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.
Stir-fried Mushrooms Home to over 800 varieties of mushrooms, the province might be the world’s foremost mycological mecca. Here, king trumpets are stir-fried with some of the cured ham typical to Yunnan’s north, while sawtooth herb, a cilantro cousin, adds flavor. Photo: Danny Kim
Cold Noodles These Yunnan-style noodles are round and somewhat thicker than anything you’d find in Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, resembling an oversize rice-flour spaghetti. Noodle shops abound in Yunnan, where this preparation, served cold and made with pork, mint, cilantro, peanuts, and bird’s-eye chiles, might serve as a quick, cheap lunch. Photo: Danny Kim
Pan-fried Goat Cheese In Yunnan’s mountainous northern section, which abuts Tibet at the foot of the Himalayas, yak meat, cured pork, and fresh cheeses are dietary staples. At Yunnan Kitchen, chef Travis Post sprinkles pan-fried housemade goat cheese with salt and black pepper. Photo: Danny Kim