Photographs by Danny Kim
Chinese-food aficionados of the old school will remember when Sichuan and Hunan seemed exotic. These days, our multiple Chinatowns are home to a staggering variety of flavors from once obscure locations like Dongbei and Shaanxi. One corner of the country that has, until now, been underrepresented is Yunnan, China’s most southwestern province, which borders Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Tibet, and shares certain culinary traditions with them. For the past several years, gastro-pilgrims could only find the diverse, characteristically sour, and often spicy fare at Yun Nan Flavour Snack, a bare-bones Sunset Park noodle shack. But change is afoot—not in an outer-borough ethnic enclave, but in downtown Manhattan, where two Yunnanese-inspired restaurants aspire to interpret the food for New York palates. Before Lotus Blue opened in Tribeca two months ago, its owners sensed a niche in the regional-Chinese market, and enlisted Singaporean-Chinese chef Kian Lam Kho, a software engineer turned food blogger (redcook.net), to research and reinvent traditional dishes. And within the next week or so, former Standard Grill manager Erika Chou plans to open Yunnan Kitchen, a testament to the affection she developed for the cuisine while traveling in China. (Both Beijing and Shanghai have seen a Yunnan-restaurant boom, possibly inspired by a surge in tourism.) Chou, too, sensed an opportunity: Thai-mad New Yorkers already love Southeast Asian flavors, many of which seep into the province’s cooking style. In a somewhat unexpected move, Chou recruited Franny’s veteran and Chinese-food obsessive Travis Post to run the kitchen, which bespeaks an intention to reconceive Yunnanese flavors and recipes with a local-and-seasonal slant. Here, a few examples of Post’s New York–ified take on Yunnanese cooking—one more spin on a cuisine that’s already a hybrid, which sounds kind of perfect for this town.