China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

In Shaxi: Stir-Fried Fern Shoots and Fava Beans

April 27th, 2012

For centuries the incredible biological diversity in Yunnan’s mountains has given the peoples of this remote, isolated region an almost astoundingly varied and rich diet. Each of the region’s millions of plant species offered the area’s early cooks a potential culinary tool, and they used—and still use—all of them. Though Yunnan is primarily known for it’s foraged mushrooms, the foods here are full of ingredients pulled from the mountains and rivers that we would never think to eat in the US. There are spicy woods from tropical bushes that are used to flavor soups in the south; small sour fruits called mugua or “tree melon” that are startlingly tart but soften with cooking; and dozens of kinds of flowers, which are treated like vegetables here, stir-fried with pork and chiles or simmered in soups.

Ferns unfurling in the mountains like little green tv antennas

Most of these ingredients are virtually impossible to enjoy outside of Yunnan. Whenever a new one comes into season here, I eagerly eat it as many times as I can, knowing that once I leave this place, I’ll probably never encounter it again. So I’m always thrilled when I fall in love with a dish of foraged ingredients that I know I’ll be able to replicate in the states, like this stir-fry of favas and young fern shoots, staples of spring cooking all over the world. Someday, when I’m no longer living in Yunnan and I’m craving a taste of this, my second home, I’ll be able to make this dish and feel that I’m back in Shaxi, eating on the balcony of the Old Theater Inn.

Recipe: Stir-Fried Fern Shoots and Fava Beans

Photos: Georgia Freedman (2)