We arrived a few minutes early at our first dinner of Across the Bridge Noodles so we were able to admire the patchwork of raw ingredients laid out across the table before the chaos of cooking began. Across the Bridge Noodles, or quoquio mixian, are a famous Yunnan dish similar to Vietnamese pho where individual ingredients are cooked in a bowl of boiling hot broth. Our tables were covered in a spread of colorful ingredients; pinwheels of different cuts of pork, cucumber, chicken, carrot and thin white mushrooms, with a small quail egg perched in the middle. Small plates of tofu, mushrooms and bean sprouts accompanied bowls of fried fat, thick bones and cilantro. We waited quietly, listening to the cacophony in the kitchen a few feet away. Then the cooks brought out the bowls of steaming broth, thick with chicken fat to hold in the heat. They set one in front of each of us and emphatically pointed at the ingredients and our bowls. You have to move fast in order to fully cook your food.
Across the Bridge Noodles, sometimes translated as Crossing the Bridge Noodles, are a traditional food in Yunnan. Like with many Chinese traditions, these noodles have a corresponding myth about their creation. There are many versions, but the most common story according to Wild China is of a man studying for his imperial exams. He sought a tranquil space to study on a forested island near his village. Every day, his wife made the long walk across the bridge and onto the island. By the time she arrived, the food would be cold. Her husband was growing thin and she grew worried about him. One day, she packaged the broth and noodles separately. A thick layer of chicken fat helped insulate the noodles and the broth was still hot enough to cook the meat and vegetables once she arrived at the island and her husband was able to eat. He passed his exams and gave credit to his wife’s noodles for his success. Thus, Across the Bridge noodles were born.
We heard this story from our chefs as well as from several other locals, and the stories changed each time. The emphasis on the husband’s dedication to his studies and the wife’s care and ingenuity stayed the same. The meal takes a massive amount of preparation, and we could feel the love that went into the soup while we ate.
The fresh ingredients that shone in Across the Bridge Noodles also pop up in dishes all over Dali. Restaurants from all around Dali use fresh vegetables and meats from the markets that pepper the area. Xizhou has a large morning vegetable market in the center of town that we explored our first morning before class. I asked Michael Chen, one of the staff people at the center where we stayed, about the source of the vegetables. He told me that some are grown locally but many are bought wholesale at other markets along the lake and then re-sold in smaller towns. The markets were beautiful- piles of dragon fruit, mangos and mangosteens spread out on blankets on the ground. There is an entire street filled with live chickens and fish flopping in shallow tubs of water. Stalls of spices and herbs line an inner market area and people sell freshly gathered mushrooms from baskets on the street.
We visited the World Agroforestry Center in Kunming, and learned that more than eight hundred types of edible mushrooms grow in abundance in Yunnan, out of 3,000 total globally. Yunnan one of the most diverse areas for edible mushrooms in the world. Every time researchers from the center go into the field, they find mushrooms that are unknown to science. These mushrooms find their way into Chinese medicine and culinary dishes around the world. Sometimes they don’t travel far though, like the fresh mushrooms in our Across the Bridge noodle soup.