Some years ago my father, with his longtime friend and business partner, decided to bid farewell to their textile manufacturing business of close to three decades, searching for a calmer and quieter pace of life,and the ancient knowledge and wisdom in tea-making. In my father’s words: “I suddenly feel the longing to read this book written by nature, through the lens of growing tea”. It was a calling. They travelled west into Yunnan province, the midwestern part of China, and landed in a mountainous region where Pu’er tea grew. They connected with people who have been growing tea for several generations, with traditional processing and fermentation techniques dating back 800 years. Tea grows there naturally and freely, where spiders keep insects away, wild boars were allowed to roam freely to plough, and where tea is fermented in caves for two decades before seeing the light of day. When he described all of this to me on the phone while I attended university in Cape Town, I was amazed, curious and excited for his new journey.
When I could travel back to visit him, he’d take me to Yunnan, to visit his tea, his new friends, and show me all the flavours that exist south of the clouds. In Mandarin, “Yun” means “cloud”, “Nan” is “south”. Yunnan is a rainforest filled with azaleas , teeming with elephants and monkeys. There are also glacier topped mountains, towns with mud brick houses that are home to two dozen minority groups, including the Mosuo, one of the last of the remaining matriarchal societies. Yunnan stretches along the southern Tibetan plateau, bordering Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. Imagine the flavour fusions! It is a place most diverse culturally and biologically. The mountain range gives hundreds of varieties of mushrooms (also truffles and matsutake), bamboos and edible flowers. The people in this region stayed connected and communicated for hundreds of years while trading horses, tea and spices — creating a beautifully rich and textured food culture that celebrates a mutual love between a people and their land. A foraging culture that celebrates nature being the most understanding chef.
Not much technique is involved in the cooking of Yunnan food, the labour-intensive part is in the preparation of the ingredients, then you can play around as you assemble. Since we are well into spring in SA, I thought I’d share this refreshing cold noodle dish from Yunnan. It’s an easy and versatile dish, vegetarian friendly (just remove the meat in the recipe), and when you’re prepping various toppings for the dish you can even make a batch to add to your other cooking adventures later. You may find that the flavour profile of this dish is like Thai and Viet food, but it’s a dish found within midwestern China. That’s the beauty of a space where people of different origins share, learn, cultivate understanding and appreciation for one another’s differences. I pray that a world like this will continue to exist for all future generations to come.
- 150g rice noodles
- 100g pork rashes or pork belly strip, cut into 1cm cubes (add more pork if you prefer)
- 2 tbsp gochujang
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp maple syrup (I used the ginger chilli syrup from The Leopard)
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 2 cups of cooking oil
- 2 tbsp chilli flake
- 2 tbsp chilli powder (I used Gochugaru- a Korean chilli powder)
- 2 tbsp sweet soy sauce
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar (or any other fruit vinegar)
- 4 stalks of spring onion
- 2 star anise
- 4 tsp of chopped garlic
- ½ cucumber, julienned
- 2 medium sized carrots, julienned
- Handful of mint, roughly chopped
- Handful of coriander, roughly chopped
- Soak rice noodles in cold water for 15 minutes
- Marinade pork belly cubes with gochujang, syrup, soy sauce and sesame oil for 20 minutes
- To make spring onion flavoured crispy chilli oil: heat oil, add spring onion and star anise, let it simmer in oil for 15 minutes or until the spring onion turns dark brown, remove spring onionIn a small bowl, add chilli flake and chilli powder, a pinch of salt, then pour hot oil into the bowl. Set aside crispy chilli oil to dress noodles later. (I regularly make a batch of this chilli crisp and/or the spring onion oil to keep in my fridge to dress noodles or dumplings)
- To make the sweet and tangy dressing: add a cup of water to chopped garlic, separately mix the sweet soy sauce and apple cider vinegar together, then add garlic water to the sweet soy vinegar mix
- Boil water in a medium pot and cook rice noodles for 10 minutes, then run under cold water and set aside
- Brush pan with a thin layer of oil, pan fry pork belly cubes on medium heat until slightly crispy on the outside, and then set aside
- The best part of the preparation process: assemble noodles on plate, then layer the cucumber and carrots, pork belly cubes, mint and coriander, then pour the sweet and sour dressing, finished with drizzles of spring onion flavoured crispy chilli oil, et voila!
Extra tips: crushed roasted peanut can add an extra layer of flavour and add some shredded chicken if you prefer a meatier dish. This dish is enjoyed cold, but you can also add a cup of piping hot bone broth and it’s a beautiful noodle soup.