Eating at a Yunnanese restaurant is a reminder that food in China’s most far-flung southwestern province can be as diverse as its wildlife. Home to over a third of China’s flora and fauna, Yunnan luxuriates in boundless diversity – and the same can be said for its vast variety of menu options. The province’s cuisine is heavily influenced by neighboring Southeast Asian countries, incorporating fresh, zesty flavors. It’s pretty much as “foreign” as you’re likely to find inside of China – for instance, goat cheese is a favorite, and as a result Yunnanese cuisine has yet to win over less exotically-inclined Beijingers.
That though, is changing thanks to the growing number of Yunnan restaurants now found throughout the city. Most are concentrated in the historic Gulou neighborhood– an area that’s still largely made up of hutong alleyways – quieter surroundings that fit the homey appeal of the Yunnanese culture.
A few paces away from the Drum & Bell tower is newly opened Hani Gejiu. Painted green characters spell out the restaurant’s name on flat wicker baskets outside the doorway. Inside, the space is warm and furnished with second-hand treasures. Wooden tables are crafted from old doors, childlike murals depict goat-herders, and colorful fabrics create a grounded, cozy vibe.
Unlike most Yunnanese restaurants in Beijing, this one draws less of its inspiration from the Dai minority, who use more sour flavors, and more from the Hani minority, who work more fragrant and spicy elements into their dishes. The Hani people are one of China’s 56 official ethnic minorities, and their population centers around Gejiu, a city located by Yunnan’s Red River, along which rural villagers farm many of the region’s rice terraces.
Hani rice noodles – unique to the Gejiu area – are what attracted co-owner Sue Zhou to Hani-style foods. “During a visit, I noticed that the Hani are like Italians when it comes to making noodles. They have such high standards. They can tell you the difference in taste between a noodle made in Kunming, and a noodle made in Gejiu.”
The restaurant mimics those exacting standards, and imports all of its dry rice noodles from the region, after realizing the same couldn’t be recreated in the city. “So much about noodles has to do with water quality, and in Beijing, the water is too hard,” Zhou says.
With that in mind – I ordered several Hani favorites off the menu, and started on the noodles. The rice noodle with savory bean custard was a triumph. The slippery strands yielded a bouncy bite, and absorbed the subtly spiced vinegary broth. The homemade soft tofu, broken over the dish in tasty morsels, was marvelously creamy.