While most of China is frozen or at least quite cold, there are still some parts of the country’s south that are enjoying shorts and t-shirt weather during the winter months. One of those is Xishuangbanna, a tropical region in southern Yunnan province that borders Myanmar and Laos. In addition to being a great place to skip out on winter cold, it also boasts some of China’s most delicious food.
Xishuangbanna is the traditional home of the Dai people, who are related to Thais. It takes its name from the Dai name for the place – Sipsongpanna – with ‘sipsong’ meaning ’12’ and ‘panna’ meaning ‘thousand rice paddies’. The resulting name, ‘12,000 rice paddies’, acknowledges the region’s fertility and agricultural abundance.
Xishuangbanna’s wide selection of local fruits, vegetables, meats and grains is the source of one of the least-known but most-flavorful culinary traditions in China: Dai cuisine.
Chili peppers, cilantro and lime juice are where much of the flavor in Dai food comes from, but lemongrass, fermented soybeans and a cornucopia of herbs you won’t find anywhere are also used to create unforgettable taste sensations.
Dai cuisine is predominantly spicy and sour. It is similar in some ways to Thai cuisine south of the border, but it has its own distinctive identity and style. On a trip to the prefectural capital of Jinghong last week, we had a chance to revisit some of our favorite Dai dishes, here is a short list:
Ghost chicken (guiji)
Usually made with black-skinned chicken, this is a super-spicy and intensely fragrant chicken that has been roasted, chopped up and served cold. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but an amazing experience for anyone who lives for a good spice buzz.
Stir-fried wild boar (chaoyezhurou)
Leaner than most pork you’ll encounter elsewhere in China and with a pleasant smoky flavor, stir-fried wild boar is a popular dish with locals. The meat is usually stir-fried with spring onions and chili peppers. Simple, but delicious.
Cold vegetables with spicy dipping sauce (nanmi)
In Xishuangbanna there is a unique fruit called the tree tomato (yangfanqie) that looks like an elongated orange tomato and grows on trees. The Dai roast it with garlic, mash it up with loads of fresh chili pepper, lime juice, cilantro and salt. The end result is a spectacular Dai-style salsa that is perfect for dipping fresh local vegetables and herbs. Take it easy with this stuff, as the slow burn takes a while to catch up to your taste buds and can overwhelm.
Pineapple rice (buoluofan)
Fresh pineapple chunks, peanuts, garlic, sesame seeds and sticky rice all served piping hot in a hollowed-out pineapple, Dai-style pineapple rice is just as good as its Thai cousin and often features something you won’t find elsewhere: purple rice. The purple rice adds variety to the dish’s texture as well as an earthier flavor than regular sticky rice, and is high in iron.
Granny’s potatoes (laonai yangyu) :
This is one of the most popular dishes for many foreign travelers visiting the region, possibly because it is so similar to Western-style mashed potatoes, or maybe just because it’s so delicious. Granny’s potatoes is called such because there is little need to chew, so even toothless old women can enjoy it. It’s still a treat for us who still have teeth, and can be made with either sour pickled vegetables or spicy peppers.