Archive for the 'Kunming' Category

Eating in Kunming III

Our final day in Kunming started off with a cab ride a little past noon. It’s funny how local cabbies have the option of locking themselves up in a cage for protection. Whereas Vietnam has quite a few illegitimate cab companies that overcharge, The Astronomer and I were pleased to find that there’s no funny business (aside from the cages) going on in Kunming.

Here’s one of the many public big screens set-up around town for residents to watch the Games (while shopping for bling).

Our breakfast/lunch destination was the White Pagoda Dai Restaurant (127 Shangyi Jie, E of Kūnmíng. Phone: tel: (0871) 317 2932). The specialties here are the foods of the Dai people—a Chinese ethnic minority of Yunnan Province.

The Dai peoples of China (Tai Lü: tai51 lɯ11 Chinese: 傣族; pinyin: Dǎizú) is the officially recognized name of several ethnic groups living in the Sipsongpanna Tai Autonomous Prefecture and the Taihong Tai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (both in southern Yunnan, China), but by extension can apply to groups in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma when Dai is used to mean specifically Tai Lue, Chinese Shan or even Tai in general.

The Dai people are typically farmers, growing a variety of tropical crops such as pineapples, in addition to the staple crop of rice. We ordered a portion of pineapple sticky rice (10 RMB) because it is a Dai specialty. The black sticky rice had flecks of pineapple and lotus seeds throughout and tasted of pineapple juice—sweet and tart. The best part was eating the baked pineapple flesh at the end.

A minority staple—sticky rice prepared inside a bamboo rod (7 RMB). Vietnam’s ethnic minorities have a similar style of preparation called com lam. The Dai use a thicker type of bamboo that doesn’t peel as easily as com lam does, but the end product tastes the same.

For our main course, we ordered another Dai specialty—whole fish prepared with bamboo shoots (20 RMB). Rumor has it, the Dai eat a lot of bamboo shoots. The fish was white, moist and flaky, while the broth tasted just like Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua—the version with bamboo shoots, of course). Tamarind was most likely the souring agent in this dish.

To add a little spice to the fish, a salsa comprised of chili flakes, cilantro and bamboo was served on the side. The Astronomer poured this atop of the rice and fish for an added kick. We also dipped our bamboo sticky rice in it because it lacked oomph.

Outside of the restaurant, two dudes were selling ROTI! Eeee! We first fell in love with this sweet treat on the streets of Bangkok and were pleased as heck to encounter it again in Kunming. The Astronomer and I were stuffed from downing a whole fish, but there’s always, and I mean always, room for roti.

I ordered a banana roti (6 RMB)—apple and mango varieties were available too. A major difference between the roti made here and the ones in Bangkok is the addition of eggs. In Kunming, the bananas are mushed up with eggs and poured inside the roti to cook, while the filling in Thailand is simply bananas. The extra egg makes the filling a bit more custardy and less sweet. The vendor poured a generous amount of sweetened condensed milk atop the prepared roti to finish if off. It was damn good!

After our rather large lunch, we hopped a bus (and then a taxi) to the Dragon Gate, which is located 15 kilometers west of Kunming. Here’s a view of a bustling city street from a sky bridge.

The cabbie dropped us off near the top of the Western Hills. The road from the drop-off point to the Dragon Gate was lined with vendors selling food, knick knacks and all-natural sunflower seeds! I’m used to seeing sunflower seeds in plastic bags, so this really fascinated me.

The Dragon Gate is situated on the west shore of Dianchi Lake. It consists of the Sanqing Temple Complex and the Dragon Gate Grotto Complex.

God of the North Land—part of the temple complex.

My personal favorite—The Hall of Divine Parents. Asian parents are certainly something!

No striding?! The Astronomer was especially upset by this restriction because he was born to stride!

A view of Kunming from the Western Hills.

The elevation of the Dragon Gate is over 2,300 meters, and it took 72 years to complete the Dragon Gate Grotto Complex (1781-1853). “The scene is well noted for its dangerousness and uniqueness,” touts a Chiense travel website. Good thing danger is my middle name.

The characters “Longmen-Dragon Gate” (the sign of the Dragon Gate) are inscribed in red and gold upon the arch. Lots of local tourists were taking pictures of themselves touching the characters. After reaching the top and enjoying the view, The Astronomer and I hiked down to the drop-off point, caught a mini-bus and jammed back to town. After a run around Green Lake, we paid a visit to our favorite noodle shop.

Here’s a closer look at the art of making fresh noodles. The way the chef works the dough with his hands is just mesmerizing.

To supplement our bowls of freshly made noodles, The Astronomer downed some lamb on a stick, while I had chicken hearts and hen of the woods.

For dessert we paid Jiahua Bakery one last visit. From left to right—cheesecake stick (5 (RMB), blueberry pound cake (3 RMB) and donut twists (6 RMB). The cheesecake stick was amazing!! We’re praying to the gods that Jiahua is a nationwide chain because we’re heading to Xi’an tomorrow.

Eating in Kunming II

My second morning in Kunming started with a tea egg, or 茶葉蛋 if you’re into that kind of thing. According to Wiki, “Tea eggs are simply hard-boiled eggs that have been further stewed in a salted tea liquid. Other flavorings such as soy sauce and Chinese five-spice powder are often added as well. The dark color of the tea also stains through the cracks of the eggs creating a pattern on the peeled eggs that resembles the crazing of some ceramic glaze surfaces.” The tea egg tasted like a hard boiled egg with a smidgen of five-spice flavoring. Not the most exciting breakfast, but our hotel’s spread left something to be desired.

The Astronomer found a couple of decent eats within the sea of disappointments. The noodles were the best of the bunch and similar to the ones we’ve had earlier. The buns were cold by the time we arrived even though they were sitting in a steamer. The congee was terrible, but it’s probably because foreigners don’t know how to garnish it properly. No more hotel breakfasts for us from this point forward.

After breakfast, we returned to the hotel room to draft my fantasy football team, Team Nguoi Dep. The league I’ve participated in for the past three years is comprised of cousins, uncles and a brother. It’s a hyper-competitive league of 14 teams, but Team Nguoi Dep managed to finish second last year! The Astronomer deserves the credit for carefully managing the team.

After drafting, we headed out to Brothers Jiang, which is located on the edge of Green Lake. The lake is divided into different sections—here’s a view of the lotus pond.

Brothers Jiang’s signature offering is a little something something called “Across the Bridge Rice Noodles.” The dish originated in Kunming and has a history of more than 100 years. Here’s the legend behind the dish:

In Mengzi, there was a small island located in a lake called Nanhu where a young man stayed to prepare for the national examination. Everyday, his wife crossed a bridge to bring him meals, but the meal turned cold by the time she arrived. One day, his wife cooked a pot of chicken soup and noticed that the layer of oil on top of the soup kept it warm. When she added raw slices of fish and meat to the soup, they were cooked instantly, and very delicious. From that point on, she took the soup, meat and rice noodles, and crossed the bridge to bring a warm meal to her husband. Hence the name “Across the Bridge Rice Noo­dles.”

Here’s the chicken broth—notice the thin layer of fat floating atop the soup and the lack of steam. Wifey was a genius!

There were a number of different versions of Across the Bridge Rice Noodles on the menu, we enjoyed a mid-range one that cost 15 RMB. Our mix-in items included thin slices of pork and chicken, chicken bones, ham, pickled vegetables, cashews, fried fat, a raw quail’s egg, spinach, cilantro, scallions and tofu skin strands.

We met two local college students, Yang Lisha (L) and Chen Xiao, who were kind (and English proficient) enough to instruct us on how to assemble and consume the soup. We added the raw meat first, then the bones and eggs, and lastly, the vegetable items. After eating so many deeply flavorful broth and noodle combinations, this chicken noodle soup number struck us as bland. Wah wah. It was so boring that The Astronomer and I felt compelled to add chili oil to the broth even though it was against the rules.

Our table mates suggested that I order this drink (2.5 RMB) because it was a local specialty. The drink tasted like sweet tea with grass jelly juice. Bits of beans and agar agar square floated in the drink and were sucked up via a large straw.

After lunch we caught a cab and zoomed to Qiongzhu Temple (or Bamboo Temple) located 12 kilometers from downtown Kunming. The temple is situated on Yuan Mountain and was first built in the Yuan Dynasty. During its history, spanning nearly 1,000 years, the Qiongzhu Temple has been burnt to ashes several times and then reconstructed. The present structure mostly dates from the late Qing Dynasty. Here are two of the four Guardian Kings in the entrance hall. Freaky fellas, aren’t they?

“The temple’s most outstanding artistic (and perhaps spiritual) feature is the distinguished, finely crafted statues of the 500 Luohans (Buddhist Arhats or ‘enlightened ones’) sculpted by the brilliant artist, Li Guangxiu, a famous folk clay artist from Sichuan Province. He took his students to Kunming where they spent seven years (1883-1890) preparing the sculptures.

Regarded as ‘a pearl in the treasure house of oriental sculpture,’ these life-size clay figures came from Li Guangxiu’s and his apprentices’ deep study of people and their inner personalities. After seven years of study and work, the immense undertaking was completed. Each of the statues represents an aspect of human life with great accuracy and skill and looks just like a real person frozen in a moment in time.”

The “surfing Buddhas” are located inside the Temple’s main hall.

The left side of the main Temple.

“The arhats stand beside the central Buddha in six rows, with three levels in each row. Each arhat is about one meter tall. Each of the 500 arhats has a different expression and gesture. This is in complete contrast to the usual fixed style of Buddhist sculptures. With the religious subjects and use of exaggeration, the ancient artists created lively images. Some of them are reaching for the moon with extremely long arms, some are crossing the ocean on extra long legs. There are bare-footed monks and naked-bellied Buddhas. Some are lost in deep thought, some are telling each other good news. Some are tranquil, some angry, some surprised, some curious. One is scratching his back, another is poking his ear. Here are most of the expressions of man in this world—a representation of life as it really is.”

The Temple’s grounds were filled with unusual flowers. These were my favorites—drooping hot pink and magenta blooms that grow upside down.

After we taxied back to town, we were ready to resume nibbling. The Astronomer serendipitously stumbled upon a roti vendor. Unlike the sweet ones in Bangkok, these contained bits of scallion and were much more savory even though they were coated with sweetened condensed milk.

Hot off the griddle (3 RMB).

My nibble of choice was at Jiahua Bakery.

I procured a single egg tart (1 RMB). The crust was crumbly without being buttery (I like crumbly AND buttery) and the innards were sweet and eggy, but a bit curdled. But with prices this low, it’s hard to complain! After our afternoon snacks, we returned to the hotel, napped and went for a run.

For dinner, we returned to the goat cheese restaurant from yesterday—this time for a full meal. We were presented with a plate of pickled lettuce to accompany our selections. In addition to vinegar, the greens were marinated in cloves, which made them too intense for these two.

Closer than my peeps you are to me—fried goat cheese with ham! Unlike last night’s version, this one didn’t contain bell peppers. It did however have a fare number of chilies, a smattering of fresh scallions and slices of ginger.

The restaurant seemed to specialize in sizzling plates, so we opted for the beef one. The preparation was classic Chinese with chilies, garlic, ginger, onions, red bell peppers and soy sauce. The pieces of beef were really tender and the sauce flavored steamed rice well. Eating cow on a sizzling cow-shaped platter is a real treat!

The veggie portion of our meal was just as good as the beef and cheese dishes. The corn, beans and carrots were SO fresh and sauteed in butter. I couldn’t get over how sweet the corn was. Mmm!

Eating in Kunming I

Our first full day in Kunming started a bit past noon. We missed our hotel’s complimentary breakfast by two hours so we headed out to town in search of “breakfast.” Just a couple of paces from the hotel, we found a cluster of al fresco vendors dishing up all sorts of goodness. Without English menus or grasp of Chinese characters, we resorted to scanning the crowd of diners and pointing to what looked tasty.

First up, fried tofu with scallions and cilantro sprinkled with some intense chili powder (3 RMB). The tofu’s texture was silky, yet firm. The Astronomer and I both enjoyed this spicy jolt early in the day.

Nooooodles (4 RMB)! These ones were round and thick like engorged spaghetti. The noodles were topped with an oily pork mixture, silken tofu, sesame seeds, chili oil and scallions. The Astronomer and I carefully scooped the chilies out of the bowl to avoid searing our tongues. The noodles really made the dish special.

Here’s what the noodles looked like all mixed together. Although the oily pork mixture didn’t look too imposing at the start, it really managed to flavor and color the entire dish. After a cheap and filling breakfast, The Astronomer and I were ready to seize the day. Our plan was to catch a mini bus to see the Bamboo Temple located 12 kilometers away. Supposedly there are statues of surfing Buddhas!

On our way to the mini bus station, I perused a store called Bear Family. It was filled with, you guessed it, BEARS! I am fascinated by how infantile Asian women are allowed to be. The crowd wasn’t my scene, but the store’s slogan drew me in, “Love me, I will give you more!”

Similar to Hong Kong, Kunming is filled with wonderful bakeries. The Astronomer picked up this lovely creation at Jiahua (3 RMB). We’d never seen anything quite like it—swirly and fancy!

A couple of bites in, The Astronomer thought the baked good was a simple buttery number. However, towards the center, he hit gold, AKA pork floss! Unfortunately, there was also some mayo that The Astronomer scooped out with his fingers and flicked to the sidewalk in disgust. Ick.

Rent a cop.

After walking a solid 400 meters without any food, The Astronomer ducked into a stall selling dumplings and picked up one (0.5 RMB).

The dumplings had a wee bit of pork and lots of doughy breading. Not spectacular, but certainly not shabby for less than a kuai!

A square in downtown Kunming. It’s hard to fathom how a city can be so developed and still so inexpensive to live in. Very impressive.

While on the search for Muslim eats on Shuncheng Jie Street, we found some kids playing pogs! They were so engrossed in their game that they didn’t even notice me spying.

Chinese mosque.

According to our handy dandy Lonely Planet, the area around Shuncheng Jie Street is supposed to be brimming with kebab stands and Halal noodles, but we only found one lonely stand serving steamed buns (1 RMB). The construction in the area seems to have pushed this community elsewhere.

I expected the steamed bun to taste sweet like Vietnamese banh bao, but it ended up tasting neutral. The best part was the texture—the bun was composed of a zillion thin layers. After struggling to locate the mini bus pick-up point, The Astronomer and I decided that we’d rather nap than see surfing Buddhas, so we headed back to the hotel.

On our walk back, we stopped at Jiahua again. When we swung by earlier to pick up a pastry, I noticed that all the kids eating were eating a treat that resembled fro-yo with fresh fruit, a la Pinkberry. I’ve yet to partake in the fro-yo craze, so I was really excited to give it a try.

Turns out the kids were just eating shaved ice topped with fresh fruit and beans (4 RMB). It doesn’t sound like anything special, but trust us, it really was. The passion fruit syrup permeated every ingredient and the beans texture became appealing due to the ice. The Astronomer liked it much more than che.

As expected, the Chinese are really into the Olympic games. There are large screen TVs set up in public places for everyone to watch the competition unfolding. I was hoping to find more unofficial gear for sale, but this is the lone T-shirt I’ve seen thus far. It would’ve been mine, but it was much too small. After napping and watching the Games on TV, The Astronomer and I went on a quality run around the city and Green Lake. By the way, Kunming is located at 6,200 feet, so we’re technically training at elevation. I hope to reap the speedy benefits when I return to sea level.

After our run, we went to a nearby restaurant for a pre-dinner snack because our dinner destination was quite a ways away.

We ordered fried goat cheese ( 乳饼 rǔbǐng) with ham (22 RMB). According to Diana of Appetite for China, goat cheese is “one of the well-loved specialties of Yunnan cuisine. It comes from the Bai and Sani minorities of Yunnan province, and is made by heating fresh goat’s milk with a souring agent until firm, then either pan-fried or steamed before serving.”

Although the dish resembles stir-fried tofu with vegetables, it was SO much more than that. The ham was sliced thinly and had a decadent ration of meat to fat and the goat cheese—OH, THE GOAT CHEESE—was firmer than the varieties stateside, and much milder. Truly, it was nothing short of magical! Fried goat cheese with ham is just so crazy delicious that we’re gonna have to return and have it once more before we leave this town.

A view of Green Lake on our walk to dinner destination number two—Brothers Jiang. After a mile and a half walk, we arrived at the eatery around 9:30 PM and found it closed. We were so bummed.

Back in our ‘hood, we ate at a Muslim restaurant serving fresh noodles and lovelies on a stick—our standby late-night foodstuffs.

The Astronomer and I both ordered the fresh noodles in broth (5 RMB). Both servings were made to order in front of our eyes—the chef’s skilled hands transformed a blob of dough into long strands of perfectly uniform noodles in seconds.  How’d he do that? The noodles were topped with a savory mixture of cubed beef and mustard greens and a simple broth. The Astronomer made a keen observation as we were eating our luxurious noodles—whereas the broth is the star of the show in Vietnamese cuisine, in Kunming, the noodles outshine the broth. He’s totally right! The serving size here, as with all of the eateries we’ve frequented in China, was super-sized. The Astronomer had to help me out with this one.

The Astronomer went for potatoes and lamb on a stick (1 RMB each). The lamb stick alternated between cubes of meat and fat, and The Astronomer found it fantastic. My ‘shrooms on a stick were fabulous as well. This could be paradise.

The Road to Bejing: Heiku to Kunming

As long as the powers that be allow it, gas•tron•o•my is blogging live from China! Eee! There’s still so much to share from Vietnam, but since the eyes of the world are currently focused on China, I thought it would be most appropriate to share my travels as they’re actually taking place—a novel concept considering the back log of posts in my queue!

Ever since The Astronomer and I decided to venture on this yearlong journey to Vietnam, our plan has been to travel home via Beijing in time for the Summer Games. In addition to being food enthusiasts, we’re also jocks at heart.

We entered Heiku, China via Lao Cai, Vietnam. It’s pretty crazy how one side of the bridge is China and the other is Vietnam. Boundaries and borders are fascinating.

Farewell, Vietnam. It’s been an absolute pleasure. As I crossed the bridge into China, I kept singing to myself, “It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.”

After finding a suitable hotel, The Astronomer and I sought an ATM to procure some Chinese currency (RMB) in order to buy me a snack and to buy us bus tickets to Kunming. I settled on a squishy white bread concoction with pork floss and scallion oil for my pre-run nibble. Even though the baked good was the size of my hand, the lack of density made it possible to down it in three bites.

After changing into our running gear, we jogged along the Red River. We knew for certain that we were no longer in Vietnam as we trucked along the manicured riverside path because as anyone whose ever been to Vietnam knows, the rivers are stinky, filthy and definitely not exercise friendly.

Upon returning to our hotel post-run, we discovered that there was no longer running water in our room (or in the entire facility). Wah wah. For the next hour or so, we argued with the manager for our security deposit and searched for a hotel with working showers. By the time we finally found suitable shelter, I was too angry and exhausted to eat dinner, which is a shame because there was some really good looking stuff on the streets of Heiku.

We woke up early the following morning to have a hearty breakfast before boarding our 11+ hour bus ride to Kunming. Most of the eateries with storefronts were closed at 8 AM, which was another sign that we were no longer in Vietnam. We stumbled upon a vendor under an awning and tucked in for some hot noodle soup.

Since neither of us spoke Chinese, we pointed to a bowl of noodles and smiled and then pointed to the chilies and shook our heads no. We’ll take everything but the chilies, sir.

After we placed our order, the vendor added fresh scallions, bean sprouts, mushrooms and a salty/oily pork mixture atop the noodles and poured a hot broth into the bowl. The broth was actually brown, but turned bright orange due to the oily pork mixture. Whereas the portions in Vietnam are quite modest, this bowl of noodles was nothing short of hearty.

The wide pappardelle-like noodles were my favorite part. Although I didn’t have high hopes for a bowl of noodles served in a parking lot, these were so so good that I couldn’t stop talking about them for the rest of the day. Two bowls of noodles set us back 10 RMB ($1 USD = 6.8 RMB).

We boarded the Yunnan Express at 8:45 AM and got comfy because eleven hours ain’t no joke.

A little past noon, we stopped over for some lunch and a restroom break. The Astronomer and I didn’t know what the heck was going on, so we mimicked our bus mates.

Inside a darkish room, a couple of workers were serving up meat, veggies, and rice for 10 RMB a plate. Even though we weren’t hungry, we played along and bought some food. Our hodgepodge of Chinese delights included stir-fried chayote (a familiar treat and my favorite item), cucumber salad, bamboo shoots and two pork dishes.

This porky number resembled what we knew to be Chinese food in America, with the inconvenient addition of bones. Everything but the chayote was too spicy for me. I wish I were tougher.

The accompanying squash soup was the blandest thing ever, but it turned out to be a good thing because after eating such fiery foods, I needed a calming broth.

All the locals were garnishing with this great-looking cilantro, scallion, garlic, soy sauce and chili salsa. As expected, it was much to spicy for me. After lunch, we boarded the bus and got comfy once more.

The scenery from Heiku to Kunming is gorgeous—seemingly endless green hills and mountains. The only disturbing sight was this burning-action on the side of the road.

And the huge cloud of smoke as a result of the burning.

A few hours later, we were rewarded with another rest stop! This one specialized in deep-fried meats on a stick!

The Astronomer went for deep-fried blocks of tofu sprinkled with chili flakes, which was hot and good! He would have ordered another stick, but the conductor was screaming, “all aboard!” Or so I translated in my head.

I bought some snacks at the convenient store. I was hoping that the product on the left were sweet and sour plums, but they turned out to be wickedly sweet dates. I was totally disappointed. Good thing I had haw flakes because they never let me down.

We finally arrived in Kunming a little after 8 PM.

After the cabbie dropped us off at our hotel near Yunnan University, we suited up for a run. It turned out to be a short one because I was mighty hungry. We started searching for dinner at 11 PM and were bummed that most places were closed. What kind of college town is this? Luckily we found a hole-in-the-wall serving up grilled meats on a stick and hot noodles.

I ordered two sticks of tofu (or so I thought). The one on the left was definitely tofu, but the one next to it turned out to be something totally different—it tasted like a cross between squid and pork fat! The Astronomer ordered a stick of the faux tofu as well and a stick of good ‘ol beef.

A bowl of bun bo Kunming. Not as tasty as the soup from Heiku, but pretty decent considering the options available. The broth started out brown, but after mixing around the oily beef it turned orange. Our entire meal of meats on a stick and noodles cost a mere 13 RMB.

On the way back to our hotel, The Astronomer bought a package of guangsu cake for dessert (6.5 RMB). It tasted really terrible—chalky, saccharine-laced pieces of foam.

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