A Taste of Yunnan Province at Feng Huang Zhu Restaurant Beijing

The English wooden sign on the door simply says Yun Nan Restaurant Bar but Shan tells me the Chinese characters read Feng Huang Zhu – which translates as Phoenix Bamboo. It is an unprepossessing place from the outside, one of the many little hutong houses just around the corner from Drum and Bell Towers and a short walk from Hou Hai lake.
I love this area of Beijing. It is touristy but oozing with character and if I blot out the tackier souvenir shops, the traffic jams of tourist rickshaws and the swarm of Chinese tourists with matching check caps following their guide I can easily imagine myself as a child forty years ago chasing down the alleyways on bicycles as described by YiYun Li in Kinder than Solitude. It also is home to my favourite coffee shop in Beijing, the tiny sitting room that is Excuse Cafe on Bell Tower Square.
Pushing in the door at lunchtime on a sunny May day, we entered an oasis of tranquillity from the raucous street outside. A rippling water feature adorns the entrance hall complete with waterfalls, a turtle and fish which enthralled Dermot. A simple dining room is laid out with stools and wooden tables. Lanterns, hanging lamps and Yunnan artwork transported us to that southern province of China near the border with Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Only one other table was taken at that hour of the day so the owners focussed on giving us the best of service.
This was another of Shan’s Groupon finds. She knew Yunnan was my second favourite cuisine even though I haven’t yet visited Dali or elsewhere in the province. But we did have a great Yunnan meal at Dali Courtyard in Beijing two years ago which I wrote about here.
The beautiful province of Yunnan has the largest diversity of plant life in China. Its is closer in style to Thai and Vietnamese cooking than to the food of other parts of China.  The food is hot and spicy with a focus on natural produce, like beautiful wild mushrooms foraged from the mountains and unique varieties of plants plucked from the countryside. Herbs are used in abundance especially lemon grass, coriander and mint. Sauces are lighter in consistency and because the quality of the raw ingredients is so good there is less emphasis on coatings – the meat, fish and vegetables are allowed to be the stars of the show.
When Shane first came to China seven years ago he spent time in Dali and almost settled there. He mused today that if he had his life might have taken a very different path. Oh the unknowing choices we make as we go through life.
Shan’s deal entitled us to a set menu. The owner looked dubiously at the three lao wei (foreigners) she was with and warned her some of the dishes were very spicy. She replied “bring it on”.
What followed was an extraordinary feast for the senses, especially the eyes and the tastebuds. The dishes he served us were:
Cold set jelly made from peas and drizzled with a spicy sauce
A garlicky mint leaf salad
Yunnan chilli beef laced with chillies – this is a recipe I have to track down
Stir-fried bitter green leaves – these didn’t taste bitter to me, just light and delicate
Cold rice noodles with shredded vegetables
Black three mince – a warm minced pork dish with preserved vegetables
Chicken stewed with whole small chillies, whole cloves garlic, cardamon, star anise and other spices I couldn’t recognise – another dish of stunning flavour
Tofu baked in banana leaf with spices and chilli
A barbecued whole fish stuffed with coriander and lemon grass and scattered with spring onion and chilli – I far prefer fish served this way. The skin had a crunchy texture and the flesh had absorbed the flavour from the herbs neutralising any muddy odours. It had been barbecued on a banana leaf which added to the aromatic flavours.
Bowls of rice.
We washed down this superb meal with glasses of warm water as it was too early in the day for beer. Each element of the meal was a success and the dishes all complemented one another. Dermot loved the pea jelly, fish and rice noodles and the owners fed him wedges of satsuma for dessert.
The total cost of the entire meal for four adults was 199 rmb or about €24 right in the centre of Beijing.
We walked the perimeter of Hou Hai lake afterwards, enjoying the peace once we escaped the busy tourist strip and noticing families enjoying a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 100 years despite the city growing upwards and outwards around it. And as we walked I hatched a dream to learn enough Mandarin to visit Yunnan and take some cooking lessons there. I will do it too… someday.

Twilight Zone

Somewhere in the skies over Asia I hover suspended between worlds. Around me the cabin lights are dim, just an occasional splash of moving colour from tiny seat-back tv screens. The flight is half empty and passengers are sprawled full length across rows of seats, dozing fitfully. Earphones, emitting soothing classical music, mask the throb of jet engines. An occasional jolt of turbulence reminds me that I am airborne and high above the Indian Ocean. Thoughts drift inevitably and nervously to the tragic passengers on flight MH 370.  What did they know of their fate? What will we ever know? Enough never to take long-haul air travel for granted again, or to fasten a safety belt at take-off without offering a blessing for them and their families.
Somewhere in Beijing my son Shane tosses and turns, sleeping lightly in anticipation of his parent’s arrival. Shan pulls the duvet over her head hoping for a brief Saturday morning lie-in. My little grandson plays in his cot, babbling away to himself and wondering if he dares wake MaMa and DaDa up just yet. He senses a mood of excitement in the air, a rush of apartment cleaning yesterday, a particular spring in his Dad’s step, a giddiness in the FaceTime call with his Nai Nai and Ye Ye who were in some noisy busy place with what looked like very big birds in the background. But hey he’s living in the moment and that toy just out of reach is much more important right now. Maybe it is time to call DaDa.

"My current favourite toy"
“My current favourite toy”

Somewhere in Sydney my daughter Claire stretches and rises to an Autumn Saturday morning and contemplates the Chinese feast she is planning for a group of her friends this evening, a house warming in her and Mike’s beautiful new home. But first perhaps there is time for a brisk walk at Clovelley Beach and to find the ingredients for Peking Duck and Hoisin Sauce made the way her Mum likes it.
Claire's new kitchen
Claire’s new kitchen

Somewhere in Austria my Mum settles down for a night’s sleep, reliving her day of sight-seeing with my brother and his wife, marvelling at the things she has seen that she never expected to see in her life-time and wishing my Dad was there to share the adventure.
A "selfie" from my Mum in Innsbruck
A “selfie” from my Mum in Innsbruck

Somewhere, sometimes it is good to pause and reflect and to savour the moment and the anticipation.
After the excitement of Shananigans’ Christmas and Shane and Shan’s wedding it has been a hectic 14 weeks since we last spent time with our little Chinese family.
In our weekly FaceTime calls we can spot the changes in Dermot. Gone is the crawling baby who quickly found every danger spot in our house, to be replaced by a little boy with a new haircut toddling around on two feet and finding a whole new level of treasures now within his reach. His infectious personality and fun-loving spirit emerge more distinctly with every passing week. And as for his love of food, well he didn’t lick it off the stones.
"Ooh these Pig's Elbows are good"
“Ooh these Pig’s Elbows are good”

He knows us now on FaceTime, getting giddy whenever he hears the sound of an incoming call and waiting with restless impatience when Shane or Shan try to connect with us. He is just beginning to say his first words in Mandarin. We have silly games we play during our iPad chats as he dips in and out of the conversation, wandering off when he gets bored with grown-up talk.
But I still can’t imagine the feel of him, the squidgy hugs, the life-force of the three-dimensional him. Each time I get back to him it’s the same but different – the same joyous tug at the heart-strings coupled with the need to get to know the newness of him all over again, the same nervousness about how he will react – wide-eyed maybe, perhaps even a bit scared – to seeing us in the flesh but knowing that it will be ok, even if it takes a while. There are bonds that can’t be broken.
Busy work schedules haven’t left much time for cooking, blogging or reading in recent weeks. You have been very patient kind readers as I can see from Google Analytics that, despite that, you continue to dip in and out of the blog every day. I intend to rectify my lapses over the next week or two by reporting on our nine day visit to Beijing and our latest adventures in China. Watch out for tweets from me @julieon with the hashtag #NaiNaiVisit and posts on Shananigans Facebook Page too.
I’m also hoping to read more about China and by Chinese writers while I’m here. I’ve just finished Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li who grew up in Beijing and moved to the United States in 1996 and I can highly recommend it. It weaves between the present day and 1990s China in a haunting tale of the ties that bind with striking insights into the way of life and mindset of Beijingers.
I can’t rival Des Bishop – and by the way if you haven’t watched Des Bishop – Breaking China you simply must, you will find the first three episodes on RTE Player – he captures the essence of Beijing and the Chinese in his own inimitable style. But let’s see if we can have some fun, new experiences and good food over the next nine days as well as some much needed Nai Nai time, with Ye Ye getting a look in too.
So sit back, fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.