The diverse cuisine of Kunming’s minority groups is not what you might expect. This isn’t the land of dim sum, nor of Peking duck. Twenty-six minority cultures can be found in Yunnan, each with their own distinct culinary tradition. Often, the flavours seem to owe more to Southeast Asia than to Han China. Fragrant, mint-laden dishes, spiked with spices, dominate the local cuisine. Many incorporate Yunnan goat cheese, a wide range of mushrooms that grow wild in the mountains and various kinds of grubs and bugs. Altogether, these varying tastes make Yunnan’s cuisine, called Diancai (滇菜), unique in the land of soy sauce. Kunming has many minority restaurants, and each offers a diverse set of flavours and customs. I wandered lost for an hour before trailing a trio of Tibetan monks, who eventually led me to the city’s Tibetan street. I watched boys pulling apart long floury strings of lamian noodles (拉面), an ubiquitous Hui minority snack. If you want to experience Kunming’s excellent minority cuisine, here’s where to start.
1) Yingjiang Dai Restaurant 盈江傣味园 View In Map
Tucked up a little street near Green Lake, this Dai restaurant spills out into the street to accommodate the dinner crowd. The Dai are one of Yunnan’s more prominent minority cultures. If the Dai dialect sounds a little bit like the Thai language, then that should give you a clue to the palate here: hot and sour. The pork stew with fungus had melt-in-your-mouth tender pork, with little wood-ear mushrooms curled in for an earthy flavour. “Amber Dai Beef Flavor” looked very similar to Thai laab: beef ground with minced green onion, cilantro, and searing chilies. Spinach with minced garlic became a soft, buttery confection when baked and served wrapped in banana leaves. A cold chicken salad was served doused with lemon, chilies and onion. The simple “Tiger Green Peppers” – big chunks of mild chili pepper, blackened and seared over the fire – made for a wonderful side dish. Wash down the spices with a cold Dali beer or one of the fruit-infused baijiu drinks that the restaurant makes itself.
Add: 69 Luofeng Lu, Wuhua District, Kunming
Tel: 871 512 2251
Opening Hours: 11:30-21:00
Price: 18-30 RMB per dish
2) Xinjiang Tianshan Muslim Restaurant 新疆天山穆斯林餐厅 View In Map
Perhaps China’s most misunderstood minority, the Uighurs of the far-western Xinjiang Province have a distinct culture. As Muslims, they share perhaps more in common with their neighbours in the so-called “‘Stans” of central Asia than with Han China. Tianshan serves hearty and traditional Uighur fare. Instead of rice, flat sesame bread accompanies dinner. Lamb and mutton are excellent; the tender lamb kabobs dripped juice. Flavours of cumin, chili powder and pepper predominate. For a refreshing side, try the almost Turkish-tasting “laohucai”: sweet onion, tomatoe and cilantro, dressed with vinegar and lime. In a country of plastic dinner stools and one-time-use chopsticks, Tianshan Muslim Restaurant has a wonderfully permanent aura. The tables, heavy faux-marble, seem locked into place. Tea is poured from gold teapots. Delicate wallpaper, glittery molding, and chandeliers give the dining room almost the air of a Russian tearoom. A small stage hosts performances. This is a gathering place for Kunming Uighurs, who often turn the dining room into a dance party late at night.
Add: 39 Baiyun Lu, Xinyingbei District, Kunming
Tel: 871 333 8083 or 138 8854 4435
Opening Hours: 12:00 – last Uighur standing
Price: 25-45 RMB per dish
3) Yunnan Ai Ni Shan Zhuang 云南爱伲山庄 View In Map
This banquet hall out on Dianchi Lu serves Wazu and Daizu food. Affiliated with a local livestock and agriculture company, the restaurant has a heavy emphasis on grilled meats and a set banquet menu. Its major attraction is the nightly performances, which showcase Dai and Wa culture, singing, dancing and costume. Just down the road from the Nationalities Village – a park designed to introduce visitors to Yunnan’s many minority cultures – the restaurant makes a good stop for visitors who want an additional glimpse into the minority lifestyle. Although a bit of a trek from the city centre, it is easily accessible by bus. The interior is decorated with traditional ornament: ox heads, gigantic drums and colourful tapestry.
Add: Dianchi Lu, Xishan District, Kunming
Tel: 87 1431 0189
Opening Hours: 18:30-23:00
Getting there: ride the No. A1, 44 or 73 bus to Hewei Cun (河尾村). Walk two hundred meters back, and turn into the driveway with the sign “Aini Shanzhuang” (爱伲山庄)
Price: 50-75 RMB per dish
4) Makye Ame 玛吉阿米 View In Map
The Himalayas tower along the border of Yunnan, and this big, palatial Tibetan restaurant is a peek into the other side. The restaurant itself is half the spectacle—curving ceilings, candlelight, iron chandeliers and every inch of wood is carved in intricate geometric designs. As we walked in, a trio of musicians played lute and erhu stringed instruments. Tibet’s cuisine is heavy on the meat and dairy. Spicy yak beef, dried into an almost jerky-like consistency, was served with chilies, grilled garlic slices and flash-fried mint. It took a moment to adjust to the taste, but then the chewy texture became addictive. Lamb was baked tender in foil over hot stones, stewed with cumin, chili, paprika and tomatoe. A Tibetan version of palak paneer was excellent, with strong, savoury yak cheese and a ginger aftertaste. Expect to pay a bit more for the food, but the service is attentive and you may get a tableside ballad from the performers. A warning: the show can get very loud, making conversation difficult. For slightly cheaper and more casual food, try one of the Tibetan teahouses flanking Makye Ame.
Add: 2F Office Building of Diqing Tibetan Prefecture in Kunming, Jinhuapu Lu, Xishan District, Kunming
Tel: 871 833 6300
Opening Hours: 10:30 – around 23:00. The nightly show runs from 20:00 – 21:30
Price: 50-100 RMB per dish
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Keywords: Minority cuisine in Kunming Xinjiang restaurants in Kunming Tibetan restaurants in Kunming Dai restaurants in Kunming
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