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.