Vegetable Porn & Chinese Cheese

Vegetables in Dali Market

Veggie Porn © Jo James

Dali in Yunnan is home to some of China’s best-looking vegetables. The Bai people who live in and around Dali have been blessed with a lush, fertile strip of homeland, sandwiched between the Cangshan Mountains and Lake Erhai. This geography, watered by the streams that fall from the mountains, boosted with plenty of manure and – less picturesquely – some ‘farm medicine’*, has created ideal growing conditions in Bai vegetable patches and orchards.

In Dali’s old town market pale-green daikon radishes as thick as a well-muscled arm lay in heaps on tarpaulins, and taut, shiny aubergines and vivid carrots nestle alongside more exotic produce – green mulberries, quinces, fishwort and jasmine flowers. Bai and Yi people come to town for this daily event, some with cartloads of produce for sale, others with a single basket of herbs. If you’re passing through Dali, make sure to stop and have a look – mid-morning is the best time to visit – and if you really can’t control yourself and end up buying a basketful, then there are excellent cooking classes available through Rice & Friends Cooking School

Mulberries for sale, Dali

Mulberries for sale, Dali © Jo James

Yunnanese cuisine reflects the province’s geographical quirks. In the subtropical lowlands of the south, pineapple sticky rice and grilled fish stuffed with chilli and fresh herbs are on the menu, while amongst the glaciers and rhododendron forests of the north you can dine on yak meat hotpot and Tibetan naan bread, with many variations In the hills and valleys between. Last week, I bought green mulberries in Dali, and took them to a restaurant less than 200 kilometres away to have them cooked, having been told that they were tasty when fried with eggs. The waitress returned, laughing, “No one in the kitchen knows what they are – never seen ‘em before, so we can’t cook them for you…”

Herbs © Jo JamesDali’s style of cooking is particularly interesting because it features two rarities – dairy products and fresh herbs. While herbs are used widely throughout South East Asian cuisines, most Chinese food just uses fresh coriander, a little parsley and a lot of spring onions. In Dali, however, minced beef is fried with mint, potatoes are served with dill and Thai basil is added to pungent dipping sauces.

Bean Thief, Dali

A little bean thief, Dali © Jo James

On early trips to China I suffered acute cheese withdrawal symptoms and made many fruitless visits to supermarkets in search of Babybel or Laughing Cow. I really ought to have just upped and headed for Dali. The Bai make two kinds of cheese from goat and cow milk, rubing (which is like Indian paneer) and rushan (which is like no cheese I’ve ever seen before). Rushan, whose name means ‘milk fan’, is made from curds that have been stretched out on a bamboo frame and dried into waxy cones of cheese. Briefly deep-fried and served with a sweet sauce, rushan is redolent of deep-fried brie and cranberry sauce – delicious, but sadly too time-consuming to make at home.

Rubing (‘milk cake’, pronounced roo-bing) is my favourite. The Bai traditionally serve this on special occasions, lightly fried and with a pile of salt or sugar alongside for dabbing your cheese in. Fortunately, rubing is easy to recreate at home, and even if you’re sceptical about homemade cheese, I really recommend trying this – it’s inordinately satisfying to make, as well as to eat.

Chinese Cheese

Chinese Cheese, Dali © Jo James

Chinese Cheese, Dali © Jo James

Makes 175g, enough for one dish as part of a Chinese meal.
1.5 litres whole milk (purists can use organic, unpasteurised milk, but regular pasteurised milk will work just fine)
30ml cider vinegar
Oil, salt/sugar

1) Using a medium saucepan, heat the milk until it’s almost boiling, stirring constantly to prevent it sticking or scorching.
2) Remove from the heat and add the vinegar, stirring gently. Almost immediately, the lumpy, white curds will separate from the liquid whey. Leave for a few minutes without stirring, then strain through a sieve.
3) Tip the contents of the sieve onto a clean tea towel, then squeeze out as much whey as you can by hand, taking care not to burn yourself. Put the tea towel bundle back into the sieve, then place something heavy on top of it and leave until cool. The leftover whey can be drunk (I was suspicious, but it’s pretty tasty and, by all accounts, very nutritious)
4) Cut into slices and shallow fry. Drain and serve with a small pile of salt or sugar.

* Chinese often uses rather vague, benevolent sounding terms for certain kinds of chemicals. ‘Farm medicine’ (农药, nongyao) is an umbrella term for pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers, while ‘flavour essence’ (味精, weijing) is the common name for MSG. Don’t they sound more pleasant in Chinese than in English?

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