A restauranteur hopes to change how Beijing's diners perceive Yunnan cuisine by fusing traditional flavors with innovative presentation, Li Yingxue reports.
Yunnan cuisine's appearance is widely said to be "oily, dark and dirty". It doesn't employ elaborate plating or even decorative plates, for that matter.
But 47-year-old chef Liu Xin hopes to change this perception. The native of Yunnan's capital, Kunming, hopes to elevate the plating of his home province's fare while remaining true to its traditional flavors.
Liu opened Gold Barn Yunnan Cuisine in Beijing's Sanlitun area last year.
The restaurant plans to offer a special mushroom menu from mid-July that's inspired by his recent trip back home to search for new ingredients and dishes.
"Yunnan offers a special class of foods every season," he says.
"People eat flowers in springtime, mushrooms in summer, fruit in autumn and vegetables in winter."
Liu found new ways of cooking one kind of porcini in a villager's home－that is, boiling the mushrooms in chicken soup with ham and pan-frying them with yak butter.
"Porcini are so delicious. They taste like foie gras," Liu says.
Liu points out French cuisine has influenced Yunnan food. The province borders Vietnam, which was colonized by France, and contains many French-style houses and restaurants.
"Yunnan has a sweet soy sauce only found in the province and in France," he says.
The sauce, which is infused with brown sugar, is used as a dip for cold dishes, sliced beef and ham in Yunnan.
Liu's restaurant uses ham produced by villagers in Yongping county in the Dali Bai autonomous prefecture.
"The ham is carefully handmade and only consumed during weddings or festivals," Liu says.
"It's representative of Yunnan."
It's produced using pigs that weigh over 200 kilograms and are fed only grass and grain. Their legs are marinated with local grain liquor and salt, and pressed by quartzite before they're covered with pine ash to repel bugs, hung on eves and smoked in the shade.
"People say Yunnan's ham looks like a pipa (a Chinese lute) and wears a chestnut-color coat. It's also said that when you insert three ox-bone needles into the ham, the needles will have the aroma of milk."
Liu recalls discovering the ham in a villager's home two years ago. The inside swirls like agate, and thin slices are translucent.
"Villagers boil ham slices with beans or Chinese yams. Or, sometimes, they steam them with rice."
The hams Liu's restaurant uses have been cured for at least three years. The meat is served raw or in stews.
"In Yongping, if you find a good ham, you can cut it and the milky fragrance will emerge. You can roast the slices for a few seconds and eat them with a pot of boiled vegetables and local kaoliang liquor. It's truly enjoyable."
Liu started his culinary journey at age 18. He specialized in Cantonese fare for the first 10 years.
"Understanding and creating Cantonese cuisine helps me cook Yunnan food," he believes.
For example, Yunnan cooks clean fish by slicing their bellies and carving out the insides, while Cantonese chefs scoop organs from the creature's mouth to avoid damaging the body, he says.
Liu learned Yunnan is home to a dozen mint varieties during his last trip home. Some taste citric. Some are milky. And some seem cooling.
"I learn about new plants each time I return," he says.
The province's meats are also unique.
Himalayan blue sheep are typically stewed with the skin attached and served with rice or rice noodles.
A special kind of beef is marinated with such seasonings as chilies and pepper.
"It tastes like Western dry-aged beef," Liu says.
Chicken is stewed with garlic and berries.
Liu is also bringing Yunnan barbecue to his restaurant, which－unlike in the country's northern areas－is served without cumin.
"The spice mix presents a taste that's true to Yunnan barbecue," he says.