When it comes to rice noodles, people often tend to think about Southeast Asia.
Indeed, Vietnam’s pho (a textured beef broth with thick rice noodles) and Thailand’s pad thai (a saucy stir-fry of rice noodles with a lime kick) are among the most famous dishes in the international repertoire of rice noodles.
But Yunnan—a southwest Chinese province bordering Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam—really knows its rice noodles. It’s not uncommon to see people have it for all three meals.
Historical agriculture is the main reason. Rice crops require a great deal of water. The south of China has more rainfall on average than the north, and so naturally, the region's cuisine has come to revolve around rice as a base. (In contrast, wheat noodles are the staple carb of the north.)
Even with the globalized modern food system, it hasn't really affected local tastes. It seems the affinity for all things rice is still baked into the Yunnanese culture.
While many people make their own rice noodles in Yunnan, in the larger cities at least, noodle factories will make daily morning rounds to deliver fresh orders to restaurants. In Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, there are 28 rice noodle processing facilities, certified by the Kunming Food and Drug Administration.
That's why rice noodles can be found everywhere, from high-brow restaurants to lower-end hawker stalls. They’re often served with a delicious smattering of house-cured pickles.
Here are three must-try rice noodle dishes in Yunnan.
Crossing Over Bridge Noodles 过桥米线
Crossing Over Bridge noodle is the national dish of Yunnan, and the best variations are in the countryside where people can afford to spend hours stewing a complex and rich broth. This is most reminiscent of pho ga, or Vietnamese chicken noodle soup.
The secret is in chicken broth, which has a golden hue when done right. Everything else (rice noodles, thinly sliced chicken and pork, tofu skin, bean sprouts, and pickled vegetables) is thrown in tableside, while the soup is boiling hot.
The dish’s name is derived from a tale about an imperial scholar’s wife. She would cross a bridge and bring her husband soup while he was studying for his exams in another town. Because rice noodles are prone to sogginess, she would separate the ingredients and combine them right before serving. This is why Crossing Over Bridge noodles are always assembled later, and not in the kitchen.
Small Pot Rice Noodles 小锅米线
This is a popular breakfast item in Kunming. Rice noodles are served in a spicy red broth with chunks of pork and pickled vegetables. True to its name, the dish is cooked and served in a small one-portion pot. The heat can pack quite a punch in this dish.
Note: The spice of Yunnanese cuisine differs from neighboring provinces in that it is sour and spicy, not numbing and spicy like the Sichuan province next door.
Rice Noodles with Tofu Pudding 豆花米线
Unlike the previous two iterations, rice noodles with tofu pudding is served sans soup. The toppings are minced pork, scallions, tofu pudding, and a generous dollop of hot sauce.
The tofu pudding is the raison d'etre of this dish. While tofu pudding can be found all throughout China, it’s usually served with a simple syrup as a dessert. This is one of the few savory renditions and it adds a textual contrast to the rice noodles.