Yunnan Province has the most ethnic minority groups of any province in China. For a foodie, this is heaven, because you get to taste the traditional dishes of dozens of native peoples. I have tried several cuisines, and to me, the food of the Dai minority people is easily the best. Dai food combines the traditional four Asian flavors — sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The Japanese in recent decades have argued for a fifth taste, umami, which is best described as a sort of savory taste, related to MSG, but in Southeast Asia, the four traditional flavors are the most important.
Dai food, like much Southeast Asian food, strives meaningfully to incorporate all of the basic flavors. This culinary philosophy is directly realted to Thai cuisine. In fact, that Dai people share ancestors with the Thai people, hence their closely-related names and geography. But there is one component of Dai food that I do not find as a constant in Thai food: extreme heat! While Thai food can indeed be painfully spicy, it seems that Dai food is always spicy. In fact, Dai food is some of the spiciest food that I have ever experienced in my life.
As Demeter would have it, there is a very nice Dai restaurant in walking distance from my flat. Naturally, I frequent it as much as possible. I have yet to try even a third of the menu, but what I have tried is exceptional. The food includes extremely bright, forward flavors, and most dishes are complimented with such spicy heat that it makes me sweat when I eat it. I will pause here for a philosophical consideration of spicy food.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, I believe that the heat of chili peppers, contained in the capsaicin oils of the peppers, adds a very lively, sexual element to food. I maintain that claim, and so I believe that Dai cuisine is the sexiest of foods. But do not believe that Dai food is all spice and heat! No, it is a cuisine that combines the four flavors in brilliant, masterful ways.
The dish that wins the Most Flavor Contest is, hands down, the lemon chicken. In Mandarin Chinese, and in the Dai language, lemon can refer to the yellow lemon that Westerners know, or to the green lime. In this dish, it is lime. If you do not like bold, strong, sharp flavors, then this is not your dish. Served on a banana leaf, this dish is to food as Robin Williams is to comedy: impossible to ignore. As far as I could deconstruct the dish, the four traditional flavors are achieved with a combination of salt, sugar, lime, cilantro, basil, garlic, red chili peppers, and green onions. All of the ingredients are perfectly fresh, an element so important and delightful in Southeast Asian cooking.
The point of the dish, of course, is the chicken, and the chicken does not disappoint. As with most Asian chicken dishes, the chicken is cut up with bones, skin, and all. The idea behind this is that including the entire chicken adds more flavor, and it genuinely does. This chicken meat is tender and delicate, and you can actually taste the entirety of what chicken is suppose to taste like. This is no bland, processed, sanitized white chicken breast. No, this is the true meaning of chicken, in all of its oily, avian glory.
It is not only that the combination of all of these flavors creates intensity. Rather, it is that each individual flavor is in itself sharp, bold, and piercing. When these flavors are combined, something magical happens. When I first tasted this dish, the word fresh seemed to overwhelm me, not only because the ingredients are in fact very fresh, but because this combination of flavors produces a sort of citrus crispness. The flavors individually, while sharp, are nonetheless pure and clean, very watery and grassy and lacking the depth of earthiness and deep oiliness of other dishes. If you imagine the range of flavor perception as a tower, the bottom being something like duck, mushrooms, and aged red wine, I would place Dai lemon chicken near the top, up in the clouds where only the pure, light essence of the ingredients floats up.
As I was eating the lemon chicken, I looked around the small, noisy restaurant at tables crowded with families. I watched and listened. Fathers, mothers, grandmothers, children, sisters, and brothers were talking loudly, laughing, nodding. Pots and pans were clanging in the kitchen. Somehow, everyone was there to share something with someone else. And while that sharing was noisy and brash, the sharp clangs of the dishes and pots reminded me of the sharp flavors of the dish. Somehow, this Dai food was an expression of love and humanity, in all its sharp noise and clatter.