Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories from China’s Yunnan Province, written by Georgia Freedman, features an incredible collection of classic recipes from throughout Yunnan paired with descriptive stories and history. Highlights include Zhanyi Chile Chicken, Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles (Guoqiao Mixian), Stir-Fried Sweet Potato Leaves with Garlic, Potato Pancake with Chile Powder, Northern-Style Cucumbers with Vinegar and Chile, Western Yunnan-Style Pineapple Sticky Rice, and Babao-Style Breakfast Noodles. I will also be sharing her recipe for Meat-Filled Momos following the review.
Disclosure: I received this book from Kyle Books in exchange for my honest review. All comments and opinions are my own. This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a small commission at no extra charge to you.
Georgia Freedman is a freelance journalist and editor currently based in the Bay Area. She lived in Yunnan Province for two years and continues to visit regularly with her family. Her work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Afar, Martha Stewart Living, Rodale’s Organic Life, Roads and Kingdoms, Saveur, and her stories can be found at ChinaSouthoftheClouds.com.
Cooking South of the Clouds
Chapters are divided according to region (not geographically defined, but rather separated by predominant flavors and cooking influences): Central Yunnan, Northern Yunnan, Southern Yunnan, Eastern Yunnan, Western Yunnan, and Base Recipes and Sauces. The contents also have a full list of recipes with page numbers for easy reference.
Georgia begins with an introduction of Yunnan: “a province of forests filled with native rhododendrons and azaleas, towns full of mud brick houses with sloping tiled roofs, jungles teeming with monkeys and elephants, and a population that includes dozens of different Chinese minority groups, each with its own unique traditions and customs.” I personally love the level of detail and history she has included throughout the book. You will find a map with notable landmarks and surrounding countries/provinces, a closer look at the people and traditions (including profiles of local cooks and favorite ingredients), influences that have developed the distinct styles of cooking, and more.
The beautiful photography is provided by Josh Wand. Many of the recipes are accompanied by a full-page photo of the finished dish. There are plenty of photos of the landscape, people, and food alongside the stories. Step-by-step photos are also provided to demonstrate techniques such as wrapping momos, making Er Kuai (Yunnan Rice Cakes), and filling Lijiang “Baba” Filled Flatbreads. Titles are written in English with Hànzì on the side. Measurements are listed in US Customary. Each recipe has a headnote with background stories, tips, necessary equipment, and serving ideas.
This book is a great pick for those interested in the regional cooking of China and more specifically of Yunnan. Recipes range from simple stir-fries to more intricate breads and recipes with layers of flavor. Those new to this style of cooking will find the guide to basic pantry staples particularly helpful with their name in English and Hànzì, photos, descriptions, uses, and substitutions when available. Traditional tools, including those specific to Yunnan, are also explained. Having a market nearby with Chinese and South Asian ingredients will be helpful in locating items such as rice vermicelli, Thai chiles, garlic chives, Sichuan peppercorns, crayfish, sawtooth herb, Zhenjiang vinegar, maitake mushrooms, pork belly, lotus root, yu choy, Chinese sausage, and more.
I was immediately drawn to the Momo recipes. I have made Tarkari Momo in the past, but this was my first time trying a meat-filled version. Georgia came across this recipe for Meat-Filled Momos at Lhasa Restaurant in Shangri-la, “a small eatery opened by two young women from the Tibetan Autonomous Region who serve traditional Tibetan dishes alongside sweet, fragrant chai tea in a second-story spot in the center of town.” Traditionally, they are made with yak meat, but Georgia has substituted with ground beef (do not use lean). If you happen to have yak meat available, slightly decrease the amount of soy sauce in the filling.
To make the Meat-Filled Momos, a lightly-seasoned meat filling is wrapped in thin circles of all-purpose Tibetan dough. This dough comes together simply with flour and water and is ready to use after about 15 minutes (or up to two hours). Each piece of dough is rolled into a ball, flattened into a circle, then lightly rolled into a 3 1/2 inch wide wrapper with a thicker center and to help support the filling and thin edges. Pleat the edges over the filling and pinch the tops together to seal, twisting gently. Cook in a steamer lined with cabbage leaves until the dough is slightly translucent and the meat is heated through, 8-10 minutes.
If you want to make a large batch, these Meat-Filled Momos freeze well for future use. Arrange in a single layer on a lined baking sheet and freeze until solid before transferring to a freezer-safe bag or container. They can be steamed straight from the freezer, but will need a few minutes added to the cooking time.
Sichuan peppercorns (huā jiāo, Chinese prickly-ash) are not actually related to black pepper, but are dried dark-red berries. They have a tingly sensation and are generally used as a flavor enhancer. They are available in Asian Food Markets specializing in Chinese ingredients or on Amazon: Szechuan Peppercorns. To make the Sichuan Peppercorn Powder, toast the peppercorns in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Stir constantly to keep them from burning. Crush the toasted peppercorns using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder to make a fine powder.
Love Momos and other dumplings? Cooking South of the Clouds also has a recipe for Vegetable Momos with cabbage, carrot, rice vermicelli, and spices.
I also made Yunnan Grilled Cheese Slices with Ham, Fried Bread Stuffed with Curried Meat, Naxi Sandwich, and Stir-Fried Rice Cakes with Pork Belly, Tomatoes, and Spinach.
The Yunnan Grilled Cheese Slices with Ham is a wonderfully salty and savory snack inspired by the Lao Fangzi (Old House) restaurant in Kunming. Slices of cheese sandwich a thin piece of Yunnan ham (or Spanish Jamón Serrano) and are pan-fried until golden. Since the Yunnan Ru Bing cheese is not widely available, Halloumi is offered as a delicious substitute. The pieces of grilled cheese can be served with little bowls of salt (only when using Ru Bing since Halloumi is quite salty on its own), sugar, or Sichuan peppercorn powder.
The Tibetan-style Fried Bread with Curried Meat is another recipe that uses the all-purpose Tibetan dough. Two sheets of the dough enclose a ground beef (traditionally yak) filling seasoned with curry powder, cumin, turmeric, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns. The edges are sealed with a rope pattern and the prepared bread is deep-fried until golden on both sides. This recipe was definitely a favorite.
The recipe for this Naxi Sandwich comes from the Baisha Times Guesthouse restaurant in Baisha, a Naxi town about 1/2 hour south of Lijiang. I used pita bread, but Lijiang Baba bread is the recommended base. Sandwiched between the two pieces of bread are shredded and fried potatoes, creamy cheese (buffalo mozzarella as a substitute for the soft yak cheese), tomato slices, and chile sauce (the local sauce is called zhu gan zha and is made with Qiubei chiles and meat from preserved pork ribs).
The Stir-Fried Rice Cakes with Pork Belly, Tomatoes, and Spinach is a flavorful meal that comes together relatively easily. I did not have er kuai (Yunnan rice cakes) available nor a meat grinder to make my own, so I used the suggested substitution of sliced Korean rice cakes. Pieces of pork belly are coated in egg, cooked briefly, and stir-fried with mushrooms, rice cakes, spinach, tomato, scallions, and soy sauce. Some versions also use sweet pea greens, cabbage, or garlic chives. I love rice cakes and am so excited to have this new recipe for weeknights.
Meat-Filled Momos Recipe
Excerpt from Cooking South of the Clouds
All-Purpose Tibetan Dough:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 pound ground or finely chopped beef (1 3/4 cups)
- 3 scallions, white and light green parts only cut in half lengthwise and finely sliced crosswise
- 1 1/2 teaspoons light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoon Sichuan Peppercorn Powder
- Cabbage leaves for lining steamer
To make the All-Purpose Tibetan Dough:
- Put the flour into a large mixing bowl, then drizzle in the water slowly, stirring with chopsticks. Once all the water has been added, knead the mixture together with your hands until it comes together. If the dough won't come together, add a tiny bit more water, and if it is very sticky, add a tiny bit more flour so that the dough is soft and pliable.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and knead it vigorously for 10 minutes, until it is smooth and silky. Form the dough into a ball, set it back in the bowl, and cover with plastic wrap, without letting the plastic touch the dough. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours before using. Knead it a couple of times just before using.
- Prepare the meat by breaking it up with a fork or chopping it lightly, then mix in the scallions, soy sauce, oil, salt, and Sichuan Peppercorn Powder until evenly distributed. Set the filling aside.
- Divide the prepared dough into quarters and lightly flour a work surface. Working with one quarter of the dough at a time, knead the dough a couple of times and then use your hands to roll it into a rope about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut the rope into six, small, even pieces.
- Take one small piece of dough, roll it into a ball in your palms, and then use the heel of your hand or the bottom of a measuring cup to smash it into a flat, even circle. Use a dumpling rolling pin or wooden dowel to further flatten the circle into a 3 1/2 inch wrapper with a thick center. The best way to do this is to use the rolling pin on just the bottom third of the circle, then turn the dough counterclockwise a bit and repeat; this way the edges of the wrapper will receive even pressure, while the center stays untouched. (The finished wrapper should have the shape of a very flat flying saucer or fried egg.) Repeat with the remaining dough, setting the wrappers aside on a floured surface and making sure they don't touch each other.
- When all the wrappers have been prepared, fill momos: place a wrapper in the palm of one hand and top with a small mound of filling (approximately 1 tablespoon). With your other hand, bring the right edge of the wrapper up toward the center of the filling. With your thumb on the edge of the wrapper, use your index finger to grab the edge of the wrapper about 1/2 inch from your thumb, then pinch the two parts of the edge together, to create a small fold. Repeat the pinching motion, bringing more and more of the dumpling's edge into the middle, and rotating the dumpling in your hand, creating pleats all around the dumpling. (The dough is flexible, so if you need to, pull and stretch the dough over the filling.) When all the edges of the wrapper have been secured together, pinch the top of the dumpling, where they meet, to ensure that they are stuck together well.
- Fill a large pot that will fit under the steamer with water and bring it to a rolling boil. Place the momos on the steamer lined with cabbage leaves and steam them over the pot for 8 to 10 minutes, until the dough looks slightly translucent. (If using the steamer with stacked trays, the momos on the bottom may be done before those on the upper levels.)