Because of its location, topography and climate, Yunnan province resembles little of what many Westerners think of as “China.”
The north is home to mountainous forests full of wild mushrooms and tribes tending goats, while down south tropical flowers and fruits grow in the hot, humid lowlands. More than 25 of China’s 55 state-recognized minority groups live in the province, and the cooking of each tribe has its own distinct flavors and characteristics.
Yunnan cuisine is known formally as Dian Cai (滇菜), after the kingdom that resided on the Yunnan plateau more than two millennia ago. This southwestern province borders Tibet and Sichuan to the north and Burma, Laos and Vietnam to the south. Some dishes from the south are reminiscent of northern Thai food or Burmese specialties.
Because fresh, local ingredients that only grow in the area are so important to Dian cuisine, it’s unusual to find good Yunnan food outside of the province. But Shanghai has several restaurants serving up excellent Yunnan cuisine.
This chic joint in trendy Xingfu Li pedestrian alley is owned by young Yunnan natives, several of whom got their start in Shanghai’s dining scene at Lost Heaven (see below). The sprawling menu pulls from all directions and minority tribes in the country, but the recommended section up top focuses on a couple of luxury items like matsutake mushrooms, truffles and cured Yunnan ham. Gathering Clouds also has one of the best hidden patios in town, shielded from the city by a healthy bamboo grove.
In & Out
This Beijing favorite migrated south in 2016. The culinary focus here is on Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage site that lies halfway between Shangri-La and Kunming, the provincial capital, and is home to the Naxi and several other ethnic minorities. Expect lots of mushrooms, goat’s cheese, tubers and fermented wines. For desserts, they cherry-pick from Xishuangbanna’s tropical harvest, with mango, pineapple and coconut making up the base of most desserts.
The ultimate local destination for expat dining, Lost Heaven nails the sleek ambience for Westerners. The Bund location boasts a massive terrace with views of Pudong’s skyscrapers and cocktails mixed al fresco. Its original location – opened back in 2006 – fills up all three floors of an old former French Concession lane house every night, with diners sitting among dark wood furnishings and lighting so dim they can barely see their food. But even if you can’t see it, you can taste it, and this is some of the most refined Yunnan cuisine in town. There’s a reason so many other restaurateurs have tried (and failed) to duplicate their successful formula.
The business partners at Lotus Eatery bring together the best of both their homelands: native Kunming ren Sophia Yang supplies the flavors, while British expat James Todd handles the service. Insects are one of the favorite orders here – deep-fried honeybees, bee pupae and dragonflies mainly – but don’t let that deter you from eating a meal here. There’s plenty else to order, and the menu reads like a Who’s Who of Yunnan’s best dishes.
Mia’s Yunnan Kitchen
If you’re looking for one of the best lunch sets in town, Mia’s Yunnan Kitchen is just the ticket. For less than RMB 50 (US$7.35), you get a vegetable, meat, bowl of rice and cup of tea. The menu is the most focused on this list, and if you bring three friends to lunch, you can pretty much sample the entire menu. During summer months, they open the floor-to-ceiling windows and let the former French Concession breeze waft through the restaurant.
Editor’s note: This feature was originally published in June 2017.