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February 16, 2012

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Dishes from 'south of the clouds'

YUNNAN cuisine can be something of a mystery. It's known to be sour and spicy - but not overwhelmingly so. It's also salty and oily while using a range of seasonings and vegetables and a variety of different cooking traditions. It's a little bit of everything.

But it could hardly be anything else as the cuisine represents the 25 ethnic minority groups that call Yunnan Province home. Some dishes come from the Dai minority and some from the Miao and some are influenced by their neighbors in southwestern China.

To its north, Sichuan-style cooking has made the food spicier. Meanwhile in the south, Vietnamese, Laotian and Burmese cooking has bled through the borders to blend with that of the local ethnic groups, creating new flavors.

Yunnan means "south of the clouds" in Chinese, a poetic title suitable for a land marked by mystery and fantastic scenery. The same environment that drives backpackers to the region also makes for excellent climate for abundant vegetation.

Yunnan cooks utilize many vegetables along with seeds, mosses, fungus and even flowers in their meals. With some 800 different kinds native to the region, mushrooms are especially popular and visitors can sample a few dozen at a wild mushroom hotpot.

A Yunnan specialty, guo qiao mixian or the crossing-the-bridge rice noodles, has made an impression throughout the country. Other ethnic staples include steam-pot chicken, pineapple rice, Xuanwei ham and goat cheese.

Chefs from the province have brought these traditional dishes with them to Shanghai, but they've often added twists to create a fusion to better suit Shanghai diners. The end result is a perfect dining experience for foreigners looking for a taste of the exotic region.

Cross-the-bridge noodle

Yunnan has a long history of folklore and legends. The stories reflect issues near to the people's interest, like the earth and the forest and the food. Due to the dish's popularity, cross-the-bridge noodles has many tales regarding its invention.

Often the legend involves a scholar who withdrew to the isolation of an island in the middle of a lake so that he could focus on studying for an imperial examination. His devoted wife took him meals each day by crossing a long, wooden bridge. However, by the time she reached her husband the food was always cold. The scholar's studies suffered.

By accident she discovered that she could keep the soup boiling hot throughout the long journey by putting a thin layer of vegetable oil on top. This kept the husband well-nourished enough to pass the imperial exam.

The dish has been warming the bellies of Chinese ever since. It starts with a soup of boiled chicken and pork bone.

The ingredients are introduced hot-pot style - first the sliced meats, then the vegetables, and then the noodles and seasoning. The end result is a very rich soup that, with an added layer of oil, stays warm for long journeys.

Lost Heaven on the Bund

Ambience: Exotic, romantic and elegant, Lost Heaven has cornered the market on fine Yunnan dining in Shanghai, so much so that they have expanded from their former French concession location and opened a four-story restaurant on the Bund.

Before making your way to the dining hall, check out the picture gallery in the lobby featuring Yunnan's variety of attractions - from snow-capped peaks to lush jungles.

On the second floor you eat surrounded by hundreds of other diners, but the room is broken up with carved dark wood, folk statuettes and low lighting so that the meal feels intimate.

Pros: The restaurant doesn't skate by on its ambience. The food is equally interesting and appealing to Western taste buds. It takes pride in including dishes from many of the different ethnic groups in Yunnan, including those from the high mountain areas.

Cons: However, if you come in looking for strictly traditional Yunnan food then you'll be perplexed. Lost Heaven doesn't exactly serve the kind of fare you find on the streets of Kunming, the capital city.

Instead they take those ingredients and traditions and create a subtle fusion suitable for a high-end restaurant.

Also, don't expect a picturesque view of the Bund as the sight line is blocked by taller surrounding buildings.

Recommended: All of the dishes we ordered were attractive, flavorful and delicious. The Yi Tribe-style Stir-fried Spicy Beef was recommended by our waiter. The dish was very spicy, but the sensation disappeared after a few thrilling seconds showing that it's appreciated for the taste, not the shock value.

What else: The third floor includes a landscaped terrace and a lounge bar with comfy couches and big pillows to relax on. Also, make sure to check out the bathroom for a surprise.

Who to invite: People you want to impress; especially visitors from out-of-town.

Price: 300 yuan for two, excluding drinks

Address: 17 Yan'an Rd E. (near Sichuan Rd)

Tel: 6330-0967

Legend Taste

Ambience: A neat, small and dark restaurant. The walls are decorated with numerous pieces from Yunnan including dolls made by women of the region. Upon entering it can feel cramped and cluttered, but when guests sit down it starts to feel cozy with plenty of things to notice and talk about.

Pros: The restaurant is run by a former head of Lost Heaven, so the fare is similar even if the presentation is less grandiose. The food is more focused on Dai minority and northern Yunnan dishes and mushrooms and flowers are especially prevalent in dishes.

Cons: Though northern Yunnan cooking is noted for its spicy food, our Spicy Minced Beef with Mint wasn't terribly spicy. The restaurant has had to reduce spiciness to appeal to more sensitive Shanghainese taste buds. If you want mouth-burning, make sure to ask for it.

Recommended: The Pineapple Rice was a special treat. Originating from Xishuangbanna, a tropical region in Yunnan, rice is cooked in a hollowed-out pineapple, so that the sweet flavor of the pineapple is transferred to the rice. It's served to your table inside the pineapple with top on. The sweet dish will make you wonder why more things aren't cooked inside a pineapple.

What else: For more adventurous eaters, Legend Taste serves up their signature Boletus Mushroom Exploded Bullfrog. Wild Yunnan mushrooms and chili provide a powerful kick to pieces of frog.

Who to invite: Good friends and dates.

Cost: 150 yuan for two

Address: 1025 Kangding Rd (near Yanping Rd)

Tel: 5228-9961

Southern Barbarian

Ambience: In contrast to the opulence of Lost Heaven is the minimalism of Southern Barbarian. The walls are mostly bare except for a few pieces of artistic photography. To find the restaurant you have to trek through a peculiar art mall and a dingy back alley. Once inside and surrounded by foreigners, the place feels like a secret hole-in-the-wall dive beloved by expats.

Pros: Instead of the décor, Southern Barbarian puts its focus on offering authentic and addictive traditional Yunnan dishes. Owner Feng Jianwen and his chefs come from the city of Mengzi in southeastern Yunnan, so the menu comprises homemade favorites of the area like cross-the-bridge noodles, steam-pot chicken, goat cheese and grandma's mashed potatoes.

Cons: Due to its location, it can be hard to find or can scare off the overly-cautious. The restaurant also takes pride in its barbecue chicken wings, but we were underwhelmed and didn't find them superior to what's on sale on the street at much lower prices.

Recommended: Tasting the cross-the-bridge noodles shows why they are a specialty of the restaurant and the region. It's not a spicy Yunnan dish and instead impresses with subtle flavoring and taste. Grandma's Mashed Potatoes - named because they are supposedly just as good without your teeth - were excellent and we wanted to order seconds if not thirds.

What else: The restaurant may be even more notable for its drinks than its food. Owner Feng is a lover of beer and carries more than 80 different drafts from all around the world including Belgian, German, Australian and American brews. Also, for the more adventurous eaters the restaurant offers deep-fried bumblebees.

Who to invite: Groups of friends and drinkers.

Cost: Dinner for five is 300 yuan, excluding drinks

Address: 2/F, Area E, 56 Life Art Space, 169 Jinxian Rd (near Maoming Road Rd S.)

Tel: 5157-5510


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