A landlocked province in the southwest of China, Yunnan, where 30% of the population are ethnic minorities, constitutes a very different culture from that of the Han Chinese. For me, it is one of the stirring places that hosts a gorgeous backdrop tailor-made for mystery and romance. This time visiting Yunnan further amazed me with its rich and diverse produce that goes beyond your wildest dreams.
Yunnan is a major agricultural province of China with the highest export value of agricultural products in the west, most notably mushrooms. The generally mild yet dynamic weather conditions of Yunnan, from its high mountains to flatlands, give rise to the flourishing growth of wild mushrooms. Yunnan alone produces almost half of the world’s mushrooms, with prices varying depending on the difficulty of harvesting and the amount of production. Morels, ganba (Thelephora ganba jun), and song rong (matsutake mushroom) are found only in mountainous areas 2800 metres above the sea level and are therefore more expensive price wise.
The rainy season typically runs from July to September, and my trip this time is themed with Yunnan’s mushroom harvest in the season of plenty.
FulinTang & Laibaoge
After receiving a kind invitation from gastronomist VV to visit Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, we soon decided to take a flight there and dash straight to FulinTang, a local restaurant, for a mushroom feast. VV is a Kunming native, and almost a mycologist as he introduced various fungi to us; fresh Boletus (porcini mushroom) should be golden once cooked, and jianshouqing (the gills turn blue-green upon touching) is actually a species of Boletus. Once again, we savoured the rich, tangy flavours of ganba, which is one of the most expensive of all the mushrooms in Yunnan.
At FulinTang & Laobaige, mushrooms are made into a delicious variety of dishes, boasting brilliance and dynamism with just a few tweaks. Some were particularly impressive: the Roasted Shelduck was exuberant of fatty tang, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, and served with a sauce similar to the Peking duck counterpart, or with salt and pepper. It’s not easy to bring out the fatty tang while keeping the meat tender at the same time, but FulinTang has done it.
Porcini and Steamed Rice in Copper Pot featured porcini mushrooms sautéed in goose oil and chopped Xuanwei ham. The rice was roasted over an open fire to give a slight crispness as if air-dried before cooked, which I particularly like. The earthy mushrooms and savoury ham formed a harmonious dance in the mouth.
Porcini and Steamed Rice in Copper Pot
Mandarin Fish with Green-head Mushroom was also impressive. The mushrooms and pork were finely chopped and put underneath a Mandarin fish to be steamed over a high heat. Then wrinkled peppers were stir-fried with mushrooms to bring out the juice and then poured over the soft-tender fish. A heavy-flavoured topping but not at all overshadowing the umami of the fish.
The most unforgettable dish is the Shredded Potato Cake with Ganba Mushroom, the bottom of which was a golden potato cake fried in goose fat and lavishly covered with almost half a kilo of the mushrooms and wrinkled peppers. Egg wash was poured on top to strike a balance between the mushroom and pepper, producing an aroma that was exotic and invigorating. Compared to a few dozen grams of mushroom you will be able to find if you are ordering from a high-end restaurant in Shanghai, this is an outright luxury.
The ganba, or dried beef mushroom, cannot be cultivated, and it turns dark brown at maturity. It takes its name from another food in the local dialect it is thought to resemble–marinated beef jerky. With concentrated, chewy texture and pungent aroma and flavour, this wild species is unique to sandy soils in Yunnan and Hubei, and commands prices as high as hundreds to thousands of RMB per half kilo.
The dishes were full of flavour and abundant with a plethora of mushrooms, enlightening me about why Yunnan are flocked with tourists during the mushroom harvest season and how the locals cook their mushrooms. Compared with artificial truffle oil in the market, Yunnan people know much better how to bring out the best in this gift from nature. This is the best ever dinner among my travel memories, making FulinTang & Laobaige a restaurant worth revisiting every year.
Each dish was attractive on its own.
Mandarin Fish with Green-head Mushroom
Ganba (Thelephora ganba jun)
Traditional Kunming Steamed Chicken
Cordyceps Flower and Erhai Fish Jelly
Shredded Jingpo Ghost Chicken with Cold
World-class Wet Market
The next day I went to the largest wet market in Yunnan–Zhuanxin Wet Market. Spanning an area of about 2000 square metres, it has a scale and produce variety which are simply unbelievable. It is said that in Yunnan, you can experience “four seasons in one mountain, different weathers ten miles out”. Seeing it with my own eyes, I could only be awed by the fact that Yunnan is such a singularly diverse place, not only biologically but also in terms of climate, topography, and culture.
Apart from mushrooms, other top-notch ingredients are abundant here, including Xuanwei ham (or Yunnan ham), which enjoys a reputation along with Jinhua ham and Rugao ham. Traditionally, the rear legs of the Wujin pig breed are used. Known for its balanced fat content, muscle quality and thin skin, the breed is also the only free-range, domesticated pig in the country’s highland, and has a fame equal to the black Iberian pig. Unfortunately, considering the three-hour drive it would take to visit the Xuanwei ham factory, I had to put this off until my next trip to Yunnan.
Thanks to the diverse climate and rich terrains, Yunnan is alive with a colourful range of fruits and fungi: sweet, succulent Niagara grapes; luscious blueberries grown under temperate weather conditions up the regional mountains; dried wild mushrooms sealed in oil. You can spend a whole day at the Zhuanxin Wet Market and never get bored.
In addition to fresh produce, the market is a delicatessen and snack paradise. We had a spicy snack of the local Dai people–rice noodles served with Douhua (Tofu Pudding) with plenty of spice. Stirring everything together would temper the sour and spicy flavour to produce a stunning result. We already missed it when we returned home.
We also had the roasted eggplant salad, which is a Dai snack as well. The eggplant was roasted upon ordering, peeled and pounded in a wooden bucket, and mixed with Dai seasoning. It’s hot, numbing, mouth-watering and definitely worth trying. I’ve always loved roasted eggplant, but mostly in Japanese style. Now the more powerful Dai style has become a stronger competitor.
Pickled food is ubiquitous in Yunnan. But unlike in Northern Europe where pickling is necessary to preserve food due to the cold weather and limited production, Yunnan people use pickling to adapt to relative poverty due to lack of transport infrastructure in the past.
Rice noodles served with Tofu Pudding with plenty of spice
When the mushroom season comes to full swing in July, the sprawling market is redolent of the pretty scent of wild fungus. My friends explained to me that farmers would go to the mountains at the crack of dawn to pick mushrooms at an altitude from 1500m to 4000m or more, and arrive at the market at noon to prepare for the trading which usually takes place later in the afternoon. We visited the largest wild mushroom trading market in China, the Mushuihua Wild Mushroom and Flower Market. Many of the mushrooms are freshly picked in the morning, and sold to wholesalers in the afternoon in batches of tens or even hundreds of kilograms.
Mushrooms were amazing indeed, but Zhuanxin Wet Market is truly a place that you want to come back again and again. It’s clean and sufficiently equipped with hand washing facilities at entry and exit, and the sheer trading volume and product variety of the market have made it among world-famous markets. Kunming may have been overshadowed by the development of the western city of Chengdu in recent years, but the pursuit of gourmet food is not a matter of geography. With premium quality ingredients abound, Yunnan’s beautiful produce has the makings to nurture the world’s best restaurants.
We visited a local barbecue restaurant called Nibbles, which must be quite popular among the wealthy locals, I assumed, as the parking lot next door was packed with posh cars. The owner of the restaurant had a worktop for herself, five or six tables for diners, and the food served were all local produce, thrumming with vital, original flavours. We brought champagne with us in a portable fridge and sat on the benches in cool breezes after the rain as we savoured our “high-end” barbecue. A perfect meal to end this perfect day.
World-class Treasure Box
This time visiting Yunnan has made me realise that it is a veritable world-class treasure box. It’s been a long time since I went to a place where I felt so small, not insignificant, and not in a bad way, but small. Yunnan awakened this feeling and made me feel full of awe again.