It’s known to have one of the richest bio-diversities in the world. A thumb of land tumbling down from the Tibetan Plateau to the lush, tropical hills surrounding the lower Mekong basin, the state of Yunnan in China is also known to have one of the highest concentrations of ethnic minorities in the world. There are 25 different groups – each maintaining a distinct language, and notably, a unique cuisine of their own.
The Dai people live in Xishuangbanna, the verdant hills that snuggle the Mekong River on the southern reaches of Yunnan. The Dai are a member of the Tai ethnic group, which includes Thai, Laotians and the Shan people from Burma. Consequently their cuisine shares strong similarities to that found in northern Thailand and Laos: spicy, sour and herbaceous, with most dishes containing chili, coriander and lime juice, but without the use of fish sauce. Dai also liberally use fermented soybeans, lemongrass and bamboo as well as mushrooms, flowers, ferns, algae and gooseberries foraged from the jungle.
Rice is a staple. The name Xishuangbanna in Dai (as well as in Thai and Lao) is sipsong-banna, sip- song meaning ‘12’ and banna meaning ‘thousand rice paddies’, hence the regions colloquial name as the “rice basket of China”. Most rice eaten is an opaque, low starch glutinous variety known as “sticky rice”; not because it contains gluten, but due to the way it sticks together when cooked. Bamboo sticky rice is a Dai specialty. It is made by putting clean rice and water into a bamboo tube, soaking for 7 or 8 hours and then covering with a banana leaf to roasting over coals for 12 to 13 minutes. Soft and fluffy, the rice maintains a delicate bamboo aroma.
Abundant, renewable and cheap, bamboo is key to Dai cooking; the tender young shoots as a food and the hollow trunks as cooking instruments. Only young green bamboo is used to cook with; older bamboo soaks up juices and dries the dish out. Split on the horizontally, the bamboo is stuffed with any number of combinations- diced pork or chicken mixed with chilli, ginger, coriander and a local herb known as Sichuan pepper leaf; sticky rice, tossed with cubes of diced pineapple to lend the rice a slightly sweet, slightly acid, tropical aroma; eggplant puree that when cooked is smoky and nutty and lends similarities to the Middle Eastern eggplant dish baba ghanoush- before being plugged with a fresh folded banana leaf and buried with heated stones under soil to cook or over charcoal embers.
Another popular cooking method is to dry meat over the residual heat emitted from charcoal. A favourite dish using this method is gamba beef. Coated in Sichuan pepper, a berry grown above 3500 meters in Yunnan that has a lip tingling citrus taste and is no relation to black pepper, chilli and salt and hung over a charcoal stove for three days to dry. Pulled into thin strings and tossed with the shredded purple heart of banana flower, its best eaten as a smoky, slightly tart, salad.
Perhaps the most defining element of Dai cuisine is the generous use of herbs; most cultivated and belonging to the coriander and mint families every Dai family worth their mint keeps a herb garden, and while many are native to only this corner of the world, present use of lemongrass, only with the leaves tied in a knot and used as season for stock rather than smashed and chopped.
Dai chicken salad uses pulled chicken that has been poached in stock for 20 minutes and mixed with roasted and smashed garlic and chilli (the Dai are prone to roasting garlic and chili to cut down on their pungency and draw out the flavours), the juice of a handful of limes, grated ginger and a handful of chopped herbs. But like most indigenous cuisines, especially those on the periphery of popular cultures, Dai cooking is changing fast. Traditionally relying on the flavour of stock made through boiling left over bones, the use of bark and herbs to accentuate taste, these days most cooks reach for monosodium glutamate (MSG) and synthetic chicken stock instead.