"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dai Cuisine in Kunming (Part 1 of 2)

Who are the Dai people? They are one of the many ethnic groups living in Yunnan Province in China. In Chinese, Dai is written as “傣,” which closely resembles 泰, the letter meaning Thai; therefore, not surprisingly, Dai people seem to have originally come from Thailand. Beyond this tiny bit of anthropology/ethnology from me, you will just have to go to you-know-where, the venerable Wikipedia: Although my alma mater has forbidden the use of Wikipedia, but go for it, you have my explicit permission to do so.

With basically no reference point beyond a mere preconception that it was probably something akin to Thai food, I walked into 傣家竹楼 (Dai Jia Zhu Lo) in Kunming, after meandering in the side streets with a whining stomach, because apparently the Kunminites have long decided that street names did not need to be enlightening to anyone, including the locals (they had no idea when I asked for directions) and, God forbid, the foreigners… The waitresses were wearing yellow ethnic costumes, which looked the yellow version of the Singapore Airline’s Balmain uniform. The restaurant was quickly filling up at 6PM on a Saturday, so I was fortunate to have landed a seat on the balcony overlooking a not particularly pretty street.
The unsettling thing about Chinese restaurants, in this case, Dai restaurant, is that the waitresses generally and literally hover over you from the moment you are handed a menu until you finish ordering, exerting pressure, top-down style. For a menu aficionado, especially when a Chinese menu can be as long as a short story, not to mention the fact that I was in a restaurant for food that I had never heard of, it was not an easy task to pick out the number of dishes that were interesting, comparatively healthy and within the bounds of a solo stomach. Finally relenting under the watchful and impatient eyes, I picked out several dishes, with unhelpful advice (generally, the waitresses/waiters in China seem not to know their own restaurant’s dishes very well – at least, they do not convey their knowledge efficiently or willingly: Are they fed?) from my hovering waitress.

While ordering, the tea arrived. Despite asking twice what kind of tea it was, I had failed to catch their quickly spoken words: Are they scared that I would steal their secrets? It was faintly herbal and had a subtly sweet aftertaste.

The first dish was the Ghost Chicken (鬼鶏). It was a chicken salad dressed with lime, herbs and chili peppers (What did I tell you? I knew it had something to do with Thai food!). The reason that it was called “ghost” was because the chicken used in this dish was the kind that had black skin. The dressing was nicely spicy and sour, but the meat was a bit tough. I suppose being a ghost must be hard work considering how muscular the chickens got (or how old...).

The second dish arrived within 60 seconds – The pineapple rice. It was a blend of sticky rice, purple rice, peanuts and pineapple chunks (if you can find them) stuffed and cooked in a pineapple shell. I do not know whether this pineapple rice was to be an accompaniment or to be enjoyed alone; however, I would have preferred a little more pineapple and more sweetness. Nonetheless, owing to my weakness for sweet sticky rice, a lot of it still disappeared during the course of the meal.

Then all the dishes started to pile up. The grilled fish was stuffed with scallions, chili, lemon grass and whatever other herbs. I wish I knew the kind of fish, but it hardly mattered because I would not know how to distinguish it, or to find it, later, because it was delicious. The fish flesh was just so tender and readily compliant to the plodding from my chopsticks; the spice and herbs totally complemented the sweetness of the fish. Having said that, this fish came surprisingly fast, and not as hot, considering that the necessary time for grilling a fish thoroughly. Therefore, I suspect that this fish had been waiting for a customer for a little while…

The greens (technically, not vegetables, it was a type of fern. See the curls?) were sautéed with tomatoes and perhaps some kind of fermented bean paste. The greens had a nice texture, softer than what I am used to have in Japan, but not overdone. The sauce was mild but with great depth – added by the spice, bean paste and tomato.

When asked what I wanted to drink initially, I asked for my hovering waitress’ recommendation for something different and Dai, and here it is. It is called泡露搭 (Pao-Lu-Ta), which was a sweet coconut milk with jellies, shredded coconut, sticky rice, tapioca pearls and broken bread. Honestly, if I took the same ingredients and made this myself, it would have been so much better because each ingredient was just missing something: The coconut milk was so watered down that you could not taste any coconut (I actually wondered if I was right about coconut milk and searched the web), the sticky rice was so little that I needed to count the grains, and so and so forth.

Restaurant Info:
傣家竹楼: 五华区三合营路66号. It is within walking distance from Nanping Lu, the shopping mecca. Nevertheless, no map I saw listed this street. The good news is that this place is famous enough that you may find some friendly locals who will be willing to point the way, assuming you can find them.

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