Postcard from Yunnan, Part 5


In addition to ham, the other food product Yunnan is famous for is mushrooms. While we’ve been getting some nice ones here and there, it wasn’t until our last night that we really committed to the fungi. We booked seats at a hot pot place, where each table is outfitted with a burner in the center for a pot full of bubbling broth, into which you drop things, fish them out, and eat them.

This place was serious, displaying the 37 varieties of mushrooms they were featuring…in the off season. I can’t imagine what this case is like on a good day.

Some of these things were familiar, even if they had different, more evocative names. Porcini were called “beef liver mushrooms,” chanterelles were named “chicken fat mushrooms” because of their color. Others I’d never seen before.

The beauty of a hot pot is that as you keep cooking different foods in the broth, it gets richer and richer with flavor, and at the end, the soup is really something else. With that in mind, most places give you a pale, watery pot to start off with, and no one really minds. So I wasn’t really ready for the broth they delivered, made from the scraps of 40 kinds of mushrooms, including the maligned Chinese truffle, which made a case for it being sadly misunderstood. Just the steam coming off the broth was flooring me. Then they threw a turtle in it. Then a chicken. Then all the mushrooms we had ordered. Then we were gone fishing.

You might argue that throwing everything in one pot is not the best way to deal with all these different ingredients. You might be right. But I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be while I was digging out first this fungus then that, this one slippery and earthy, that one meaty and grassy. It was like eating a forest floor, which I guess doesn’t actually sound very appetizing. Well, it was like eating a forest floor, if you can imagine that being the thing you most want to eat in the world.

When we’d eaten our fill of the meats and the mushrooms, they added some taro slices and chunks of napa cabbage to the pot, and we let these things cook, reducing the broth, which commanded our conversation. An auntie said that hot pot broth is terrible for your health, that regardless of whatever you put or didn’t put in it, it’s a blood pressure and cholesterol bomb. This comment launched the table into the sort of discussion every family gets into, where no one really knows what they’re talking about, but everyone is ready to offer their amateur analysis and sourceless information.

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