Lincang, Yunnan. Photo: San Lin
As little as 25 years ago, the land around the inland city of Lincang was jungle, populated by bears and tigers. This area is home to the Wa ethnic minority, a largely mountain-dwelling people with high rates of illiteracy and various connected problems.
A tree replanting scheme was started some 15 years ago, together with training programmes for the Wa in not only language but pig and cow husbandry, too. At a dairy farm close to Lincang airport, Am Pleek learnt how to make cheese – the Western way – and now she’s training up an assistant and helping take care of the young girls who live in the dormitory and work on the farm. They refer to her as “Big Mama.” It is a tremendous experience and a chance for everyone to learn marketable skills.
Am Pleek is talking about her earliest food memories: her father going hunting, for example. To this day she loves game, rabbit, rodents and squirrel. Also the rice bird soup, for which you roll the bird in the fire to remove the feathers, but don’t wash it because it will lose its distinctive bird flavour. Chop it into a broth with lots of garlic and chilli. Actually, she still sees that little bird around, even today.
One of her earliest culinary memories with her mother revolves around the annual grasshopper cycle. The young ones can be harvested from the mountainside twice a year, but the winter harvest is preferred because then they’ve already released their eggs and the intestines are cleaner. These “sweet” hoppers are boiled with chillies and herbs to create a soup which is a true delicacy in local culture.
There’s little in common with the cuisines of other ethnic minorities, says Am Pleek, because there are so many wild vegetables and herbs on the mountainsides which simply don’t grow anywhere else. The chickens live on the mountains too, fed on rice and corn – good, clean food. Chickens are important in Wa culture: the “medicine man” will inspect the chicken’s tongue to see what it is “saying”. Good or bad, it can be eaten anyway!
Wa is probably the most spicy (and salty) of the cuisines of the ethnic minorities. Even the rice porridge called moik, made with chicken, vegetables and cilantro, is intensely fiery. Herbs like saw leaf (which the Wa call “fish gill herb”) are extensively used with chicken, with fish, and with cow intestine. Mint and rau ram show up often, too, both of which the Wa believe make fish “less fishy”.
Typically, young Wa people leave home and journey for up to a week to the east coast of China to work in factories, in the process losing their cultural identity. Am Pleek saw in the dairy and cheese-making industries a way for young people to stay in their community while earning a decent living.
At first, she would only eat the Mozzarella and string cheeses because they tasted “fresh” to her. The smell of Cheddar would shrivel her face like a raisin! Today, she appreciates the different flavours of Feta, Gouda and Gruyère, paired with fruits and nuts – and sometimes drizzled with honey produced right there on the mountainside.
Yunnan Ham with Broad Beans & Goat Cheese
Any kind of seasonal beans can be used for this Bai dish. The beans absorb the flavours of the ham. Use mild Gouda as a substitute for Rubing.
25 g / 1 oz Yunnan ham, both lean and fat, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 shallot, crushed
100 g / 3½ oz broad beans (shelled weight)
50 ml / 1¾ fl oz water
100 g / 3½ oz goat cheese (Rubing), cut to double the size of the beans
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
Salt, to taste
1. Render the ham fat in a pan over a medium-hot flame until the fat is translucent. Remove the lean ham, and set aside.
2. Using the rendered ham fat, stir-fry the garlic and shallot with the beans for 2 minutes, add a little water, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes until the beans are tender.
3. Stir in ham and cheese, sprinkle with peppercorns and salt.
More interviews and recipes can be found in the Yunnan Cookbook.