal was once a staple for merchants, who travelled for months on horseback along the Tea Trail to trade with the rest of China. Yunnan is famous not only for its mushrooms, but for its cured meats, so definitely try the Naxi ribs, a salty robust meat served in soup. Another specialty is the “thimble-sized buns” – tiny bite-sized pork buns seared on a mental plate for that crunchy golden crust. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to spent hours making these miniature buns, only to have diners wolf them up in seconds!
N’s Kitchen 二楼小厨
For those hungry for familiar territory, N’s Kitchen caters to western palates with terrific sandwiches, omelettes and a hearty fry-up. This quaint little upstairs cafe has been a backpackers’ favourite for years, and is a great source for general tourist information. We loved the omelettes filled with ham and tomatoes, and couldn’t get enough of their fluffy, homemade whole grain bread topped with thick cubes of creamy butter.
潘祥记鲜花饼 – PanXiangJi Flower Pastry
Yunnan is full of lush foliage and blooms, so it’s no surprise that flowers are a key ingredient in its cuisine. The flower pastry, a delicate flaky treat with a perfumed centre of sugared rose petals, is the most famous of regional desserts. Delicately fragrant with a buttery, multi-layered crust, this is one of the most unique pastries I’ve tasted so far. There are many stores selling this delicacy, but our favourite is the Panxiangji brand. There’s a store located in Lijiang Old Town, and they bake these fresh in their onsite ovens, so make sure to grab a few!
Lijiang Insider (www.lijianginsiders.com) - Voted by CNN and NatGeo as THE best way to experience Lijiang, this adventure company offers private tours on vintage motorcycle sidecars and Beijing Jeeps off the beaten tourist track. Our guide, Kewen, was a true hipster who showed up wearing a tweed vest, cravat, dress shirt and ping pong racket cufflinks! Native in Mandarin, and fluent in English and French, he once rode his motorcycle from Beijing to Paris!
Chine Chine - Owned and operated by Kewen of Lijiang Insider, along with a few of his French friends, this super hipster bar / cafe is nestled in sleepy Bai Sha village. A great place to sip quality coffee while pondering over a fantastic collection of travel photography books.
Impressions Lijiang - Orchestrated by one of the greatest directors of all time, Zhang Yi Mou, the man behind the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, this spectacular outdoor theatre is set 3500ft above sea level, and uses the magnificent Jade Dragon Mountain as its breath-taking backdrop. The cultural show mobilises over 500 ethnic minority performers in a flowing narrative to celebrate the diverse traditions of each of the 11 tribes found in Yunnan.
Tiger Leaping Gorge - Work off any sinful excesses by hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge, along one of the steepest cliff-side trails in the world! The hike takes several days, so we took the easy way and endured a white-knuckle car ride along the steep river gorge to Middle Gorge for a 2 hour hike, which lead us to the mythical place where, apparently, the tiger leapt over the river to escape hunters!
Now, Go TRAVEL!