Haw Berries & Kumquats

A mint salad, and then some 宝琴傣味

mint saladHave you ever had a mint salad? If not, then I suggest you seek one out right away. I know, early spring hardly seems like the time for fresh mint, but these little Yunnan salads are so good that I can’t help but want them year-round.

They’re the essence of refreshment, and if ever I live in a city where Yunnan restaurants are few but mint leaves are many, I would make them myself. It’s so unbearably simple: freshly plucked mint leaves, plus a magical little dipping sauce of vinegar, lime/lemon, red chile peppers and some other ground-up spices – actually, I’m quite sure the magic is in the dip. Think tropical – pungent, spicy, tangy flavors to match the lush region of southern Yunnan from which this dish hails.

Unfortunately, mint leaves are expensive in Beijing, hardly to be found outside of high-end groceries. On the bright side, Yunnan restaurants aren’t so rare, and make this dish (liangban bohe 凉拌薄荷) for the easy price of RMB 16-18.

One of my favorite Yunnan places is Bao Qin Dai Wei (宝琴傣味), a little restaurant by the Minzu Daxue (Central University of the Nationalities), run by a Dai minority family, with Dai chefs and Dai waitstaff. Very nearly as good is its neighbor, two doors down, Golden Peacock (Jin Kongque 金孔雀), operated by another Dai family. Some people say Bao Qin makes this dish better, but Golden Peacock is better at some other thing. Are the two families bitter rivals? Will there be a lovestruck romance between the clans that can only be resolved by a cook-off to the death? Perhaps a taste test is in order…

Related to the Thai, the Dai people live in the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province, on the border with Myanmar and Laos. Their food owes more to Southeast Asia than China: lemongrass, papaya, limes, bananas, and pineapples all make frequent appearances, mellowing the more assertive spicy and sour flavors in Dai cookery.

fried potato balls

Just because of their longer hours, I seem to end up at Golden Peacock more often, at least for lunch: Bao Qin’s staff are religiously punctual about 3pm nap time. It’s hard to motivate myself for the long trek up, but fresh, hot, deep-fried potato balls (tudou qiu 土豆球) make a compelling argument. Golden and crunchy on the outside, each little sphere gives way to a creamy, mashed potato-like interior. They’re addictive plain, or with the accompanying spicy, sour sauce. The dipping method (zhanshui 蘸水, literally “dip water”) is quite popular in Yunnan: anything, from blanched leafy greens to country chickens, can be cooked lightly and then served with a complex sauce.

Perhaps to differentiate itself from its neighbor, Golden Peacock has recently introduced an expanded (and more expensive) menu. The new dishes we tried didn’t really impress: trendy little packets of this and that, finger-food rolls of vegetables, fussy iced beverages – please, just give us hearty, country food, heaping stir-fries of peppers and bacon and bamboo. However, we did find one thing to our liking, a dry-fried sour bamboo (ganchao suansun 干炒酸笋). Fermented to prevent spoilage in the steamy tropical weather, this bamboo is almost aggressively sour. It can be toned down with sweeter vegetables like tomatoes and greens, or, as here, it can be dialed up to a fragrant, powerful dish, spicy and dry with not a splash of sauce to cool you down.

dry-fried sour bamboo

After that, you might certainly want some of their sweet, light rice wine (mijiu 米酒), or glutinous rice steamed with chunks of pineapple, served in a whole pineapple (boluo fan 菠萝饭). My love of glutinous rice almost never lets me leave without a little something, and so that day it was sticky rice steamed in hollowed-out bamboo. Supposedly they only make 12 of these a day, in sweet and savory versions. When it arrives, you peel back the bamboo yourself, revealing pearly rice imbued with the pure aroma of bamboo, and in the sweet variety, delicate azuki beans.

eating bamboo rice

Bao Qin Dai Wei [map]
16 Minzu Daxue Beilu, Weigongcun
Haidian District
Tel: (010) 6848 3189
Golden Peacock [map]
(Same street address, but further west)
Tel: (010) 6893 2030
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  1. Oscar Turner says:

    My favorite kind of Salad is none other Potato Salad. it really taste yummy.-*;

  2. Kelly says:

    I’m American and just visited my college-aged daughter, who is teaching English to the children of migrant workers at The Dandelion School in Da Xing District in Beijing. We had an amazing Yunnan meal at Da Li Courtyard in Beijing, where we had a mint salad made with what I think was dried bean curd. Have you ever eaten there? http://www.dalicourtyard.com/ Have you ever eaten this salad? I would like to replicate it. Should I just try to dressing you mention above for mint salad?

    You can check out some of my pictures of our Da Li Courtyard feast at http://www.flickr.com/photos/smiffereens/sets/72157624261680331/

    Many thanks if you can help with the mint/bean curd dressing! Kelly

  3. shelley says:

    Hi Kelly, I have been to Dali Courtyard a few times, although I haven’t tried that particular salad, as their menu always changes. From your pictures it looks like the tofu is “tofu skin” (doufu pi 豆腐皮), which you can probably find in most large Asian grocery stores in America. Cook the tofu according to package instructions (blanching?) and then cool it down again before mixing in with the fresh mint leaves.

    It’s hard for me to say exactly what dressing they used, as almost every Yunnan restaurant does their mint salad a little differently. Most seem to use some variation of vinegar, lemon/lime juice, a little sugar, grated ginger, 1-2 chili peppers or some chili oil, and salt. Then some people also add a splash of soy sauce, a little fermented bean curd (酱豆腐 or 腐乳, jiangdoufu / furu, comes in a little jar in the condiment aisle), or some preserved soybeans (豆豉 douchi) for additional richness and depth. The proportions are to your taste – if you like it spicy, use more peppers, if you like it sour, use more lemon/vinegar, etc.

    I hope this helps! Good luck.

  4. Kelly says:

    Shelley – Thanks for the tips! We tried the mint/doufu pi salad last week and it was very good. A little tweaking and it will be perfect…. Kelly

  5. Ashton Cox says:

    whenever my sister makes potato salad, i always eat them in less than a minute or so he he. i just love all sorts of salad. ‘;’

  6. naomi says:

    I’ve found mint plants at the Lai Tai Flower Market located at Ladies Street (Nu Ren Jie).

    You can also find basil, lavender, and a couple other herb plants.

    It’s wonderful for making fresh spring rolls or other South Asian foods!

    1. shelley says:

      Thanks, Naomi, for the helpful information! I’ll have to check it out some time (perhaps when it’s warmer..)