When did you first visit Yunnan?
I studied Mandarin as part of my international politics degree, and I enrolled on a summer programme in Beijing. During a break from our studies, a friend and I wanted to escape the heat of the city. When we arrived in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, it felt like a different world. It was beautiful, with warm days and cool nights. I fell in love. And when we returned to the US, I vowed to go back. Eleven years later, I left my job as managing editor at [American food magazine] Saveur, and in 2011 my husband, who did the photography for my book, and I decided it was time. We lived there for a year and a half, then returned regularly as Cooking South of the Clouds took shape.
What are your memories of food from that first visit?
I’d read about a dish called ‘crossing the bridge noodles’, and trying it for the first time had a huge impact. My friend and I were wandering through the flower market in Kunming — a wonderful place, with antique sellers, wooden houses and exotic birds — and we ended up in an old restaurant where the waiter showed us how to eat this traditional soup, stirring quails’ eggs, ham, vegetables, herbs and noodles into the broth with our chopsticks. The flavour was amazing. I also remember drinking fermented pu’er tea, and visiting bakeries that sold moon cakes stuffed with rose petals.
What was it about the region that encouraged you to keep going back there?
Yunnan food culture is very unique. It’s home to many minority groups — the government has named 24 officially, but in reality there are more, each with their own traditions. In the north, it’s very Tibetan; in the east it borders Chinese regions such as Guizhou and Guangxi; in the west the influence comes from neighbouring Myanmar; and towards the south it’s Laos and Vietnam. It’s very mountainous, and some of China’s main rivers pass through the province, so it’s rich in foraged food.
Are there any unifying characteristics of Yunnan food?
It’s so diverse, but there are some overarching themes. Pickled foods are very popular, and differ by region — in the south, there are funky, sour bamboo shoots, while in the north it’s pickled mustard greens. Foraged mushrooms are important — some, such as porcini, are exported all over the world, while other varieties are just eaten locally. Flowers are picked from the mountainside and used in stir fries, or to dye sticky rice. Chillies feature heavily, whether it’s the dried versions from the north or fresh chillies grown all year round in the south.
How did you go about gathering recipes for your book?
When I travel, I talk to people, make friends and go into their kitchens to watch them cook. As the book developed, we planned trips to more remote regions, and our drivers were incredible sources of knowledge, helping us find lesser-known restaurants.
Which dishes are typical of Yunnan cuisine?
There are dozens of beautiful noodle soups. One of my favourites is made with pork broth, minced pork, rice noodles, Yunnan pickles and chilli oil. It’s simple and lovely. Out towards Myanmar, there’s a wonderful dish of porridge made from ground peas and noodles, and topped with chillies, herbs and peppercorns. Meanwhile, some recipes in the book — such as poached chicken salad with lime juice, herbs and salt — capture the taste of Yunnan without the need for hard-to-find ingredients.
How has the region changed since your first visit?
One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was because I felt that, as the infrastructure has improved and cities have become denser, the individual qualities of various local cuisines have been diluted. Kunming is a different city now from what it used to be — where there once were swathes of farmland, there are new neighbourhoods and skyscrapers. But in the more rural areas, there’s still a taste of old Yunnan. There’s also an interesting ‘back to the land’ trend among younger Chinese people, who are spearheading a move towards organic farming and sustainable eating. People want to know where their food comes from, and as Yunnan has always been considered a foodie destination by the rest of China, it’s a natural fit. Interview: Heather Taylor
Check out recipes from Georgia’s book:
Clay pot noodle soup
Crayfish with chillies and Sichuan peppercorns recipe
Gaozuo Zhima’s dried mushroom salad
Cooking South of the Clouds by Georgia Freedman (£25, Kyle Books)
As featured in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.