Fresh tastes ... vegetables in Lijiang market, Yunnan. Photo: Richard I'Anson/Lonely Planet
Chef Allegra McEvedy finds neighbours Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Tibet have turned Yunnan into a culinary melting pot.
The stereotypical view of Chinese restaurants abroad (greasy stir-fries, battered nuggets of protein) and confusion about what people eat in China (dogs? insects? chicken's feet?) is less than flattering to the country's 1.3 billion inhabitants and ancient culinary traditions. So when our Chinese-American friend, Alida, said she was organising a trip to her homeland with her husband, Doug, a keen historian, I jumped at the chance to learn a little about authentic, regional Chinese cuisine.
We spent the first 10 days in Shanghai, Beijing and Xian but, for me, the trip really started when we flew south-west into Yunnan, into what is considered one of the most culturally diverse, agriculturally rich and historically renegade areas of the People's Republic.
One of the aspects that makes Yunnan's food so distinctive is its location: it borders Vietnam and Laos to the south and Burma to the west, while internal frontiers with Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi make it the most culturally diverse area of China. The province's population comprises just 50 per cent Han Chinese, compared with 92 per cent elsewhere, with the rest made of 26 minority nationalities.
By the time we get to Yunnan, we're gasping for fresh air. In Beijing we were cosseted by a guide who toed the party line so closely that as we stood in Tiananmen Square, he told us that no one had died there in June 1989 and that we should remember the Beijing Olympics instead. Xian was a dirtball of construction dust and pollution smog.
It is a relief, then, when we arrive in Yunnan - to breathe and sample unique, delicious food.
From the province's capital, Kunming, we fly to Lijiang, the small city capital of the Naxi kingdom, a matriarchal society whose ancestors claimed these great valleys. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. With Jade Dragon Snow Mountain behind us and a burbling brook in front, we find a restaurant called Muwang Yanyu, near the waterwheel by the main square, which serves us a near-perfect lunch. In China, you are presented with three to eight small cold dishes as soon as you sit down - and for me, these little palate zingers are often the highlight of the meal.
Here is roasted, peeled shredded eggplant in fiery chilli oil (testament to the proximity of Sichuan, famed for its love of spice); sauteed rhomboids of emerald greens (similar to cucumber) tossed with lotus blossom - fresh, raw and delicious.
And rice noodles, a speciality of Lijiang, with an eye-watering hidden heat.
Next comes a parade of hot dishes that makes my heart beat faster: thin escalopes of pork, breadcrumbed, tossed with spring onions, finished with threads of eggy omelet; small pieces of chicken on the bone, cooked in a light stock with taro root and chopped tomato; pork with ginger, chilli and coriander doused liberally in lip-smacking oil; stir-fried cauliflower with green and red peppers; fried bobby beans with shiitake mushrooms and soy.
A couple of soups followed - a congee-ish affair (China's traditional breakfast of gloopy rice soup) and another, much better, fishy one; milky-looking, with floating heads and crunchy radishes. The best dish of the lot is sticky rice and coriander wrapped in lotus leaves with little pieces of pork, which resembles south-east Asian cooking: the kind of snack you could eat every day for the rest of your life without getting bored.
This meal is also memorable because it introduces me to yak - on a kebab, grilled over coals and sprinkled with chilli. We drink the strong local brew, Snow beer.
The food market at the southern end of town is the most exhilarating I saw in China - and I tried a good few. Eggs of many kinds (duck; quail; preserved); a massive butchery hall full of weird and wonderful offal; all the amazing fresh greens associated with Chinese cuisine; multicoloured bags of rice; dried mushrooms galore and even a section for spirulina, which is an algae dietary supplement. We visit during Yunnan's walnut season - they are the freshest and creamiest I've tasted - and we watch an old man with an ancient piece of machinery that produces golf-ball-sized warm walnut cakes. He has clearly been doing this for most of his life.
Lijiang is pleasing on so many levels: the air is clean; the people relaxed; the landscape breathtaking. We catch a bus to Lijiang's outskirts to visit the Black Dragon Pool, a temple-filled nature park and water source since the Ming Dynasty, and walk along a stream into the old part of town, past street vendors selling corn cakes, persimmons and kebabs to children on their way home from school.
I enjoy the architecture, much of it restored after the 1996 earthquake, and I love the fact that the bookshops are confident enough and far enough away from Beijing to sell copies of Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China in Mandarin, which is still officially banned.
From here we drive north-west, towards Tibet. We cross the old border, entering an area that was part of Tibet until 1951 when Mao Zedong carved off two corners, giving one to Sichuan and the other to Yunnan. But the people here remain Tibetan in all but their nationality.
We stop for lunch at the Dali hotel near Qiaotou: our Chinese guide has taken trouble to avoid touristy restaurants but in this remote spot there is little choice; still, it is a far cry from expat Chinese. We eat piles of rosti-like deep-fried spud sticks; stir-fried long beans with batons of chilli; torn oyster mushrooms in ginger and soy; battered, fried aubergines with tomatoes; protein in the form of cold pig's liver and a beautiful whole baked fish.
To burn off all that grease we hike down (and back up again) the 1000 steps into the infamous, churning Tiger Leaping Gorge, the most impressive point on the Yangtze River and reportedly the deepest in the world.
It is nature's giant, swirling milkshake.
Then, it's on to what was until recently called Zhongdian (and before that Gyalthang in Tibetan) but was renamed Shangri-La in 2001. The authorities decided this remote Tibetan place, in the foothills of the Himalayas, was the mythical location recounted in James Hilton's cult 1933 book, Lost Horizon, and renamed it to attract tourists. It worked: a friend told me that when she visited Zhongdian in 1995, there was one guest house and you ordered your hot water a week in advance; now there's a population of 50,000, a good few hotels - all with running water - and a full signal on your mobile phone. The centre feels touristy but we also feel a sense of achievement for having reached such an isolated spot.
Foodwise, Shangri-La is all about meat and preparation for the harsh winter that lasts nearly six months. The main crops are barley (for the humans) and grass (for the animals) and equal importance is attached to both. Turnips are thrown over huge wooden structures to dry in the sun but most fruit and vegetables are imported; not much grows up here. Interestingly, we encounter dairy for the first time in China - of the yak variety of course: yak cheeses, yak milk in our tea and yak butter on our toast.
Quni, our local guide, speaks with pride about how the local pigs have hair as black as his so they too can absorb the heat when the sun shines and proudly explains that rhubarb was found first in this region before being shared with the rest of the world.
The dish to eat up here is Tibetan hotpot made from a bubbling stock of pigs' knuckles, pork ribs, chunks of ham, dried mushrooms and, says our chef, "local medicinal herbs" the most famous being goji berry. We are presented with plates of ingredients: meat (chicken, pork, and the ubiquitous yak), seafood (scallops, prawns and fish balls) and lots of vegetables (cabbages, mushrooms and lettuce) to drop into the fire-fuelled clay pot "at your leisure" (a key phrase in the hotpot experience). Make a dipping sauce by mixing three little pots to your liking: chopped chillies, minced garlic and matchsticks of ginger with soy sauce. After a day's work at this extreme height and in unfiltered light, this is exactly what I'd want to sit down to eat, too - especially if rounded off with some local barley wine.
The hotpot is sold all over town. We ate excellent examples at Da Ling Kezhan and in our hotel, the Banyan Tree. Being at such a high altitude, the hotel also provides free oxygen canisters in our room, which aids our late-night attacks of giggles to a tirade of yak jokes.
"What do you call an abstract expressionist painter?" (Wait for it.)
Well, it's a funny line when you are three kilometres above sea level and have drunk your fill of barley wine.
We see the breathtaking Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan, founded by the fifth Dalai Lama in 1679. There are photos of the present Dalai Lama on the walls, which is highly discouraged, if not illegal and another testament to people's attitude to politics in this remote corner.
From there we fly back to Kunming. Everything I'd read about it, from its reputation as a laid-back, cosmopolitan city to its nickname, "the City of Eternal Spring", led me to believe we were in for a special time but we were stymied again by roadworks. It was days before the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, so everything halted to finish a ring road. I don't think I've been anywhere else that is pushing so aggressively through its present to get to its future.
Our time here is rewarded by tasting tea, which can be done all over the city. This province is China's largest supplier of tea, including the world-famous, highly prized pu'er tea from the south-west. I'm not quite sure I understand the appeal of pu'er - especially at about $65 for a wheel about the size of a discus, which is how it's sold - but it is ranked as the No. 1 tea in China. We also try a tannic, rich, black tea and a light and fragrant jasmine but my favourite is oolong, which is deeply interesting and very drinkable.
Our final meal is at the Shiping Huiguan, on the edge of a lake in Cuihu Park. Talk about going out with a bang!
Here we eat the hottest meal so far: tofu dishes (a speciality of this restaurant), chicken (shredded with peanuts), fish (with peppers and corn) and pork (belly, with bok choy). And surprisingly, given how far south we are, we are offered fried yak cheese, which looks a bit like haloumi, with a dried-chilli dipper.
We also try the most famous dish of the area - "crossing the bridge noodle". The story goes that a diligent wife would get upset because by the time she had taken lunch to her scholarly husband on the island in the middle of the lake where he studied, the soup was always cold. One day, she discovered that if she kept a layer of chicken fat on top of the broth and carried the bits to go in the soup across in little bowls on the side, it would stay hot.
As we walked back to the hotel, the streets smelled strongly of curry: this is the food of the southern part of the province, belying its borders with Burma and Laos, which sounds and smells to me like a whole other taste trip.
Singapore Airlines flies to Kunming for about $1360 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, via Singapore (8hr), then on SilkAir to Kunming (4hr). Australians require a visa for stays of up to 30 days.
Helen Wong's Tours has a 16-day Exotic China tour taking in Sichuan and Yunnan, from $4890 a person including airfares, and a 20-day tour from Shanghai to Shangri-La, including a Yangzte River cruise, from $5400 a person including airfares. Phone 1300 788 328, see helenwongstours.com.
China Holidays has a 16-day tour taking in Shangri-La, plus two days at the Shanghai Expo, from $2499 a person including airfares. There are also customised private tours to the region; see bookchinaonline.com/au.
Asiaquest Tours has a 27-day Yunnan and Beyond tour with a Yangzte River cruise, from $5780 a person including airfares. The province is included in Majestic China 24-day tour, from $4980 a person. Phone 1800 144 738, see asiaquesttours.com.au.
Wendy Wu Tours runs a 27-day "Dreams of Shangri-La" tour to Yunnan, Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, from $6760 a person, including airfares. Phone 1300 727 998, see wendywutours.com.au.