Category: Food


Momos, jiaozi, ravioli, pierogi, gyoza, wonton – dumplings can be found the world over. There’s something about bite-sized pieces of dough stuffed with tasty filling that translates as “comfort food”, wherever you are.

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Given that the basic ingredients are so similar (noodles, broth, herbs, meat) you’d be forgiven for confusing South-East Asia’s noodles. To do so publicly, however, would be to invite debate, if not argument. Each country and region is downright passionate about its own take on a humble bowl of noodle soup.

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Whichever side of this culinary debate you fall on (and this is something that is well-worth researching), one thing the dishes below have in common is that they are simultaneously exotic and comforting, and – most importantly – utterly delicious…


1. Khao Soi from Chiang Mai

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 9.42.07 AMTake a bowl of yellow egg-and-wheat noodles. Add a ladle of thin curry – chicken or beef is traditional, a drizzle of coconut cream, and top with a handful of crunchy deep-fried noodles. Serve with pickles, sliced shallots and wedges of lime, preferably in Chiang Mai. This is the essence of khao soi.

Not to be confused with a totally different Laotian dish of the same name, this is a noodle soup that inspires devotion. Its roots may lie across the border in Burma, but Chiang Mai has adopted khao soi wholeheartedly. The dish is served in simple canteens across the city, with flavours split along broadly religious lines; Halal khao soi joints use a mild curry, while Buddhist-run noodle shops tend to use a much spicier soup.

Once you’ve tasted your first bowl, it’s easy to see why khao soi is one of Chiang Mai’s most famous culinary exports. As chef Andy Ricker puts it, “It’s exotic without being weird and, most important, completely delicious.”

 

 

 


Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 9.43.48 AM2. Pho Bo from Hanoi
According to an old Vietnamese saying, ask nine people where to get the best pho, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Perhaps the best-known South-East Asian noodle dish after pad thai, Vietnamese pho bo – flat rice noodles served in clear broth and topped with thinly sliced beef brisket and spring onions – are a national obsession. Add a crisp banh quay (deep-fried dough stick) to dunk in the broth, and you have a dish that feels both wholesome and indulgent all at once.

Elsewhere, bowls of pho are served with baskets of fresh herbs, though not in Hanoi, pho bo’s original home. Condiments are sparse too, and limited to garlic vinegar, chillies and – maybe – a wedge of lime. With very little to detract from the flavour of the broth and the cut of the meat, the quality of both is allowed to shine, or not, as the case may be – fortunately, someone’s already done the footwork for you and rounded up the best pho bo spots in Vietnam’s capital.

 

 

 


3. Khao Piak Sen from Luang Prabang
Before dawn each day, noodle shops across Laos fill with the sounds of cooks preparing khao piak. Fresh, thick and round, like Japanese udon but with a little more bounce and bite, these noodles are the core ingredient of khao piak sen.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 9.45.10 AMEaten for breakfast and lunch, khao piak sen is Laotian comfort food – chewy noodles, cooked in chicken broth spiked with with lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves, topped with juicy poached chicken or pork ribs and deep-fried shallots.

This is just the starting point however. A good soup noodle spot will also serve up a mountain of fresh herbs (mint, sweet basil, sawtooth herb, coriander) and raw vegetables (snake beans, watercress, pea shoots, cabbage, lime wedges and birdseye chillies). Tables also groan under the weight of condiments – you’ll see locals working their way methodically through white pepper, sugar, pickled ginger and garlic, soy sauce, white vinegar, fish sauce, sweet chilli sauce, Maggi seasoning and shrimp paste. By the time you’ve finished, your khao piak sen may look nothing like it did when you started, but that’s no bad thing.

 

 


4. Mohinga from Mandalay

Bringing together flavours and ingredients from the Subcontinent, China and South-East Asia, mohinga is an apt metaphor for Burma as a whole. Widely considered the country’s national dish, mohinga is served up in teahouses and sold by street vendors across Burma each morning.

ab12cecb-f574-4cd9-8db4-f691e8ff750dRice noodles, either thick or thin, are covered in fish broth thickened with chickpea flour, and flavoured with banana blossom, onions, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic and chilli. Toppings add crunch and interest – deep-fried chickpeas, courgette fritters, hard-boiled duck eggs, fresh coriander – making mohinga intensely moreish. Mandalay’s mohinga is less soupy than the Yangon version, leaving more room for those delicious toppings, as well as for a second helping.

 


5. Num Banh Chok from Siem Reap
Cambodia’s quintessential breakfast dish is num banh chok or ‘Khmer noodles’; fresh rice noodles served in a mild fish curry and topped with crisp raw vegetables –cucumber, banana blossom, crunchy water lily stems and fresh mint.

The noodles are made from fermented rice, giving them a slightly tangy flavour, and the curry is flavoured with turmeric – a nod to the long Indian influence that underlies the Khmer language, script and religion. Here in Siem Reap the dish is spiked with more garlic and coconut milk than the original version, and comes with a sweet sauce, tik pha em on the side.

ac5a30d9-c3bb-46a1-9eb5-9c7377d04578Legend has it that, long ago, a man called Thun Chey was exiled from the Khmer Empire to China. Forced to make a living, he set up a stall selling num banh chok. The dish was so warmly received that Thun Chey was eventually invited to meet the emperor, whom he offended and had him sent back to the Khmers, but not before giving China the inspiration for its own bowls of noodles, which deserve a whole post of their own…

 

 

 


Enjoy Southeast Asia’s Noodles with our cross border journeys…

bb0b90b7-904f-473a-a7f6-e3cb5d89cc20Summit to Sea: From Yunnan to Vietnam will take you on a drive will drive from the edge of Tibet and one UNESCO world heritage town to another right by South China Sea in Vietnam.

  • 14-day journey
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f17df14b-c049-4319-960d-90c5a4f64428Asian Border Lands: Yunnan, Laos, Vietnam is an exploration of the borderlands of China, Laos and Vietnam where minorities live and trade and coexist as if political borders didn’t exist…

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  • 12-day journey
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2ca1f74b-3b80-4668-a5d5-204120293ff5Land of Silk & Snow: Luang Prabang to Lhasa is a discovery of the world’s most stunningly beautiful scenery: From subtropical Laos via Yunnan to the valleys and mountains of the Tibetan Plateau.

  • 16-day journey
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  • Journey Dossier

 

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Yunnan’s food is one of China’s most delicious surprises, yet Yunnanese cuisine is not well known outside China. Why is this the case? We look at six foods that define this fascinating and beautiful province.

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blogToo often, Yunnanese cooking overseas is reduced to a single dish – “crossing bridge noodles” (see below for the story behind this dish’s name). Individual bowls of piping hot broth are served along with plates of raw meat, vegetables and noodles that diners tip into the soup to cook. While people from Yunnan certainly do love a bowl of rice noodles, there’s much, much more to food here.

Thanks to Yunnan’s varied topography and climate, the province’s markets are filled with a huge range of fresh, seasonal produce. Exotic fruit thrives in the warmth of tropical Xishuangbanna; huge ears of corn ripen in the fertile land around Dali; Dongchuan’s rust red soil produces wonderful potatoes; sweet, crisp apples grow around Lijiang, and fungi with fantastic names (termite mushrooms, anyone?) are dried and exported from Yunnan across Asia.

Each of Yunnan’s ethnic groups puts its own twist on the preparation of these local ingredients. Around Shangri-La, Tibetan cooks flavor dishes with dried peppers and cumin; the Drung of the Salween Valley traditionally cook on heated stones; Xishuangbanna’s Dai people enjoy a combination of intense chili heat and pickled sourness that can make a good Dai meal feel like an assault on the tastebuds.

All this variety makes Yunnanese food tricky to define. Indeed, one reason why Yunnanese food is little-known outside its home territory is that there’s little agreement over what exactly Yunnanese cuisine is – besides crossing bridge noodles, that is. Another reason is that many of the more unusual ingredients are downright impossible to find outside of south-west China – from fishwort roots (折耳根) to bee pupae. However, such exotic things don’t really tell the story of the province. These, more humble, everyday foods do:

 

 

 


1. Rice
Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 10.11.54 AMRice in one of its forms – steamed rice, sticky rice or rice noodles – is the core of most Yunnanese meals. Tiers of rice paddies that have been carefully maintained by generations of farmers are a testament to the crop’s importance, especially in the south-east of Yunnan, home of Yuanyang’s spectacular “ladder fields”.

Rice noodles have evolved into many different varieties in Yunnan (flat ones, round ones, thick ones, skinny ones, soft ones, chewy ones), and are especially popular at breakfast time, when they are served in soup and topped with ground meat, fresh herbs and lashings of chili. It’s worth seeking out a Yunnanese special – ersi made from cooked rice, which gives the noodles an unusual (and delightful) chewy texture.

It’s also worth making a fairly long detour to try Dai pineapple rice in Xishuangbanna. Soaked sticky rice is mixed with the flesh of a ripe pineapple and steamed inside the pineapple shell, producing a nectar-sweet antidote to the chili-fueled heat of the typical Dai meal. Which brings us to…

 

 

 


2. Chili peppers
Sandwiched, as it is, between Sichuan and South-East Asia, it is unsurprising that Yunnan shares its neighbours’ love affair with the chili pepper. On an early On the Road trip, the lead car was scene of a heated and protracted debate between our Yunnanese guide and Sichuanese driver as to which province’s food was the hotter.

8b8fbb6b-37f0-4f2b-b528-5171333b9942The jury may still be out on that important question, but dried and fresh chilies as well as mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper are all used frequently in Yunnanese kitchens. Happily for the faint of palate, their addition is often optional – a saucer of chopped chili or chili sauce placed on the table.

 

 


3. Mushrooms
A remarkable 800 varieties of edible mushroom (from a total of 3,000 known types worldwide) can be found in Yunnan, the region being a biodiversity hotspot for fungi, as well as plants and animals. Some are familiar – porcini, chanterelles, summer truffles – while others are decidedly less common – tripe-like zhusun and poisonous-looking green cap mushrooms, for example.

7ea039e3-f289-480d-9e6a-355aa571a554King of them all, however, is the songrong or matsutake, prized in Japan (where it commands prices of up to US$1000 per pound) for its fragrance and meaty texture. In local homes, fresh mushrooms will be simply stir-fried with a little bacon and slices of fresh green chili, but in Kunming’s restaurants the preparation is altogether more sophisticated, with songrong topping a slab of foie gras or a delicate steamed custard.

 

 


4. Cheese

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 10.19.13 AMUnusually for China, two ethnic groups in Yunnan have been producing and consuming cheese for centuries. Separated by 500km of non-cheese eating minorities, the Bai and Sani may have developed their cheese-making techniques and traditions in isolation.

However, one tantalizing theory has the Mongolian armies of Kublai Khan introducing cheese-making in the wake of their invasion of the Dali Kingdom in the mid-thirteenth century. (Amazingly, there are still ethnic Mongolian communities in Yunnan today – the descendants of the Khan’s garrisons.)

The Bai of Dali make slabs of white paneer-like rubing from cow’s milk, while the Sani people from Shilin, southeast of Kunming make a similar cheese from sheep’s milk. Rubing is delicious when fried (it doesn’t melt) and sprinkled with salt or sugar. The Bai also make rushan, wafer-thin sheets of cheese that you will see stacked in rolls outside Bai restaurants around Dali.

 


5. Wind-cured ham
In village houses across northern Yunnan, you’ll often see legs of ham – trotters still attached – lurking in the rafters. As with all the best local foods, there is much competition between counties that claim to produce the most delicious version; Xuanwei’s ham may be the best-known, but the black pigs raised on the banks of the Salween and those from around Lake Erhai are now acknowledged to produce some of the best.

68ce78a4-6115-41cf-94cc-dfadc54718f8Historically, Yunnan has never been a wealthy province; for many people here, meat had to be used sparingly. Salting and drying pork to preserve it and intensify its flavour was one of the best ways to do this. Typically, slices of ham might be tossed into fried vegetables, served with rubing in a kind of Yunnanese ham and cheese, or in one unusual dish, sizzled on a hot roof tile (瓦掌风肉).

 


6. Pu’er tea

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 10.21.23 AMFor those of us used to seeing tea bushes in neat ranks, pruned to hip height, the sight of a wizened tea tree deep in tropical jungle seems almost odd. And yet the leaves of these aged trees produce some of the finest tea in the world.

Bricks of tea from southern Yunnan have been exported around Asia for hundreds of years. Leaves of the wild tea trees are dried, fried and steamed into dimpled circles. Once upon a time, these would then be stacked onto mules for the long trek to Tibet. The tea would slowly age on its journey, bringing a depth of flavor that is now much prized – though many accounts of this “tea horse trail” have the Tibetans showing more interest in the tea’s ability to alleviate the effects of a meat-heavy diet, rather than the health-giving qualities we recognize today. Many small towns in north-west Yunnan – Shaxi and Jianchuan, to name two – grew up around overnight stops used by the tea caravans, spreading Pu’er tea’s impact across the province and down the centuries.

 


*Legend has it that a Qing-dynasty scholar retired to Mengzi in south-east Yunnan where he spent each day in a lakeside pavilion, writing poetry. His wife brought him noodles for lunch each day. The noodle soup cooled on the walk between kitchen and pavilion until she hit upon the idea of topping the broth with a layer of oil, thus sealing in the heat for her journey.


Explore Yunnan’s foods with our journeys…

0ba02962-fa37-4390-8e50-b1dd3b5db27fAdventures in Yunnan will take you and your family through some of Yunnan’s best loved destinations like Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La and via some little-known gems on an itinerary designed specifically for families to enjoy together.

  • 10-day journey
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21510508-9913-4c9f-9df1-d150da3d4374Shangri-La to the Lanna Kingdom will take you from ethnically Tibetan Shangri-La to the tropical heart of the Golden Triangle, then on to Chiang Mai in Thailand – former capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom.

  • 12-day journey
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  • Journey Dossier

 

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