Yunnan is China’s most ethnically diverse province, and you can bet the food is just as eclectic. From pan-fried goat cheese to chili-laced mashed potatoes, there’s no shortage of unique and surprising dishes that will challenge your assumptions about Chinese food.
Ask people from Yunnan what Yunnanese food is, and you’re bound to get different answers.
That’s because there is no one Yunnanese cuisine. The province is one of China’s largest in terms of area—and arguably its most diverse, in terms of ethnicity, culture, climate, and thus, food.
To the south, Yunnan shares a border with three tropical countries—Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam—while the north is filled with arid steppes that stretch to Tibet. These varied climates not only produce different local ingredients but also varied ways of preparing food.
In Xishuangbanna, near Laos, markets teem with tropical fruits. Local restaurants serve sweet purple sticky rice inside hollowed-out pineapples.
In Dehong, local dishes are sour and punchy, due to the influence of nearby Myanmar. In Shangri-La, where herders tend to yaks in high-elevation meadows, you can find Tibetan staples like momo.
There is tremendous diversity from within. Yunnan is home to 25 of the country’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities, though of course these groups are more diverse than official designations imply.
This makes Yunnan the most ethnically diverse province in China. Groups like the Bai, Dai, and Yi serve their own cuisines in restaurants across Yunnan.
Kunming, the capital, is square in the center and draws people from across the province, making it a great base to sample Yunnan’s diverse food. The city is abundant with open-air markets, famous restaurants, and snack streets.
And thanks to its moderate year-round climate—Kunming is nicknamed the “Spring City”—the city enjoys a higher standard of produce than most others in China.
Quality ingredients are cheap and plentiful. This, plus the delightful diversity of cooking styles, makes Kunming one of the most exciting places to eat in all of China. Here are five must-try dishes and where to find them.
Tofu pudding mixian 豆花米线
Mixian 米线, or rice noodles, are Kunming comfort food. Seemingly every block in the city has a mixian joint, where customers can order a bowl of freshly-made noodles and choose from a wide selection of pickles as garnish. (Bonus: Most shops have the jars of pickles on a table, where customers can freely scoop out as much as they want.)
(Read more: 3 must-try rice noodle dishes in Yunnan)
Although mixian comes in different kinds, tofu pudding mixian is especially popular. Chunks of soft tofu come served on top of a light, simple broth (often chicken, but sometimes beef), balancing the tang of the soup. A compelling mix of loud flavors and soothing textures, it’s a particular favorite for breakfast.
Recommended Spot: 豆花米线 (翠湖钻界店), 翠湖南路5号附3号
Erkuai is the shapeshifter of Yunnanese ingredients, a versatile staple made from local rice that’s been ground and rolled into a springy cake. You can it purchase by weight at the market, or eat it chopped up and stir-fried with ham at a restaurant. Some places will cut erkuai into noodle-like strips and serve it in soup.
But on the street, the most popular erkuai snack resembles a crepe that’s toasted to order on a roadside griddle. You can have your pick of sauce, usually a salty, pickly fermented bean paste or a sweet, nutty sesame sauce. (Yunnan life hack: You can also ask for a mix of both.)
Recommended Spot: 大理正宗肉酱烧饵块, 建设路凤翥街交叉口
Grandma’s potatoes 老奶洋芋
There’s a reason why these potatoes are called the way they are: they’re so soft your toothless grandma could eat them.
From the outset, they look like simple mashed potatoes, but grandma’s potatoes are more than that. Bits of dried chilis and pickled greens liven up the texture, and chili oil flavors and softens the potatoes.
You’ll often found this dish in restaurants serving food of the Dai minority, who are from Yunnan’s tropical southern borders.
Recommended Spot: 德宏傣家园, 菱角塘路239号(近丰宁小区)
Goat cheese 乳饼
Cheese in China? Although Chinese food remains a fairly dairy-adverse cuisine—owing to most of the population being lactose-intolerant—farmers in Yunnan have been making rubing 乳饼, literally “milk cake,” for centuries.
Rubing is a mild, soft goat cheese usually served in lightly-fried rectangles. You can also find them stir-fried with vegetables such as broccoli or tomato.
But more often than not, they’re served fairly plain. All that’s needed is a sprinkling of salt to enjoy their gentle, yet distinct, flavor.
Recommended Spot: 篆新农贸市场, 新闻路274号
Yunnan loves to surprise with flavors one might not associate with Chinese food. Enter baba 粑粑, grilled bread slices with a consistency redolent of focaccia, albeit with toppings that are distinctly Yunnanese.
Baba is a staple of Yunnan’s Naxi people, originally from the mountains in the province’s northwest.
Most baba stalls offer two kinds: a sweet baba often filled with red bean paste, and a savory version featuring pickles and, occasionally, meat.
Baba is arguably the most popular snack at Kunming’s famous Zhuanxin Wet Market, where lines can be seen curling around the dual baba stalls on the market’s snack street at all hours.
Recommended Spot: 篆新农贸市场小吃街，新闻路274号篆新农贸市场