Yunnanese food splits broadly into three cooking styles. In the north, the cold, pastoral lifestyle produces dried meats and – very unusually for China – dairy products, fused with a Muslim cuisine, a vestige of the thirteenth-century Mongolian invasion. Typical dishes include wind-cured ham (火腿, huŏtuĭ), sweetened, steamed and served with slices of bread; dried cheese or yoghurt wafers (乳扇, rŭshān or 乳饼, rŭbǐng); the local version of crisp-skinned duck (烧鸭, shāoyā), flavoured with Sichuan peppercorns – you’ll see drum-shaped duck ovens outside many restaurants – and a tasty fish claypot (沙锅鱼, shāguō yú).
Eastern Yunnan produces the most recognizably “Chinese” food. From here comes chicken flavoured with medicinal herbs and stewed inside a specially shaped earthenware steamer (气锅鸡, qìguōjī), and perhaps the province’s most celebrated dish, crossing-the-bridge noodles (过桥米线, guòqiáo mǐxiàn), a sort of individualized hotpot eaten as a cheap snack; you pay by the size of the bowl. The curious name comes from a tale of a Qing scholar who retired every day to a lakeside pavilion to compose poetry. His wife, an understanding soul, used to cook him lunch, but the food always cooled as she carried it from their home over the bridge to where he studied – until she hit on the idea of keeping the heat in with a layer of oil on top of his soup.
Not surprisingly, Yunnan’s south is strongly influenced by Burmese, Lao and Thai cooking methods, particularly in the use of such un-Chinese ingredients as lime juice, coconut, palm sugar, cloves and turmeric. Here you’ll find a vast range of soups and stews, roughly recognizable as curries, displayed in aluminium pots outside fast-turnover restaurants, and oddities such as purple rice-flour pancakes sold at street markets. The south is also famous in China for producing good coffee and red pu’er, Yunnan’s best tea.