Travels in Yunnan: On Eating Flowers

In a debate over what to eat in Yunnan, it’ll always be a tough call. So many glorious options! So little time. On a recent and tragically food-deficient trip to Yunnan, I was denied the chance to stuff my face in a manner that paid proper respect to this region’s culinary cornucopia. There are, after all, only 24 hours in a day, and much of my five days was spent zooming around in a car looking for commodities and stopping too late to eat, or stuck with a conference buffet. My obvious go-to choice here would be mushrooms, but I won’t speak here of the stunning variety of wild mushrooms that this Southwestern province is famous for. Partly because it’s not the season, partly because it pains me that I didn’t get to eat mushroom hotpot. Instead, in honor of springtime in this land of eternal Spring, I’ll post an ode to the edible art growing about the region that I found plucked and ready to fry. As flowers are fragile, they ship poorly and taste best when cooked the same day – making these ingredients hard to come by in the desert that is Beijing.

So, an Ode to Yunnan then! In no particular order of loveliness or taste, here’s the flower parade.

Lilies are my favorite flower, and this tender young bloom is the day lily (huanghua cai 黄花菜). There is no dictating how the chef in most local joints cooks the shoots, I merely pointed to the pretty blossoms, and let the experts do their thing. These lilies were served blanched in a light pork broth, and tasted like … spring. Cheesy, but true. Too delicate and light to be classified as anything else, really. They almost tasted yellow, all sunshine and springtime. Well, not quite, but lovely and light and floral (obviously).

They also eat day lilies in their bud form. Also yum, but I do believe I prefer them full-grown in all their sunshiny glory.

Squash blossoms (not sure of the proper name, but I’

ve heard them called xihuluhua 西 葫芦花) are the flowers of zucchinis, and probably the most familiar to the western palate. However, unlike its western counterparts, here this pale orange bloom is not stuff with rice, or meat, or anything, nor is is molested by batter then deep-fried. To do such shocking things to this delicate flower seems kind of pervy. I find these flowers a bit stronger in flavor than day lilies, a little creamy almost with its thicker center. It’s like eating squash perfume. A little fruity, a little bitter. More than a little tasty.

Jasmine flower buds (moli 茉莉) are the more common type of flowers found in Yunnan restaurants in Beijing. They are often stir-fried simply with eggs and not much more than a hint of salt. The bulbous nature of these little buds means you are more aware you are munching on flowers, and that is half the joy in devouring a little plate of them. That, or carefully plucking apart each baby petal like you would an artichoke. Okay, that’s a bit crazy. But if you’re eating flowers, the enjoyment is very much about the aesthetics anyways. It’s a joy eating these fresh – they are used more often seen dried in teas and such.

No, that’s not a flower. Though how wonderful it would be to find a little field of bacon growing somewhere? Despite what I said about spring, I must also remember to praise this pork. On a tiny street in a random Kunming

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neighborhood between the car rental and the airport, we ate a fantastic meal at a streetside restaurant. There is no written menu, there were just trays of fresh vegetables (and flowers) stacked on a bookshelf – just point and they will take a handful of whatever delectable produce you selected and fry/boil/steam it up. They were also drying their salted pork (yanrou 盐肉) out on the street. A mix between Cantonese charsiu (BBQ pork) and larou (which is preserved and dried for much longer, and is therefore much much more salty), this pork was salty enough to satisfy my salt-lovin’ tastebuds, yet fresh enough to not be cloying eaten alone.

After all, one cannot live on flowers alone! (At least I can’t. No matter how lovely they are.)

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4 Responses to Travels in Yunnan: On Eating Flowers

  1. Kang De says:

    I wish you had talked more about the commodities hunt. Sounds fascinating!

  2. Terence says:

    Jen – nice to finally meet you this weekend . Your tart was amazing.

  3. the ladies says:

    Terence – thanks! and nice to meet you – hope the rest of your time in our polluted city was good!

  4. the ladies says:

    it WAS fascinating. i learned how to plant tobacco. and hang out with grumpy old men.

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