Food and friends

By Mike Peters ( China Daily ) Updated: 2015-03-14 08:11:34

Food and friends

Fresh beer is one of many joys of Dali's old city, says Mike Peters (left). Miketells how he spent the Spring Festival in China.[Photo provided to]

I would like to blame Lillian Chou for the fact that I probably gained weight over the Spring Festival, but I probably wouldn't get away with it.

I ran into Lillian on my first day in Xizhou, the Dali village where the Linden Centre is located. That carefully preserved compound is run as a cultural center and boutique hotel by Brian and Jeanne Linden, and I was there partly to enjoy a few days in that laid-back community and partly to gather material on these two dynamic Americans.

Lillian, a chef and longtime food writer for Beijing city magazines and for Gourmet, was jubilant when I unexpectedly met her in the hotel restaurant.

"I am so glad you're here!" she exclaimed. I was on the verge of preening, thrilled that the prospect of my stimulating conversation or even good looks provoked such a reaction.

But all of her admiring glances were actually focused on the menu.

"So glad you're here," she repeated. "Now we can order more food."

Ego compressed to normal, I too began to scan the dinner options eagerly. Part of the fun of being a food writer is that you have to eat three times a day anyway. But if your "working brain" is on, you want to taste as many things as you can - usually far more than you can eat.

I'm pretty religious about taking home leftovers - though recently I found a rather astonishing number of lamb bones in my refrigerator. So much soup I never quite got around to making. Since the national government began its ongoing campaign against extravagance and waste, many restaurants have their own ways to recycle uneaten food, including feeding it to pigs at the organic farms that are their suppliers. That's real recycling.

But when you're traveling, such options are limited. You don't want too many doggy-bags in your suitcase or your backpack.

That means a destination like Yunnan province, justly famous as a foodie haven, is challenging to navigate. The many ethnic groups there all have their own tasty specialties. There is superb local ham and interesting cheese. The region has also embraced the cuisines of its neighbors - one of the trip's best meals came at a Thai restaurant in Kunming.

And roses are more than just garden pretties and potpourri here: Markets and shops in Dali are crammed with rose jam, rose pastry, rose vinegar, rose sugar, rose syrup, rose pretty-much-anything.

Rose wine? Um, sure, why not?

Later, we would walk the streets of Dali's ancient town, where there are all of these nibbles and more: Fresh persimmon juice. Fishes from the blue waters of nearby Er Hai. Baskets of vegetables both familiar and funky. Snakefruit! (More fun to look at this prickly, dark red fruit than to eat it, I decide.) Craft beer. Succulent limes. About 9 million more kinds of mushrooms than most folks know exist.

At one point two street vendors, one Chinese and one American, go by with a load of fresh-baked challah, the traditional Jewish braided egg bread. Unexpected and not the local snack we were scouting for! But it's fragrant with butter and sweet raisins and wheatiness - and like everything else, irresistible. Gotta try that, too.

Thank goodness Lillian was there again to help me eat it.

(China Daily 03/14/2015 page15)

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