The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival has kicked off and runs from June 25 to 29, July 2 to 6 on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The spotlight this year is on China (and Kenya).
Every year, the festival’s highlights include food booths and cooking demos (at least for a food-lover like me!). While the food concessions are selling popular items like dumplings, lo mein and mapo tofu, the cooking demos are going off-the-beaten-path with regional fare: potato rice cakes from the Qiang ethnic community in West Sichuan, Miao-style poached sour beef and duck blood glass noodles. Hmm.
As it so happens, I was skimming my stack of old Gourmet (RIP) magazines and came across a travel article on Yunnan, a province in Southwest China. In the same vein, Yunnan cuisine is also relatively unknown in the U.S.
In the article, Chef Li Yun sums it up quite well. “Yunnan food has four characteristics. First is the sour flavor—mostly from vinegar, but also from local plants like sour pears and apples. Second is the chile flavor, la jiao, the hot red-pepper taste. Third is the pepper flavor (ma-la from Sichuan peppercorns). Fourth is the sweet flavor, mostly from sugar. What sets Yunnan apart is the melding of the four. In other provinces, one flavor leads. In Shanghai, for example, it’s the sweet taste.”
The accompanying recipe for gui ji or “ghost chicken” is a good example of this balance (although the sweet flavor is very subtle).
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