Dispatches from Abroad: Kunming Cuisine

One of my Malaysian-Chinese colleagues once told me that “if it walks with its back to the sky” then it’s fair game for a Chinese table. The twice-daily walk through one of Kunming’s open-air markets between my hotel and the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ) where I’m spending my last 10 days in China certainly supports her adage. It also should give one pause at the dinner table.

But I digress…

On Thursday afternoon, I joined a few tens of millions of Chinese citizens in the air as we all celebrated the penultimate day of the Golden Week holiday by flying from Beijing to somewhere else in the country. Kunming, Yunnan Province, in the southern part of China being my destination. The 3-1/2-hour flight was pleasantly free of turbulence and uneventful, and long enough so I could finally get to watch The Revenant. There were some dinner scenes in that movie that bear some anachronistic resemblance to various barbecues I have attended here. And of course, immediately upon landing, and after the predictable 1-1/2-hour drive through traffic from the Kunming Airport to the city, it was dinner time.

The first night, my colleague Sam Ma, his college room-mate and my friend and colleague Xiujun Wen, and Sam’s students all got together for the evening organic farm-to-table meal. Because Xiujun is a vegetarian, which is really difficult in China, as even the “vegetarian” dishes on the menu are routinely cooked in meat stock and garnished with grains of pork or beef, most of the dishes were as meat-free as possible.

Kunming – the first night

Standbys included steamed bitter gourd and spicy eggplant, and new veggies were sweet fried soybean paste rollups, lightly fried tree-branch mushrooms, and a piquant marinated peanut and red onion salad (click on any of the images to see them enlarged in a slide show).

The most fun we had, though, was with the platter of fried microlivestock (and microfish, which substituted for an out-of-stock arthropod).


At the top are grasshoppers, and the fish are to the lower right. But those worms on the left… In Chinese, they are called zhú chóng (竹虫), but the biologist in me wanted the Latin name. Which led to a 15-minute discussion and a lot of hunting on baidu.com (the local alternative to google, which is blocked). On first glance, they looked to me like beetle larvae, and indeed, the Bostrichid beetle, Dinoderus minutus was a candidate for a few minutes. But Xiujun, who is a forest entomologist, while averring that they could be a Crambid moth larva (Omphisa fuscidentalis)—which is eaten throughout southeast Asia—insisted that it was the larvae of the carpenter bee, Xylocopa dissimilis (a.k.a. Xylocopa nasalis), which also nests in bamboo. I was (and remain) doubtful, as X. dissimilis is relatively uncommon and the larvae on the platter look a lot like O. fuscidentalis with its hardened head capsule and its little feet and pseudofeet, but I did find this metamorphosing near-adult in the pile of larvae, and it sure looks bee-like to me!


There was also a pile of snails, and a steamed chicken; the latter, like platters of duck and geese that I’ve seen in the last couple of months, came complete with the head.

No one actually eats the head (well, mostly; at least one of my hosts in the last couple of months did eat the duck head). Rather, I think it’s supposed to convince you that you’ve been served an actual bird (sort of like when your car mechanic gives you a bag of destroyed brake shoes after s/he replaces them to convince you that work on your car has actually been done), but I’ve also been told that many restaurants, even upscale ones, recycle the uneaten heads. Which, together with the Kunming market, is enough to scare me off of chicken, duck, turkeys, geese, and any other foul fowl for a very long time.

The market itself is a nearly kilometer-long stretch of road, with stalls on either side. One would think that the approximately 3-m-wide road would be pedestrians only, but no, we share it with motorbikes, cars, trucks, and vans, all going in both directions. One can buy most anything in the market, from fruits, vegetables and spices, to fish, poultry, and meat, as well as moonshine and standard household goods and appliances. The fish are all alive in tanks, and the poultry can be picked and feathered live or bought straight off the rack. The meat, on the other hand, has been slaughtered and cut in various dimensions. Refrigeration – what’s that? (click on any of the images below to see larger ones in a slide show)

I will add that walking through the market just before the seminar I gave this Saturday afternoon added a bit of edgy bile to my discussion of tipping points.


And of course, the obligatory after-the-talk dinner. Tonight, we went to a Muslim-style restaurant in the hopes of getting more vegetables (and no pork), and were treated away to a number of new dishes, including sautéed Chrysanthemum leaves, sweet rice balls, cabbage smothered in garlic, corn fritters, stir-fried mushrooms, and a stew of tofu, jellyfish, and squid over thick noodles (click on any of the images to see larger ones in a slide show).

And no, I was not hungry one hour after dinner!


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