21 Jun 2014
Tibet on a plate
This article was also published in the Financial Times. See also this account of a fascinating wine project in the same area.
Although the Frenchman standing in front of me was talking about two of my favourite topics, food and wine, I was not paying too much attention to what he was saying.
Instead, my focus was entirely fixed on what was taking place behind him through the large window of the hotel's restaurant. It was dusk and the final rays of sunshine were falling on what was unquestionably the most remarkable prelude to any meal I have ever enjoyed.
We were 3,500 metres above sea level in the Regalia Hotel in Feilaisi in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Region of Yunnan, in the south-west corner of China. Across from us, on the far side of the valley through which the upper Mekong River runs, was the magnificent snow-capped Meili Mountain (seen here at midday, most unusually without its usual veil of cloud), whose peak is at 7,500 metres and is sacred to all Tibetans.
This captivating view had been the backdrop to our breakfast, lunch and dinner in this hotel although it was the call of Yunnan that had first brought me here.
Yunnan province, the size of France but far less populated, is still predominantly agricultural and the source of some remarkable foodstuffs. A good 800 of the world's 2,000 varieties of mushrooms are to be found here, including considerable quantities of the matsutake mushrooms so beloved by the Japanese. Those who live on the land here take off for days to forage across the high, unspoilt countryside when they are in season. Ceps, the mushrooms that so delight the French, are plentiful too, as is a vast array of wild flowers. Pu-er tea, that strong fermented brew on offer in so many Chinese restaurants around the world, is another Yunnan speciality.
But what makes Yunnan so exciting for the adventurous eater is more than simply what Nature can provide – although the quality of so much of what we ate was excellent: the eggs, the chickens, the vegetables and my first yak steak. Yunnan is famous for being home to 25 different ethnic minorities who have varied and distinctive ways of preparing and cooking these ingredients. Freshness and clean, authentic flavours were the hallmarks of everything we ate, but it would be the opportunity to explore such varied interpretations of this indigenous bounty that would readily lure me back here.
A sense of excitement was all I heard from those I spoke to about our trip to Yunnan, whether in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore. Those who had not been here wanted to join us. Those who had, were full of tips about what we should eat, tinged quite noticeably with jealousy. Everyone who has travelled here seems only too keen to return, while the region's natural attractions are inducing many wealthy Chinese from Beijing and Shanghai to buy second homes here, rapidly forcing up the cost of new, and often unsympathetic looking, property.
Part of this excitement stems simply from the opportunity to arrive at a town called Shangri-La, not an everyday occurrence, although it has only had this name since 2001. For the 1,300 years before then, this remote village on the ancient Tea Horse Road was known as Duzekong, or Gyalthang in Tibetan.
As our China Eastern Airlines plane lurched over the surrounding peaks towards the airport, even prompting a yelp from the young steward, we began to take in the extraordinary views. And as we walked into the terminal our bodies began to appreciate that it requires a little time and practice to readjust to walking calmly at this high altitude.
We had the good fortune to be able to readjust our bodies in the comfort of Arro Khampa, a boutique hotel that opened in 2013 thanks to the talents of a Nepalese businessman and his Thai wife, in the old part of Shangri-La that was devastated by a fire in the early hours of 11 January this year. Fortunately, the hotel, with its delightful combination of traditional Tibetan thick rammed-earth facades and intricate wooden carvings with under-floor heating and more traditional open fires, survived untouched.
The fading sunlight provided not just the opportunity to take photos of ourselves as though we were characters in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon that sparked the myth of Shangri-La, but also to become acclimatised to the elements. The constant wind, the dryness of the atmosphere and the marked contrast between day and night temperatures, which can be as much as 15 ºC all year round, became immediately obvious. (This last factor was a major impediment to the effectiveness of the fire fighters as in the early hours of the morning the water had frozen in the tanks.) But the cold was an extra inducement to head down for our first dinner in Yunnan.
This took place on a long low table in the hotel's restaurant with fire playing a key part. At the end of the table was a large open fire next to a huge pile of wood: outside was a small grill from which brochettes of different vegetables and meats soon appeared after we had been served a revitalising bowl of pumpkin soup and plates of steamed and boiled dumplings. The constant stream of brochettes incorporated chicken wings, lamb, mushrooms and sweetcorn alongside bowls of pungent chili oil in which to dip them. The high-cheekboned, bronzed, young Tibetan women who served us looked on with an obvious sense of pride at the pleasure their food was giving us. Sleep that night came very easily.
The journey from Shangri-La to Feilaisi took just over 3 hours. We crossed a pass at 4,500 metres and with every bend were offered views that stretched right down to the verdant valley floor or along this twisting main road to Lhasa, to which many make the pilgrimage on foot. Our particular reward as we clambered out was the sight of the very top of the Meili Mountain, most unusually without its cloud covering.
The prelude to dinner that evening was a discussion of where we should have lunch the following day once back in Shangri-La. The plan had originally been to eat at the Songstam Retreat, a thoughtfully designed hotel that overlooks the magnificent Songstam temple. But I had a hankering for somewhere more local and the Frenchman, who has lived in Shangri-La for 18 months, was recalling one much less sophisticated place in the old town where he and his family had often eaten without once suffering an upset stomach.
Dinner was to be a banquet, a word that can imply tedium, but in Chinese style involved over 15 courses served in less than an hour. No sooner had a pigeon broth with plum and dark, succulent meat been enjoyed than the lazy Susan in the middle of a large round table around which Han Chinese, Tibetans, French and English were smiling was laden with spicy pork liver; a variety of crisp, salted, fried insects; thin strips of very spicy pork belly; various wild mushrooms prepared in various fashions; slices of yam in a thick lemon sauce; and diced aubergine with shredded pork and peppers. Then a small, thick yak steak, the meat a deep purple; a hot pot in which several vegetables were to be cooked; barbecued lamb; and spare ribs. And finally a deep-fried cigar-shaped roll made from yak cheese filled with a red bean puree.
The next day, after many more hours on the dramatic Lhasa road, we were back in Shangri-La and parked in the old town. We walked carefully down the street (there isn't much pavement and the drivers pay scant attention to pedestrians) and, forewarned, ducked into the basement of the Shangri La Old Town Hotel to use their lavatories. Our next stop was the Shandong Savoury Wheaten Food Restaurant.
The level of comfort in this two-roomed restaurant is not high. One room has half a dozen low tables and lots of stools, while the other houses a large, glass-fronted fridge stuffed with ingredients fresh from the nearby market, and two large woks. Moving swiftly between both rooms is the young female cook who carries the large, steaming plates of food to her customers as soon as they are finished but has to move even faster when her small son waddles out of sight.
If the meal in front of the Meili Mountain incorporated the most memorable view, this more mundane lunch certainly could not have been better value. A total of 209 yuan or £20.50 bought lunch for eight that began with a cucumber salad laced with chillies and vast bowls of steamed and fried dumplings making way for a huge plate of diced chicken with mushrooms and rice.
But here, as in my other meals in and around Shangri-La, what I will remember particularly, along with the freshness of the ingredients, is the natural friendliness combined with a sense of pride of all those involved in preparing and serving them.
Arro Khampa Jinlong Street, Old Town Donglang 15, Yunnan 674400, China;
tel +86 887 8881 007