China is a nation of food lovers. And everyone has strong opinions about which of the country's many regional cuisines are the best.
So where do Chinese travelers go when they want to spend their vacations eating amazing foods? They head to Yunnan, China's southwestern-most province. This mountainous region might not be on most Americans' radars, but it's one of China's most exciting culinary destinations. Here's why.
Yunnan borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and the Chinese provinces of Guangxhi, Guizhou, and Sichuan. And it shares characteristics with all of them. The northern edge of the region actually sits on the Tibetan plateau; the jungles in the south look just like those in Laos or Thailand; and the west has the same beautiful karst mountains that tourists head to central China to see. From a food perspective, this means you can find dishes that range from yak hotpot to Lao-style green papaya salad to numbingly spicy Sichuan-style stir fries all within a few hours' drive.
Yunnan is also China's most culturally diverse region. 25 of China's 55 minorities live there, and each community retains its own unique foodways. If you head to the beautiful central city of Dali, you'll find Bai minority dishes like cold rice noodles topped with stewed chicken, peanuts, vinegar, and sesame sauce. Down south, in jungle-filled Xishuangbanna, you'll find Dai dishes like grilled fish stuffed with fresh herbs and chiles. And throughout the province you'll find Hue Muslim restaurants that specialize in flavorful beef stir fries and stews.
Cheese is not something you expect to find in China. Or raw, leafy salads. In fact, both were historically called "barbarian foods" by China's Han majority. But in Yunnan, both of these foods have a long, delicious history. At restaurants in Kunming, the provincial capital, you'll find slices of milky white cheese grilled with slivers of local ham, zesty chrysanthemum greens dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil, and even butter-based pastries that were introduced to the region by 19th century French missionaries (a different kind of invading "barbarian").
Yunnan is the most biodiverse region in all of Asia. The province contains half of all of China's birds and mammals and a staggering 17,000 plant species—nearly all of which might end up on your plate. Depending on the time of year, you'll find dishes made of ferns, young bamboo, banana flowers, Chinese toon saplings, foraged herbs, and even insects of all kinds.
This biodiversity also shows up in one of Yunnan's most famous foods: mushrooms. Every year the province produces more than 400 tons of fungi, like porcinis, truffles, and even matsutakes. There are also dozens of less familiar varieties, like golden "chicken oil" mushrooms or chewy "dried beef" mushrooms. During the summer mushroom season, every restaurant you go into will offer some kind of mushroom stir-fry. But if you really want a stunning meal, head to one of Kunming's many mushroom hotpot restaurants and order as many kinds as your budget will allow.
Cooks in Yunnan also cook with a wide variety of flowers. Depending on the season, you can find jasmine buds stir-fried with eggs, yellow day lilies stir-fried with garlic and strip of local ham (another of the region's most famous foods), and rose petal jam, which is used as a filing for pastries, spread on toasted pieces of cheese, and even sold by the jar to slather on morning toast.
Yunnan's most versatile food is er kuai or "ear pieces," a type of firm rice cake that is almost unheard of in the US but is famous in China. This humble ingredient made from pounded, kneaded rice can be sliced into triangular pieces (the "ear" shape) and stir-fried with meat and pickles, grated into long noodles for soups, or shaved into tortilla-like rounds and grilled over coals. Every preparation is delicious—novel and comforting at the same time.
And as if all of this delicious food wasn't enough, Yunnan is the only place in the world where authentic fermented pu'er tea is produced. The name of the tea comes from Pu'er City, where the tea was traditionally packed, weighed, and sold. But the tea itself is grown in Xishuangbanna, near the Lao and Vietnamese borders. Tea aficionados head to the region to tour tea plantations, hike to famous thousand-year-old tea trees, and buy un-aged pu'er at its source. But anywhere you go in Yunnan you can order a pot of pu'er tea and enjoy one of the most subtle, fragrant, and distinctive brews around.