Yunnan cuisine has for a long time been one of China’s best-kept secrets. With an abundance of fresh ingredients, a range of different climates (and therefore agricultural crops), Yunnan cuisine benefits from a huge variety of different flavours. The Bai people in the area around Dali (大理), for example, use a lot of edible flowers in their cooking, both for taste and decoration. The Dai, residing on Yunnan’s borders with Laos, have a cuisine which has a lot in common with Thai food, and is perhaps even spicier. Visitors to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, have access to all of these different food traditions and a weekend there is a good opportunity to embark on a culinary voyage. Residents of Beijing and Shanghai have, in recent years, discovered Yunnan’s tasty delights and become major aficionados of the province’s food offerings, and the number of Yunnan restaurants in those cities has mushroomed. In Taipei, meanwhile, Yunnanese food remains an unknown entity, and those few restaurants that claim to serve up Yunnan dishes often do so in a manner that is indistinguishable from Thai food.
Arguably no Yunnan dish is better known outside the province than ‘Over the Bridge Noodles’ (過橋米線), which is a rather mysterious name for a relatively simple bowl of noodles and has, in Kunming, become synonymous with marketing gimmicks aimed at tourists. A number of stories claim to explain the origin of the name, but the one that is most commonly repeated goes something like this: a scholar was camped out in the middle of a lake while studying for the imperial examinations. His wife (or mother, or aunt, or sister – take your pick) made sure that he was kept alive during his revision by taking him his meals over a bridge to his tranquil island. The problem was that by the time she got from her kitchen, across the bridge, and over to her scholar, the food would be cold. The scholar must have been a demanding chap discontent with cold grub, for his wife was forced to come up with an ingenious way to keep his food warm. She realised that if she covered the soup she had prepared with a layer of oil, it would not only keep the broth piping hot, but also allow her beloved scholar to cook the other ingredients in the soup just before he ate, resulting in a hot, fresh, tasty bowl of noodles, despite the bridge that had to be crossed. Perennially popular with locals in Kunming and central Yunnan as a breakfast meal, ‘Over the Bridge Noodles’ are normally served with the rice noodles, meat, vegetables, quail eggs, and other ingredients (depending which restaurant you’re in) on the side next to a stone pot containing the dangerously hot soup. The side dishes are simply dropped into the soup (meat first), hot spice and vinegar is added to taste, and then the slurping begins in earnest!
To Love Taipei’s delight, we recently stumbled across Yundian, a restaurant close to Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station which specialises in ‘Over the Bridge Noodles’, and to our knowledge this is one of the very few places in Taipei they can be found. The service at Yundian is good, attentive, and unhurried, though the fashion jury is still out on the staff’s use of Lahu (拉祜族) ethnic costume as uniforms. Given their extensive range of noodle – side dish combinations, including ‘Zhuang People mala rice noodles’ (壯族麻辣米線) and ‘Yi People cold rice noodles’ (彝族涼米線), it is worth asking for recommendations. Yundian are honest when it comes to the authenticity of their noodles compared to the Yunnanese original; the taste is undoubtedly different, having been adapted for Taiwanese taste buds, which means a much thinner layer of oil on the soup, and higher demands regarding the quality of the ingredients. The black pork accompanying our noodles was lean and tasty and, in stark contrast to the soup in Yunnan, which tends to be drenched in a layer of oil whose consumption would likely prove suicidal, the broth was flavoursome and very drinkable. The rice noodles, however, were too soft, and the portion was scanty to say the least. Hot-heads and vinegar junkies would do well to ask for spicy sauce and other condiments as they aren’t put out on every table. We also gave Yundian‘s papaya salad a whirl and that proved to be deliciously refreshing and, despite warnings from the waiter that it would be very hot, the spice level was just right. The Yunnan-style tofu turned out to be a nicely presented fresh block of silken tofu topped with a layer of thick soy sauce and crushed peanuts. Light refreshment came in the form of a sweet cup of pu’er milk tea which was, frankly, not very good. Those who like to experiment with their beverages can also try the wacky pu’er and coffee mix, though we think it might be best left to the imagination.
Having sampled more of Yunnan’s province’s authentic ‘Over the Bridge Noodles’ than is probably advisable in a single lifetime, we have to say that Yundian provides a very different experience indeed. Without going into excessive detail, the unfortunate consequences of consuming authentic versions of the dish in Kunming can sometimes be felt for days, but thankfully Yundian gives the original noodle dish a much-needed healthy boost, letting Taipei residents experience this Yunnan staple without the risk of any internal strife. Yunnan locals might scoff at Yundian‘s sacrilegiously healthy ‘Over the Bridge Noodles’ and delectably drinkable soup, but they definitely get a big thumbs-up from us.
Love Taipei Rating
Value for money: 8/10
Bill for two persons with drinks: NT$600Address No.14, Lane 49, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Da’an District, Taipei 台北市大安區忠孝東路四段49巷14號 Tel: (02)27116411 MRT: Zhongxiao Fuxing www.yundish.com.tw