WILD TO TABLE
The Dai autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna, in the SW corner of the country, harbors much of the biodiversity of all of China. The district borders both Laos and Burma and at times seems more like SE Asia than China. Nowhere else in China, for example, does cilantro figure so prominently in the cuisine. The Dai people are related to the ethnic majorities of Thailand and Burma, and they live surrounded by lush jungle. I was interested in studying the interchange between the predominant Han culture and Southeast Asian descended peoples, how the jungle housed that interaction, and what role foraging and gathering played in the villages.
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The most intriguing culinary tradition I discovered in Southern Yunnan was the Dai people’s preparation of ‘sour fish.’ Gastronomically, sour fish has salty, fermented notes similar to fish sauce, or nam pla, in Thailand. And yet the Dai’s use of the fish is participatory in a way that fish sauce could never be; instead of drizzling fish sauce on top of their food, the Dai serve sour fish as a complementary, and equally sized, plate alongside the rest of the meal. The fish is sautéed with tomatoes and greens and diners chew on the fermented fish, releasing the slightly acrid but oddly pleasing flavors, before extracting small wads of bones from their mouths. It’s a lovely experience.
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