Postcard from Yunnan, Part 2

The Ham and the Ham-Fisted.
Yunnan food

Food-wise, Yunnan is most famous for its ham, a salty, long-cured product that can be compared to jamon serrano, prosciutto, or even more closely to certain American country hams. But it’s aged for longer—over a year and a half—and it trades in the silkiness of the best of those hams for a deeply mineral, almost funky flavor. The stuff is pure gold in braises and soups, where it lends unmatched depth and the beguiling flavor of age. It’s got gravity.

I asked my guide where I should pick some up and he took me to…Wal-Mart. Despite my protestations (I mean, in a country where people are paid so little, I wondered if they actually made the employees pay to work there), I dug around the pile and was surprised to find an enormous diversity of specimens, ranging in color from pale pinks to dark, earthy brick. I picked out one with marbling like you can’t believe, and hugged it all the way to the register. (Note to U.S. Customs: don’t worry, I’m eating it here. All 4 kilos of it.)

I can’t show you pictures of my new ham friend, since I, uh, ate it all already and certainly don’t have any left to smuggle home, but if you’re up for a little food porn, here’s some Yunnan cured pork from the Expressions Restaurant in the Xiongbao Hotel in Chuxiong (above, left). That weird-looking curved plate it’s served on is a million-degree clay roof tile, sizzling and searing the stuff before our eyes, the pork splattering my poor father’s hand with exploding lard. This meant, of course, that I was obligated to restore honor to our family, and exacted vengeance for him by eating the bastard.

Back home, we think of going out to restaurants generally as a form of entertainment. But I kept running into places throughout Yunnan that take that idea to a whole different level. See the top photo above, for instance.

Yes, that’s a stage bookended by elephant statues. If they have at least five tables full, they put on a show, heavy on the costumes, singing, dancing, and nubile bodies of the local ethnic minorities. Dinner theater? This is lunchtime colonial pageantry. To be honest, it feels a little weird to be chomping on food while beautiful young people dance in front of you with I’m-trying-really-hard-to-look-excited smiles plastered to their faces.

There’s a restaurant in Kunming called “Springtime in Kunming” (Kunming Chun Tian), whose menu features flower-based dishes, some—like jasmine buds marinated with sesame—rather delicious. But the real draw is the fantasy. Because what makes you feel more like a pretty pretty princess than eating a rose with sugar syrup dewdrops (above, center)?

Or eating a whole chrysanthemum, deep fried and served up like a drumstick (above, right)?

But what’s really special about Kunming Chun Tian is the decor. I don’t know, frankly, if I can explain it. Imagine a dollar store. Imagine that dollar store on steroids. Now imagine that swollen, bloated dollar store on drugs, on the kind of hallucinatory high that makes it think it’s a banquet hall. Chintzy plastic flowers adorn everything through the four or so floors of the place—lining the walls, the furniture, coiling around the exposed pipes. A “flower” garden, complete with a waterfall, greets diners on their way to the staircase.

There were fake skylights above the dining room of the floor I was on, with Photoshop prints of clouds and sun behind them. There were plastic cases shoddily installed into sawed-out holes in the walls, displaying vaguely African dolls. I’m telling you, this place is amazing. But nothing topped the goats, which I somehow missed on the way in. Yes, goats. Totally evil goats, because every fantasy has a dark side.

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