Stalking the Elusive Yunnan Cuisine
The cuisine of Yunnan province, in southwestern China, has multiple personalities. As the northeastern part of the province borders Sichuan, many dishes are influenced by Sichuan cooking. But in the south Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, and there are also many ethnic minorities in the province, all contributing influences to Yunnan cooking. Yunnan cuisine (also known as Dian cuisine) doesn't get it's own place in the traditional four or eight schools of Chinese cuisine; rather it's considered a subclass of Sichuan (or Chuan) cuisine.
You won't find many Yunnan restaurants in the west. I don't think you'll even find many in other parts of China, though certain famous dishes, like "crossing the bridge" noodles and steam-pot chicken may find their way onto the occasional menu.
The first time I tried Yunnan cooking was in 2005, in France, of all places, at the Foire Gastronomique in Dijon. Yunnan was the international guest of honor at that edition of the fair, but while the restaurant the Yunnan contingent set up at the convention center had a large, impressive menu, only a few of the dishes were actually available. I did get to try steam-pot chicken (qi guo ji, chicken in a broth flavored with Chinese herbs, steamed in an earthenware pot), one of the iconic dishes of the region.
The next time I had Yunnanese food was last year, in Brooklyn, of all places. I was thrilled to discover Yun Nan Flavour Snack, a tiny place in Sunset Park that specializes in spicy homemade rice noodle soups. The noodles are spaghetti-shaped, and the broth, with your choice of meat, ranges from pretty hot to incendiary, depending on how you instruct them to season it. This humble snack bar is run by a charming couple from Kunming, the major city of Yunnan. Aside from the noodle soup, there's not much else on the menu, but the dumplings in hot and sour soup are fabulous. Thin-skinned, half-moon-shaped pork dumplings are served in a broth that betrays the province's proximity to Southeast Asia, as it has a tanginess more reminiscent of a Thai or Malaysian tom yum than a Sichuan hot and sour soup.
One Saturday afternoon, as I was waiting for my soup, I got into a conversation with another customer, who was born in Kunming. It turns out that he lives in White Plains and drives down to Brooklyn every weekend because this is the only place in the area where he can find a taste of home, and we all know how nostalgic the tastes of home can be. I asked him if he knew any place to get crossing the bridge noodles, which I knew to be the most famous of Yunnan dishes.
"Not in New York. Chicago, I hear. And L.A."
As I was planning my trip to Chicago this year, for the jazz festival, I did my research and learned that the Yunnan restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown is called Spring World, which also serves Sichuan cuisine. With a couple of confederates I headed to Spring World for lunch.
I was delighted to see an extensive list of Yunnan specialties and somewhat daunted. There were so many things I wanted to try, and there were only three of us. On top of that, the other two were not especially adventurous, so I had to steer away from dishes like "Hong Tashan" pig's feet with hot pepper, chef's special dry chili pork tripe, and spicy preserved pork.
I did order the "across the bridge" noodles. I was expecting the full treatment. The dish is traditionally one of those cook-it-yourself affairs. A big bowl of broth, with a top layer of vegetable oil to keep the heat in, is brought to the table along with a bunch of thinly sliced meats, vegetables, bean curd skins, and egg, which one adds to the broth, along with the rice noodles (the same kind of noodles used in the spicy soups at Yun Nan Flavour Snack). The soup is subtly flavored; it's not one of Yunnan's spicy dishes. The version I had at Spring World was pre-composed, and while pleasant, it was hardly the highlight of the meal. Spring World also serves steam-pot chicken, but I figured one soup dish would be sufficient.
The Yunnan pork ribs were excellent, though a bit scant in the meat department. They had a dry spice coating that included cumin and chili and reminded me of the cumin-coated lamb dishes I've had in Sichuan restaurants. The other Yunnan dish we ordered was not excellent--it was stellar. Simply called "spicy baby chicken with ginger and pepper," it could easily have been called "amazing chicken" if that name was not already taken by another, much less amazing, Chinese dish. Though I'm not sure what they mean by baby chicken, the dish consisted of diced, very tender, very flavorful meat with a seductive spice blend that included fresh ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies; something else--I think preserved brown bean--gave it a savory edge. I think Spring World is definitely in the same class as some of Flushing and Manhattan's best Chinese restaurants, and if I lived in Chicago I would be a regular. I'm dying to try more of their menu. Indeed, for a Chinese-food fanatic like me, this restaurant alone could make Chicago a worthy destination.
I learned about Z&Y Garden in San Francisco's Chinatown from Robert Lauriston. He was going to review it for S.F. Weekly and had asked me what I knew about Yunnan cuisine. I told him that crossing the bridge noodles and steam-pot chicken were the iconic dishes, and eagerly anticipated his review. Robert wasn't thrilled with the Yunnan offerings, but he thought their Sichuan dishes, which predominated the menu, were quite good.
I rarely find myself in the L.A. area, but that may be the most fertile hunting ground for Yunnan cuisine, as there is a group of related Yunnan restaurants in San Gabriel, Monterey Park, and Hacienda Heights (Yunnan/Yun Chuan Garden). I just may have spend a week in Southern California. But first I have to get over my fear of driving.
Yun Nan Flavour Snack, 775 49th Street, Brooklyn, NY
Spring World, 2109 South China Place, Chicago, IL
Z&Y Garden, 655 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA