By BRYAN LAVERY
Although the ethnic cuisines of Yunnan province may not be particularly well known in the West, they are touted as being among the best regional eating experiences in China. There are 25 ethnic groups in this southwestern Chinese province, all contributing within their cultural cuisine subgroups. Agrarian by nature, Yunnan is the birthplace of tea. Yunnan’s northwest corner is said to be the inspiration for Shangri-La, as described in James Hilton’s utopian classic, Lost Horizon.
A recent surge of interest in ethnic and regional Chinese cuisine is reflected in the growth and popularity of Yunnan restaurants in both Beijing and Shanghai. Encouraged by an explosion in cultural tourism the boom is a result of China’s modernization strategy which has put Yunnan on the gastronomical map.
In downtown London, Five Fortune Culture Restaurant proprietors Wenbei and Jie Liang Yin (Jeff) are part of the groundswell of restaurateurs offering an authentic "pure" Chinese dining experience. This is not the formulaic Chinese restaurant serving Anglo-genres conceived by old-style Taishanese and rural Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to suit local tastes and available ingredients. The cuisine, as prepared by Jie Liang and interpreted by Wenbei is Yunnan with Sichuan and Guizhou influences.
Many Yunnan dishes are typified by bold flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of chili peppers and garlic of bordering Sichuan province. Southern Yunnan takes its influences from Vietnam, Laos and Burma and many dishes have a similarity to Thai cuisine. Meat commonly plays a supporting role as a mere seasoning to the vegetables.
Aromatic steamed pineapple rice is popular among Dai people and the perfect side dish to soothe the heat of spicy offerings. In Jie Liang’s hands the fragrant rice has a stunningly delicate balance of sour and sweetness. A ripe pineapple is scooped out and the flesh is cut in small cubes and mixed with the scented rice and other aromatics. It is served in the hollowed pineapple shell with the leaf crown acting as a lid to keep the rice hot.
Yunnan is the home to a vast range of fresh rice noodle soups and stir fries. Mixian or fresh rice noodles are gluten-free with a silky texture which absorbs flavours efficiently. Yunnan's best known dish, Crossing Bridge Noodles is a bowl of extremely hot broth served with a range of ingredients supplied raw to the table, including rice noodles, thinly sliced pork, poultry and fish, leaf vegetables, bean curd, aromatics and cilantro to balance out strong flavours, much like a hot pot. If you’re not familiar with these flavours, it’s an assertive dish. If you are, it’s simply enjoyably comforting.
A trio of fish are offered whole, with head and tail intact. The choices were salmon, tilapia and a deep- sea fish with an untranslatable name. I avoid farmed fish so we chose the untranslatable-named fish. Jie Liang’s grandmother provided the recipe which is a thirty-six hour process from start to finish. The fish is wrapped in foil and steamed on the grill which keeps the firm interior moist and intact, the outer skin of the fish was candy-sweet and caramelized with green onion, soya, ginger and garlic.
Spicy Tom Yum seafood pot has a sharp freshness and briny meatiness, deriving its pungency from lemongrass and pepper. Other specialities include thick, soft and chewy Udon noodles made from wheat. The green onion pie is flavoursome and reminds me of the Japanese savoury pancake, okonomiyaki. Try the jiggly iced congee and glutinous dia bao (steamed buns). You will never need Sriracha again, once you’ve tasted Wenbei’s homemade, hot and spicy, red pepper dipping oil. She jars it and sells it in the restaurant.
Chinoiserie and other decorative arts and imagery decorate the dining room, giving personal expression to Wenbei and Jie Liang’s former lives in China. The purpose of a “culture restaurant” is to be an emissary and to facilitate the exchange of Eastern and Western cultural values. On selected evenings there is traditional song and dancing on a small stage that flanks the dining room. Wenbei, a former fashion designer, has an excellent singing voice.
Wealth, health, longevity, love, and virtue are the five good fortunes. Five also happens to be the name of their former business portfolio in China which they wanted to extend to include this restaurant. The investment projects included Five Fortune Herbal Cuisine (herbal cuisine restaurant), Five Fortune Very Ethnic (traditional embroideries and clothing), Five Fortune Arts (Chinese art and paintings), and Five Fortune Clothing (clothing design and production of ramie cotton produced from the nettle plant).
Hoping to live a more peaceful life, the couple travelled nearly eight thousand miles to start a new life in a strange land. Wenbei, who comes from a lineage of doctors, cites Norman Bethune, who is enshrined as a national hero in China, as an influence on their decision to immigrate to Canada. Famously, Bethune’s accidental death from septicemia evoked Chairman Mao Zedong's essay "In Memory of Norman Bethune," which urged all Chinese to match his spirit of responsibility and humanitarianism and became required reading for the entire population.
Jie Liang, who studied to be an art designer belongs to "Dai" a Tai cultural group from Yunnan that traditionally adheres to Buddhist principles. At Five Fortune the servers are intelligent and hospitable students that understand her vision and speak English. Service is welcoming and helpful with the kinds of detail about the dishes that can be hard to find in some Chinese restaurants. The restaurant caters to International students and gets extremely busy. When the restaurant is full the wait time for food can be exceedingly long.
There is a saying in Yunnan, “We will eat anything with four legs except for a table,” says Wenbei. Jie Liang’s translation of Yunnan cooking both pays respectful homage to the culture and, in the hope of making it more accessible, takes the most minor liberties with it. An epigram on the menu states, "The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose..."
Five Fortune Culture Restaurant
368 Richmond Street
Menu Changes Friday–Sunday
Hours can vary. Phone ahead for times.