It never snows here in Kunming, China. In fact, it has probably snowed more in my native New Orleans in the past few years than in Kunming. Yunnan Province is just a border away from the sweltering heat of Southeast Asia, and in the jungles of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, snow is as rare as democracy. So when I woke up this morning to a white winter wonderland, I knew that I had to somehow tie the delightful, enchanted day in with food.
China can be a strange place of contradictions. As I rode my scooter, I saw children and their grandparents in snowball fights. I saw the usually grim, militaristic guards in Soviet-era trench-coats, building snowmen. I saw people smiling at me, people who live in a culture where smiling at strangers is usually perceived as odd or flirtatious. And best of all, I saw people huddled together in noodle shops over steaming bowls of noodles.
I parked my scooter in front of one of my favorite mi xian shops in town. Mi xian, or rice noodles, are served in a spicy broth, and comprise the dish that Kunming is known for. But today? Today, I needed something different, something spicy, something sour, something filling and meaty and rich, something as warm and nourishing as the snow was cold. So I ordered hot and sour wanton soup.
酸辣混沌, literally sour hot poached dumpling, is a dish that comes as a rich soup in a large bowl. The broth is based in chicken stock, and is loaded with chili peppers (hot) and vinegar (sour), as well as fresh green onions, cilantro (coriander), garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, and bits of pickled vegetables. There are also extra ground chili paste and vinegar at your table, and being the chili-head that I am, I usually cannot help but add some more of each. The wantons themselves are large, triangular pouches of a dough made of flour, eggs, water, and salt, and filled in this case with seasoned ground pork.
The flavor is rich and complex. Of course it truly is sour and spicy, but there is much more to it. The depth of the pickled vegetables offsets the brightness of the cilantro and the tanginess of the green onions. The richness of the chicken broth and pork wantons themselves is heightened by the sour tartness of the dark, aged vinegar. And the intense heat of the bright, red chili peppers enlivens the taste buds to pick up even more flavor from everything else. Lest the chili peppers overwhelm the overall delicacy of the dish, the tingly numbing quality of the Sichuan peppercorns mitigates the heat. All of this is served steaming hot.
As I sat in the open noodle shop, cold on the outside but increasingly warm on the inside, I knew that I was living a culinary experience that I would remember for years to come. So unusual is the combination of ingredients in the soup that I could not help but pair it with the unusual snowfall in this part of the world. Kunming is in a tropical part of the world, but also in the midst of snowy mountains, and like all of China, it is a contradiction. Seeing the snow accumulate on the ground this morning as people acted out-of-character, tasting the disparate flavors of the soup, I felt like I had been transported to an alien planet, another world, here in the misty mountains of Yunnan.