Yunnan Food according to Mei Zhang

WildChina > Mei's Advice > Yunnan Food according to Mei Zhang

Those of you who know us will know that Yunnan is province we hold close to our hearts (and stomachs!). We asked WildChina Founder and Yunnan native Mei Zhang to share some of the province’s culinary secrets. Many of the photos below were taken from her debut book, Travels through Dali: with a leg of ham which chronicles the food cultures of Dali.


Photo Credit: Elizabeth Phung

Yunnan food has never before been recognized as a school of cooking in the culinary world because as a cuisine, its transitional – sandwiched between famously spicy Sichuan food in the north, light and seafood oriented cooking in the east and fresh Thai flavors in the South.

Yunnan cuisine was always lost in the shuffle, in a very similar way that the region was to tourism until recently. The province doesn’t have the pandas of Sichuan, or the Terracotta Warriors that draw people to Xi’an. It’s much harder to access than Thailand in the south or Hong Kong in the east. So it wasn’t until the 1980’s that backpackers started exploring the area.

The food was always good and the province’s cultural diversity and natural scenery has always been glorious, it just wasn’t known about.


Photo Credit: Elizabeth Phung

But a jewel can’t be hidden forever and it’s precisely Yunnan’s transitional status that makes the region so fascinating and the cuisine so delicious. Flavors and techniques used by different neighbors are brought together in Yunnan cuisine, and the people have thought up a thousand genius ways to use the rice grown in the region. Here are a few of my favorite dishes:

Xiao guo mixian (Small Pot Rice Noodles)


This is one of my all-time favorite rice noodle dishes and was featured in Vogue’s recent article. It’s called xiao guo mi xian or ‘small pot rice noodles’ and is a simple and humble dish.

To make it, you heat broth in a pot over the fire and add minced pork, soy sauce, vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper. You then throw in a classic Yunnan mix of pickled radishes and a handful of chopped chives before stirring in a bowl of rice noodles.

Everything is cooked together so it’s very simple – it’s like the humblest noodle soup ever. For me, it truly encapsulates the soulfulness and earthiness of Yunnan people.

If you go to anyone’s house in Yunnan and say you are hungry, they’ll be able to whip you up a bowl of xiao guo mi xian. Because it’s so humble, you won’t often see it in fancy restaurants in Yunnan – it’s not thought of as something you would serve your prestigious guests. But to every local person who grew up there, that’s the dish you call home.

Rice noodles are highly perishable so you should always buy them fresh and not keep them in the fridge. Most families in Yunnan will visit the market at least once a day to make sure they’re using only the freshest of ingredients.

Liang mixian (Cold Rice Noodles)


 With the same ingredients as you used for xiao guo mi xian, you can also make a dish that isn’t cooked at all. It’s simply called ‘cold rice noodles’. Don’t add broth and cook your pork or chicken beforehand. Use a sweet soy sauce, sesame oil, ground peanuts and add some crunchy vegetables like julienned carrots, and cucumber.

Stir in cold rice noodles and add anything you fancy on the top to create variety. Adding shredded chicken is great and I also love dou hua mi xian, a vegetarian version. You just add a spoonful of freshly made tofu on top. I use a watery type that’s made locally and crumbles like ricotta cheese.

Guoqiao mixian (Crossing the Bridge Noodles)


No dish can have a name like ‘crossing the bridge noodles’ and not have a story that accompanies it. In the case of this rice noodle dish, it involves a scholar who studied fervently outside the town of Mengzi under a small pavilion in the middle of a lake.

Every day, his wife lovingly prepared a meal and took it to him across the bridge. However, it was often overcooked or cold by the time it reached him. One day, as his wife was preparing his meal, she accidentally knocked a piece of uncooked chicken off the counter and it fell directly into the pot of hot broth on the floor. Upon retrieving the meat, she saw that the chicken was cooked perfectly and that the thick layer of golden fat on the broth kept it warm. From then on, the scholar’s wife packed all of the ingredients separately, ready for him to add to the broth when he got hungry.

When he returned to Mengzi after passing his exams, the scholar told everyone he met of his wife’s discovery and the delicious noodles he had enjoyed each day during his studies. Crossing the bridge noodles is now famous throughout the region.

This dish is really just a fancier version of ‘small pot rice noodles’. I personally prefer the simple version but this one is better known and you’re more likely to see it on a restaurant menu. You can slice seafood into the broth for a more sophisticated meal.

Er Si


Photo Credit: Elizabeth Phung

Er Si is a type of rice noodle but it’s made using a different process so it doesn’t slip through your chopsticks quite so easily. It has more of a sticky and stringy texture and can be pressed into different shapes. You sometimes see it in chunks or it can be pressed flat into sheets called er kuai.

Er si is commonly eaten in the Tengchong area of Yunnan (close to the Burmese border) and if you head out onto the streets at breakfast time you’ll see vendors roasting round, moon-shaped er kuai on a hotplate. They will serve it to you after smearing on a layer of pickled bean curd, adding some cilantro and chili and rolling it up with fried dough in the middle. It’s pretty cheap – even now you can eat your fill for only 3-5RMB (around 50 cents). In the evening, people toast Er Kuai on a fire in a similar fashion to the way people cook lamb skewers on an open bbq in Beijing.

Pa Rou Er Si

The most famous er si dish, however, is Pa Rou Er Si or Rice noodles with simmered pork. It is normally made with a chunk of pork shoulder or pork shank and the meat is slowly cooked until it melts off the bone. You then add spring onions, er si, and cilantro to a broth and put a spoonful of the delicious melting pork on top.

I actually recently had this same dish in Northern Thailand when I was traveling in the golden triangle. I went into a local restaurant and everyone was speaking a Yunnan dialect and eating Yunnan cuisine. It was fascinating. I love to see how cultures and cuisines ignore country borders and this shows how a love of pa rou er si really spread!

Chao Er Kuai


Photo Credit: Elizabeth Phung

The last dish on this list is chao er kuai or ‘fried rice noodle’. There’s a recipe in my book, Travels Through Dali: with a leg of ham. All the ingredients are simple and stir-fried together in a wok. All you need to make this dish is er kuai pieces, fresh vegetables, dried chillies and thin slices of pork. It only takes around a minute to fry up and is truly delicious.

Since those first backpackers camped at the foot of Lijiang’s snow mountain, things have changed a lot. On a trip to Yunnan today, you can stay in high-end hotels like Banyan Tree and Aman and Hainan airlines fly direct to the provincial capital of Kunming from San Francisco. Yunnan food is finally getting the recognition it deserves and I agree with Vogue that it’s a cuisine you definitely have to try.