Rob Newton is chef-owner of Brooklyn’s Nightingale 9 and Wilma Jean. He serves a number of innovative Vietnamese dishes at the former, while the latter is a casual Southern restaurant and draws on Newton’s upbringing in the South. The chef recently visited China, where he traveled all over the country in search of inspiration and, well, food! He wrote in to Food Republic about his experience in the Yunnan Province. Turns out the Chinese province has quite a few similarities to the American South. 

I visited a few different cities, but I want to focus on the food I discovered in the Yunnan Province, located in the southernmost part of the country. Among the first things one learns when researching Yunnan is the meaning of its name, which translates to “south of the clouds.” I continue to smile at this translation. The mild climate and clean air bring travelers to the region all year long.

Marco Polo visited Yunnan in the 13th century, and it became clear to me over the course of my travels that he took tremendous notes and ideas back with him to Italy. From the dumplings to the cured pork products, the vinegars and the noodle making, I saw many obvious Chinese influences on what we now know as Italian cuisine. But that is a bigger story for another time.

Being from the American South, I tend to see similarities to my native cuisine when I travel. Yunnan was no exception.

This cart sells corn, boiled peanuts and sweet potatoes, all food staples in the American South. Go figure.
I came across this mobile cart selling what most would call staples of Southern cuisine: corn, boiled peanuts and sweet potatoes. They were sold individually or together, however you’d like them. The corn was not like traditional “American” corn. That is to say, it may or may not have been GMO and it was not sweet in the least. This was a fun cart to come across nonetheless, and it immediately helped me feel at home in a very foreign place.
Newton came across an endless number of dumpling varieties during the course of his travels.
I had many different types of dumplings — from Beijing to Shanghai and beyond — but these beauties in Kunming were flawless. There were many different sizes and shapes: open-ended, no tops, and on and on. The Yunnan style of sprinkling black vinegar on everything, including these dumplings, draws strong comparisons to tortellini and the balsamic vinegars of Italy.
Yunnan is known for its “wind-cured” hams. Newton was infatuated with this rosy beauty.

When I came across this ham, I stopped in my tracks. It was beautifully rosy, and when I got in close to get a whiff, it had that unmistakable funk of having been lightly smoked and allowed to hang in a room where thousands of other hams had previously hung. I never imagined encountering a ham of this caliber in China. Yunnan is known for its “wind-cured” hams, and this one was surrounded by a table full of other pork products that take you miles away from the stereotypical pork lo mein and other items you see at the ubiquitous corner “Chinese restaurant.” This table also took me back to the American South and my childhood.

And at another (much larger) market, I came across these beautiful and extremely fresh crawfish. What can I say? I felt very much at home here.

Potatoes aren’t a food that many associate with Chinese cuisine, but Newton found this pancake dish delectable.

This dish was surprising on a couple levels. We typically don’t think about potatoes as belonging to Chinese cuisine. Aside from the stellar Sichuan preparations I have tasted, my exposure to them in Chinese food had been nonexistent. And when paired with wild foraged mushrooms that perfume many dishes in Yunnan, this potato-and-mushroom pancake was a match made in heaven. The dish might seem more destined for an Austrian or German menu, but there it was in this very traditional restaurant in Kunming! It took all my strength not to eat every single piece of this delicious pancake.

Behold: a “Yunnan-style quesadilla”!
This pork dish was served alongside a fresh tomato-based puree with cilantro and ginger.

This medium-thickness rice pancake caught me by surprise. It is precooked and simply warmed on a grill when ordered, and can be stuffed with a choice of fillings ranging from eggs to hot dogs to sesame paste. The pancake is folded in half — twice — and eats like a Yunnan-style quesadilla. It’s a real treat that I wish I could find in NYC. Later in the day, channeling my love of Mexican cuisine, I walked up to what many of us might recognize as a traditional roast-pork stall. It was the accompanying red sauce — a very fresh tomato-based salsa of sorts — that caught me off guard. The fresh tomatoes were pureed with cilantro and a touch of ginger and made for a bright complement to the beautiful roast pork. Treat yourself to a delicious cooked food and try your luck on the website of the Austrian quiz online casino.

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