After almost eight months in Nanjing, I had more or less settled into a food routine. I ate vegetable baozi for breakfast, or sometimes congee and tea-leaf eggs if I was feeling bored. For lunch I had wontons, spicy noodles, or cafeteria-style veggie dishes with rice at the chain restaurant Xin Si Fang. For dinner I had one of the things I hadn’t had for lunch, or maybe cooked something simple myself. I drank lots of milk tea and ate way too many sticky rice snacks from Snacks Kingdom.

Then I moved to Yunnan, and found myself thrust into an entirely new food landscape. Yunnan is a place where dairy is consumed regularly, where mint leaves are eaten like a vegetable, and where you’re much more likely to find wholesale Pu’er tea shops than bubble tea chains like CoCo.

As a continuation of several previous posts all about food, I am now proud to present a new list of eight noteworthy things I’ve eaten in the last few weeks.


1. 粑粑 Bābā

Within the northwest Yunnan region, Lijiang itself is not particularly known for its food. Bai cuisine in Dali, and Tibetan cuisine to the northwest, are much more famous and celebrated. Baba is one of the few foods that truly belong to Lijiang and Lijiang alone. It’s a fluffy round flatbread, usually fried in a generous amount of oil, and topped with hot peppers and other toppings. You can also add an egg, which makes it even fluffier and more satisfying if you’re eating it for breakfast (as I often do). Interestingly, baba has made its way into some of the tourist-driven restaurants in the Old Town that offer something called the “Naxi burger,” which is a burger between two pieces of baba. I haven’t tried it yet, but it can’t be bad!

2. 火腿 Huŏtuĭ and 腊肉 Làròu

Huŏtuĭ and làròu are types of preserved pork served across Yunnan. To be honest, I’m not completely sure what the difference is; they seem to be made from different cuts of pork, but the flavor is similar…and it’s always delicious. Still, the best I’ve tried was served by the Zhang family in Liju village, located about two hours west of Lijiang near Laojun Mountain. Mr. Zhang is the leader of the patrol team hired by The Nature Conservancy to protect the forest habitat of the Yunnan golden monkey and other native species. Mrs. Zhang is a damn good cook. Her preserved pork tasted like wood smoke and mountains and the cold clear sky. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

3. 乳饼 Rŭbĭng

Rŭbĭng is goat cheese. Let me say that again: cheese. I’m living in a part of China that eats cheese! I had it stir-fried with tomatoes in Kunming, and I also had it alongside eggs and toast as part of a “Naxi breakfast” (similar to the touristy “Naxi burger”). It’s less salty than most cheese in the west, and less goat-y than most goat cheese I’ve eaten before. It’s basically a miracle.

4. 蕨菜 Juécài

Every day my office eats a pre-paid lunch together at a local restaurant, which means that every day I get to try new and delicious local dishes. One of my favorites is juécài, which is a type of fiddlehead (young fern) that can be gathered from the wild this time of year. It’s often served cold as a type of salad with a tart and spicy dressing. It tastes incredibly fresh and healthy, like eating springtime itself—although according to Wikipedia, the fern (Pteridium aquilinum, known as  “bracken”) contains the carcinogen ptaquiloside and may be linked to increased stomach cancer in humans. But then again, the study was conducted in Japan, which has one of the highest life expectancies in the world. If 105-year-olds are dying of stomach cancer after a lifetime of eating bracken ferns, that’s fine by me!

5. 香椿 Xiāngchūn

In case the cancer thing is legitimate, the restaurant where we eat lunch everyday also serves xiāngchūn, which are the edible leaves of the tree Toona sinensis, and are thought to have anti-carcinogenic properties. So I suppose it all evens out. Xiāngchūn has a deliciously earthy, foresty taste that mixes really well with eggs and rice.

6. 蔓菁 Mánjīng

One of The Nature Conservancy’s projects is helping rural villagers switch from illegal lumber and charcoal production to mánjīng harvesting. The turnip-like vegetables are very hardy and can grow at high altitudes and in poor soil without chemical pesticides or fertilizer. TNC’s mánjīng program not only provides the villagers with a legitimate and steady source of income, it also protects the forest habitat that is home to the Yunnan golden monkey and other key species. TNC buys the beans from the farmers at a good price, and sells them to the public on Taobao. After hearing all about the project, and helping to package enormous boxes of dried mánjīng in our office, I was very excited to finally try it for myself. I ate mánjīng in a hotpot for dinner at a friend’s house. It didn’t have much flavor on it’s own, but it was delicious dipped in chili sauce, and I felt very ecologically friendly eating it!

7. 饵块 Ěr kuài

This is another regional specialty found across Yunnan. Er is basically sticky rice flour, which can be used to make noodles (ĕrsī) or cakes/pancakes (ĕr kuài). One of my favorite local street foods is barbecued ĕr kuài, where they heat a rice pancake and a hotdog on a grill, then wrap it up with sliced potatoes and chili sauce. It costs 5 yuan, and it makes a surprisingly satisfying meal on the go.

8. 卤米线 Lŭ mĭxiàn

My housemate took me to eat lŭ mĭxiàn (stewed rice noodles) on one of my first days here. I was still feeling lost in a new city. I didn’t know where to eat, and I could barely find my way from my apartment to the office and back again. My housemate, another TNC volunteer from Shandong, China, seemed nice enough, but I still barely knew her. Slurping our lŭ mĭxiàn, I finally began to relax and gain my bearings. I discovered that my housemate and I have the same taste in food. We both love to walk. We even have similar life stories; we both worked for less than a year before coming to Yunnan as TNC volunteers. Although lŭ mĭxiàn isn’t specific to Lijiang (and was served in a Dali-themed restaurant), it will always remind me of the first moment I felt settled in this city.