China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Introducing Dali

March 6th, 2013

“Banana pancakes.” I was sitting in my kitchen in Kunming talking to friends, American biologists who had lived and studied in Yunnan for three years, about my plan to go to Dali to learn about the local foods and delicacies. “Banana pancakes,” said Doug. “The specialty food of Dali.” I had to admit that he was right. When I first went to Dali, in 2000, the city was a backpacker’s paradise. Travelers who had braved the overnight bus from Kunming, crowding into iron bunk-beds welded onto the bus’s floor, were rewarded with a quaint, quiet old town filled with dirt-cheap guesthouses and a dozen cafes that all served banana crepes and muesli. Like the other travelers in town, my friend Cassie and I came to get away from the rest of China—to read and rest; to take boats out on the lake, bike along dirt lanes to see the city’s famous pagodas, and ride chair-lifts up to temples hidden in the mountains; to buy the region’s famous embroidery and batik fabric; to drink smoothies and enjoy a little bit of Western food, regardless of how un-Western its flavors really were; and to forget, for just a few days, how difficult and demanding China really is. And every single cafe in town offered banana pancakes (or, to be more specific, banana-filled crepes labeled as “pancakes”) to comfort weary travelers like us.

Dali’s famous batik fabrics

On this trip, I would be looking for something more unique and delicious, and I had every hope that I would find it. Dali is the capital of the Bai Autonomous Region and the center of Bai culture, and Bai kings ruled the area for centuries before the Chinese claimed Yunnan. Dali itself was the region’s rich and fertile capital. The town sits in the center of a deep valley, on the banks of Erhai, a lake 40 km long and 7-8 km wide that is shaped like an ear (“er” means ear and  “hai” is lake or sea). It is China’s second-largest highland lake, and it provided the Bai not only with a plentiful variety of fish but also with water to irrigate their fields. Rice was the preferred crop, and it so dominated the local economy that it was used as currency, and plots of land were counted not by their size but by how much rice they produced. For some reason, however, the Bai only farmed the land in the valley itself, rather than carving terraced fields into the valley’s steep mountains, and the steep wooded areas were used for growing fruit and for foraging for local herbs and greens.

Bai women in the center of Old Town

The Bai are still the main inhabitants in this area, and their traditions continue to thrive despite the thousands of domestic tourists who flock here every year, bringing mainstream Chinese style and culture with them. Old women dress in traditional blue scarves and jackets, local farmers thresh their rice by hand by beating armloads of stalks against enormous fluted-edged baskets, and even the area’s new houses have the region’s distinctive curved roofs and blue and white decorations painted on their walls. Curious about how Bai culture influenced the area’s food, I booked myself a room at a quiet guesthouse on the edge of town run by a British expat who had promised to help me find good food, and I headed to Dali to spend a couple days exploring.

Erhai Lake, Dali Old Town, and the Surrounding Villages

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Today’s Dali still has the guesthouses and the old buildings, and the local vendors still sell beautiful embroidered fabrics and elaborate silver jewelry. Even the cafes seem much the same as I remember them with their muesli and milkshakes and, yes, banana pancakes. But the place I remembered as a small town is now roughly the size that Kunming was when I first traveled to Yunnan a decade ago. New houses have been built where the rice fields used to be, stretching up all the way into the foothills and down to the edge of the lake, and an entire new city, often just called “New Dali” instead of its real name, Xia Guan, has sprung up to the south with an airport, government offices, luxury shops, elaborate high-rise condos, and even an aquatic center for local would-be Olympians.

So I was happily surprised to find that at its heart, Dali’s Old Town is still exactly as I remembered it. A little more crowded with tourists, perhaps, but still as charming and as beautiful as ever. Farmers walk to work along the sides of the new highway carrying their tools in woven baskets worn as backpacks. The houses on the edge of town back up to rice fields where villagers still till, plant, and harvest rice by hand, with occasional help from a strong water buffalo. And at my guesthouse, just a few minutes walk from the center of town, I could hear a rooster crowing somewhere nearby.

Because Dali is such a tourist-friendly place, the town is full of unique and interesting street food. Vendors with carts sell large, brick-like cakes of popped rice or amaranth sweetened with molasses; local women make thin sheets of the area’s distinctive cow’s-milk cheese, then toast them over small grills set up at on the sidewalk and top them with rose petal jam; restaurants set up little glass-fronted stalls outside their front doors to offer passers-by a take-away bowl of the local specialty known as “cold chicken noodles,” a tangle of thick rice noodles topped with chicken, greens, peanuts, and an assortment of sweet and spicy sauces.

Clay Pot Tofu

But most of Dali’s most distinctive dishes are not found on the streets. To get them, you have to find local restaurants, and you have to know what to order. To help me get acquainted with the local specialties, the owner of my guesthouse, Max, had offered to have some of her staff show me around and make suggestions. We headed to a small family-run restaurant just a few blocks up the street called Yu He Yuan, where they had promised to show me how to make Dali’s three most famous dishes: Yellow Stewed Chicken (黄焖鸡, huang men ji), Sour and Spicy Fish (酸辣鱼, suan la yu), and Clay Pot Tofu (沙锅豆腐, shaguo doufu).

The first was a complex dish made of a half chicken stewed for a few minutes in a mix of spices that included star anise, sugar, dried chiles, black cardamom, ground Sichuan peppercorns, and soy sauce. Though the chicken was done in under ten minutes, the complex mix of spices gave the chicken a rich, slightly sweet and slightly spicy flavor. The sour and spicy fish was made of an equally complicated mix of spices and an equally simple preparation. Two medium-sized fish, which had been caught in Erhai that morning, were poached whole in a mix of ginger, garlic, dried chile, soy sauce, and vinegar with Sichuan peppercorns and five spice until they were tender and spicy. The last dish, however, the clay pot tofu, was made very differently. Cabbage, cauliflower, strips of celtus, mushrooms, and tofu skin were layered into a round, unglazed ceramic pot, then topped with thick, dense blocks of tofu and slices of thinly-shaved Yunnan ham. The ingredients were  then covered with a light pork broth, and the whole thing was left to simmer over a low flame. When the vegetables were tender, the cook added a handful of fresh rice noodles, and when everything had cooked through, the pot was brought to the table and eaten like a pre-cooked hot pot. While the other two dishes had been rich and flavorful, this one was light and cleansing, and each ingredient tasted clean and pure. As I began eating it, the owner brought me a small bowl of ground dried chile and showed me how to use a little of the dish’s broth to make it into a dipping sauce that added a smokey spice to each bite.


Sour and Spicy Fish


Photos: Georgia Freedman (3), Josh Wand, Georgia Freedman (3)