Food and culture in Yunnan

Yunnan is an amazing place.

Located in the southwest of China, Yunnan is mostly mountains, a geography that divided it up into a number of distinct cultures, depending on which way the transportation routes went.

I have been here for a couple of weeks. I came for a conference in Kunming that will start this week, but my reason for showing up so early was that Shenzhen was insufferably hot, and again, Yunnan is full of mountains.

After a few days in Kunming, I got a note from my very good friend Ma Jianxiong. Ma teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, but is one of those people I see everywhere: Istanbul, Penang, Jerusalem, and of course Hong Kong. One day I was walking around in Taipei, a city in which I assumed I would be fairly anonymous, and from behind I hear “hey Tom!” and… there he is. We went out and had noodles, and of course everyone in the shop knew him by name.

Jianxiong is from Dali, in the west of the province, and is a phenomenal source of knowledge. He told me to come for a big annual cattle market, which turned out to be not much of an occasion (the cattle trade is now big enough that these are held regularly), but in any case, I like the idea that people think that cattle markets are something that requires my immediate attention.

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Ma interviewing an old saddle maker in Weishan
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Traditional pack saddle, not for carrying people, but for carrying loads of tea
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Traditional draft harness

But it was worth it just to travel with him around the area (pro-tip: never pass up the opportunity to travel with a historian!). The way he describes it, Kunming (the current capital) connects to China. Dali connected to Burma, and Lijiang (the place in China where one is most likely to see foreigners with dreadlocks) connects to Tibet. That’s just how the mountains are set up. Ma took me to see one of the famous courtyard houses in Xizhou, apparently he and his cousin used to play there as children. This was the house of a famous merchant along the “tea-horse road” (茶马路) that connected China to Burma through Yunnan.

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The power of money

There’s a famous American scholar that says places like Yunnan were islands of independence, free from government influence. That’s complete nonsense. Yunnan wasn’t an island, it was a crossroads. Everything passed through here: goods, armies and culture.

Its this mixing and pooling of cultural influences that created the wide variety of Yunnan regional food cultures, and in addition to differences in topography, explain why there are so many local cuisines. Even a daily staple like rice noodles differs from place to place. Not just the spices, but the noodles themselves: Dali is known for a kind of chewy noodles called ersi 饵丝, which are like Korean rice cakes in texture. The western part of the province traditionally consumed a lot more dairy, not as a snack like they do in Kunming, but as a vital source of animal protein. This is why one of the earliest dairy industries was established in Dali, to make rushan.

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Oh there’s more to this story, so much more. In fact, that’s kind of what I’m going to talk about at the conference. Maybe it’s time to get to work on my presentation!

 

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