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Credit: Christopher Michel

All summer long I’ve been obsessed with Chinese salads—bright salads of blanched greens dressed with garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar; hearty salads of shredded chicken mixed with chiles, fresh herbs, and lime juice; rich salads of roasted eggplant, bell pepper, and tomato brightened with a hint of vinegar and fresh chile. 

Perhaps my favorite is a dried mushroom salad, a simple dish of porcinis that are rehydrated in cool water for a few minutes and then mixed with vinegar, soy sauce, dried chile oil, and cilantro. It’s quick, incredibly delicious, and made entirely out of things that are easy to find at the store, or that I grow in my tiny herb garden.
These salads aren’t what most people think of when they hear “Chinese food,” but they are classic dishes from Yunnan Province, a remote, mountainous part of China that borders Tibet, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. 

Years ago, when I was a college student studying in Beijing, I traveled to Yunnan and fell head-over-heels for the place and for the foods made there. The dishes I ate were worlds away from the Chinese-American food I grew up with in the U.S. 

Credit: Josh Wand

There were bright, spicy dishes of grilled fish stuffed with fresh herbs and chiles, noodle soups flavored with a warm, savory bean and meat sauce, tender vegetables grilled in fragrant banana leaves, and even slices of mild local cheese—an ingredient that was considered foreign in most of China back then—grilled until golden and served with a small bowl of salt and spicy-numbing Sichuan peppercorn as a dip. 

And there were those salads.
Eating in Yunnan completely changed the way I thought about Chinese food. And it stunned me that so few people in America know so little about this amazing cuisine. So in 2011, after a few visits back the region, my husband, Josh, and I packed up our lives and moved there to learn as much as possible about the food, so that we could eventually write a book. And we did! It's called Cooking South of the Clouds, and it's out now on Amazon

There was a lot to explore: Yunnan is about the size of France and is the most diverse region in Asia. Its northern border is made up of high, snowy mountains, while its southern edge is full of semi-tropical jungle. It is incredibly diverse—culturally, and in terms of plants and animals, with millions of species in the mountains and jungle and 24 of China’s 55 official minority groups spread out throughout the province. 

Credit: Josh Wand

Not surprisingly, this means that the region’s foods are incredibly varied. Traveling around Yunnan, I ate bright, spicy dishes of grilled fish filled with fresh herbs, sticky rice flavored with sweetened condensed milk and stuffed into a pineapple, simple stir-fries of beef flavored with pickles and spicy-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and hearty Tibetan "momos," or dumplings, with a fresh tomato dipping sauce. 

Best of all, I discovered during my travels that many of these dishes are actually quite simple and easy to replicate. In many cases they are also much brighter, lighter, and healthier than foods from other regions, particularly in the areas that border Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, where the food cultures blend. (Eating in these regions serves as a good reminder that food doesn’t observe international borders.)
I’ve filled my book with the wonderful, simple dishes that I fell in love with while living and traveling in Yunnan. There’s a simple stir-fry of meaty pressed tofu with thin, star-shaped slices of okra; fried kidney beans that are crisp on the outside, meltingly soft on the inside, and tossed with fennel fronds; lots of grilled dishes flavored with a simple combination of herbs and fresh chile; and a squash blossom soup that is so quick and easy that it almost doesn’t need a recipe. 

The dish I’m most looking forward to, now that the weather is starting to turn, is the chicken and chestnut soup, which is hands-down the most flavorful chicken soup I’ve ever had. It’s decadent enough to wow guests at holiday meals, but if I pick up a jar of pre-shelled nuts, it’s also simple enough to make on a weeknight and enjoy with my family around our kitchen table.

Georgia Freedman has written about Chinese food and culture for Saveur, Roads and Kingdoms, Imbibe, the Art of Eating, and The Wall Street Journal. You can find more about her, and about Yunnan cuisine on her site, China South of the Clouds.