A Typical Yunnanese Kitchen Pantry

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Dried Thai chiles???/??? Small dried red Thai chiles are perhaps the most frequently used ingredient in Yunnan kitchens, employed to flavor everything from stir-fried meat to soups. In Chinese markets they are usually just labeled as “dried chiles”; look for small red chiles roughly 2 to 3 inches long.

Dried chile flakes??? The chile flakes called for in these recipes are the standard red chile flakes that are available in Chinese markets, often labeled “dried red chile powder”; while some brands look powdery, you should also see some whole chile flakes in the mix. You can also use Italian-style chile (red pepper) flakes from the supermarket spice aisle, which have a similar flavor.

Dried ground chile??? Yunnan cooks use a variety of ground chile powders that are not available in the United States. To make these recipes, I usually use Korean Red Pepper Powder, sometimes labeled Tower Red Pepper Powder. Occasionally some paprika is added to the pepper to more accurately approximate the flavor of Yunnan’s chiles.

Sichuan peppercorns?? Small, round Sichuan peppercorns have a citrusy flavor and leave a delightful tingling, numbing sensation in your mouth. Most of these recipes call for red Sichuan peppercorns, which can be used whole or ground. To make a recipe that calls for ground peppercorns, you can buy Sichuan peppercorn powder, but you’ll get a superior flavor if you toast and grind whole peppercorns yourself.

Black cardamom?? This spice is readily available in Asian markets, but is not well-known in the United States. The pods are brown, fibrous, and about an inch long. Both whole black cardamom pods and ground black cardamom seeds are used in Yunnan cooking.

Salt?? Cooks in Yunnan use various salts, depending on where they live and what’s readily available, but all the recipes in this book have been tested using standard Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt. If you use other salts, make sure to taste as you go; other brands of kosher salt can be twice as salty as Diamond Crystal (and don’t dissolve as quickly), and both table salt and sea salt also add different amounts of saltiness.

Soy sauces?? Recipes in this book mostly call for Chinese light soy sauce, which has a delicate, fragrant flavor. Some recipes specify dark soy sauce, a thicker soy sauce that has a syrupy consistency and is usually used sparingly to add a bit of color and a little punch of umami to dishes. Note that these soy sauces are not the same as Japanese soy sauce or tamari, which have a completely different flavor profile.

Vegetable oil??? You can use any standard vegetable oil you like in these recipes, but the one commonly used in Yunnan is rapeseed oil (sold as canola in many places). In fact, farmers in Yunnan grow a lot of rapeseed, so much of the rapeseed oil used by rural cooks is produced locally.

Sesame oil??? The sesame oil used in these recipes is Chinese-style toasted sesame oil, which has a warm-brown hue and a rich, nutty flavor.

Vinegars? Cooks in Yunnan use a variety of vinegars, each of which has a distinct flavor: Zhenjiang vinegar ???? is a dark rice vinegar (sometimes labeled “Chinkiang vinegar”) that is made in Zhenjiang City and is one of the most popular in China. Shanxi vinegar ????? is another aged vinegar, from Shaanxi Province. It has a slightly richer, deeper fragrance and a woody flavor. Chinese rice vinegar ?? is a light, yellow-hued vinegar that is bright and acidic, like white wine vinegar. Kong Yen brand from Taiwan is readily available in the United States.

Hot chile oil??? A clear, orange-red oil that has been filtered to completely remove any pieces of chile, this condiment is often used to dress cold noodle or vegetable dishes.

Chile-bean paste (douban jiang)??? This spicy, savory ingredient is made by fermenting chiles and beans together. Yunnan’s versions of douban jiang have their own particular flavors. Most are similar to southern Chinese chile-bean paste, often labeled “toban djan” in the United States, and are a bit sweet and contain sugar and garlic. (Lee Kum Kee brand is readily available in the U.S.) In some cases, adding some ground bean sauce—thick and salty, made from fermented soybeans—to a dish along with the chile-bean sauce brings it closer to the local flavor. (Koon Chun brand is available in Asian markets and online.)

Some of Yunnan’s chile-bean pastes are closer to Sichuan’s versions, which are made with only beans, chiles, salt, and a little flour. In the United States, look for a brand called Sichuan Pixian Douban Co., which comes in foil packets. If you can’t get pixian douban jiang, you can substitute the southern-style paste, above, in any recipe, but the flavor of the finished dish will change a bit.

Fragrant chile sauce (xiangla jiang)??? Made with broad beans, chiles, and fermented flour paste, this sauce is sometimes labeled “spicy bean paste” and is sweeter and less funky than douban jiang (above). In the United States and Europe, you can find an excellent version made by Lao Gan Ma, a popular Guizhou-based company that produces a number of chile-based sauces (including southern-style douban jiang).

Chile sauce (lajiao jiang)??? Chile sauce (as distinct from hot chile oil or chile-bean paste) is a bright-red sauce made from mashed fresh chiles, salt, sugar, and sometimes some sesame oil and citric acid. It has a texture somewhat akin to a jarred salsa and a bright, slightly sour taste. Look for sauce that is sold in jars and is a bright, brick-red, such as Lee Kum Kee brand’s version.

Sour bamboo?? Shredded sour pickled bamboo is a staple of Dai cooking in western Yunnan. The bamboo, which has a sour, astringent, and slightly funky flavor, is not available in the United States, but Thai versions, which have a similar flavor, are available packed in jars in Thai markets and online.

Rice? Farmers in Yunnan grow thousands of rice varieties—more than in any other part of the world—and Yunnan cooks use them all. For the recipes in this book, however, you’ll only need a few that are available in most Asian markets (and online). Jasmine rice and similar long-grain types are the most commonly served rice in China; most meals served in northern, central, and eastern Yunnan include a helping of steamed jasmine rice (or a similar variety), as a complement to stir-fried dishes, cold salads, and simple soups, and this is also the type of rice used for making fried rice. Sticky rice is popular in place of regular steamed rice in many parts of southern and western Yunnan. When buying sticky rice, look for varieties from Thailand, which are sometimes labeled “sweet rice” or “glutinous rice.” Purple sticky rice (also called “black sticky rice”) is also used in western Yunnan. If you want to make Yunnan’s famous er kuai rice cakes, you’ll need to find Nishiki rice, a Japanese-style rice grown in the United States.

More from Cooking South of the Clouds

Reprinted with permission from Cooking South of the Clouds by Georgia Freedman and published by Kyle Books, 2018.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.