Some of Shanghai's finest Yunnan food is not where you think it is. Journeying out of downtown for noodles and a feast.
Vegans and gluten-free readers, a pork and wheat lovin’ town like Shanghai is a tough draw if you want to dabble in Chinese noodles. How many times have you, the dietarily or wilfully restrained, looked beyond your rice bowl at glinting strands or steaming baskets of well, pretty much anything?
This is unlikely to totally fill the gaping chasm of a life lived without two of Earth’s favorite proteins, but it’s a very good start: Yunnan-style rice noodles. Specifically, rice noodles topped with silken scoops of just-set douhua
(tofu pudding), peanuts, Chinese chives, shredded carrots, beansprouts, and salty, spicy Yunnan pickles. When mixed, the sum of these parts convene to become one of the most satisfying banmian
bowls I think you’ll find in this city.
The noodles have a proper, chewy bite to them unsupplied by hellishly chalky wheat-free ‘alternative’ pastas, or even vermicelli and flat rice noodles.
And the tofu. If burrata is the queen of fresh cheeses, then creamy, silk-textured douhua is surely its dairy-free counterpart. Better still, once thoroughly mixed, the tofu blends with the spicy pickles to become a mellow, nutty sauce.
Enough with the hard sell – you can get these noodles from sister eateries Slurp!
, two casual concepts specializing in Dai minority cuisine that aim to meet, and go beyond the fried goats’ cheese and pineapple rice expectation of Dai-style Yunnanese food.
As it happens, an excursion to photograph these noodles turned into a seasonal, eight-person Dai feast, which is available to pre-order with a day’s notice at either Slurp!, Pilipala, or delivered directly to your house and set up á la Hai Di Lao hot pot
Based in close-knit communities in Southern Yunnan, both the language and cuisine of the Dai minority have more in common with Thailand and Laos than Han China. The startling natural bounty of Yunnan supplies the Dai with lemongrass, lime, mint and cilantro as the defining flavors of their cooking, accompanied by flower petal-dyed sticky rice and any number of exotic fungi, roots, algae, flowers and indeed insects.
Perhaps fortunately, there are no examples of the latter when we arrive at Pilipala. Instead, there is a table entirely covered with fresh banana leaves that serve as one communal plate. While bowls and chopsticks are provided, the objective is to feast without them, using your gloved hands to grab hunks of sticky rice and pair them with an assortment of dishes, like beef jerky with lime and chili, spicy shredded chicken, stewed shrimp, grilled fish and crunchy chicken feet. Vegetarian options can also be supplied, we are told.
In the center of the spread is a lemongrass roasted chicken, which is very solid. It’s surrounded by three dips; one of nutty blended furu
, a dry spice blend, and sweet rose jam, which reveals itself as a surprise winner of the evening, particularly when eaten with pale yellow bubbled crackers that turn out to be sheets of cheese.
For all the anticipated exoticism, most of my table’s favorite component is a humble minced pork dish, albeit one with the earthy brininess of Dai pickled chilies. Even a dish that looks like a braised digestive element turns out to be infinitely more approachable pomegranate flowers, which are delicious, and eaten with Yunnan-style ham.
The most bizarre thing about our Dai banana leaf feast is that it’s eaten in a basement food court. But that’s Shanghai: some of the most authentic Yunnanese ethnic minority food in Shanghai (many of Pilipala’s staff, and its owner, are of Dai descent) is in a quiet shopping mall in a half-finished development on the South Bund, where the ayis turn off the lights at 9pm. Go eat it.
This article was based on a meal at Pilipala, Bund Financial Center, B2/F, 600 Zhongshan Dong Er Lu, near Longtan Lu.