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Book review from South China Morning Post: a gentle cook’s tour of Yunnan by WildChina’s Zhang Mei

The travel company founder takes a culinary tour of the place she grew up in, cooking and eating and collecting recipes, but her book comes most alive when she shares her bittersweet memories.

Culinary-themed journeys have emerged as a distinct sub-genre of trav­el writing in recent years. A lucrative spin-off from the celebrity chef and cookbook craze, these narratives marry terrain with tastings as intrepid foodies munch their way across everywhere from central Asia to South America, stri­ving to explain the countries and their peoples through food.

The ingredients tend to be the same, a twist of history, a soupçon of cultural references, a sprinkling of description of the places visited – but in this genre recipes are always more important than maps. The formula rarely changes, whether the book takes the macho approach seen in Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines (2001), in which anything and everything is eaten, or the mix of gastronomy and travel is more refined, as in The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit (2014), by Helena Attlee.

Zhang Mei’s Travels Through Dali: with a leg of hamfalls very much into the genteel category of culinary exploration: there is no scorpion stew or grasshopper goulash to be endured. Instead, Zhang has a simple goal. She sets out from her hometown of Dali, in Yunnan province, with a giant leg of cured local ham, to visit the villages and towns of the surrounding area and get to know the people she meets while cooking dishes using her travelling companion.

By her own admission, Zhang is not a professional writer. Instead, she is best known in China and beyond as the founder and chief executive of WildChina, an upmarket adventure travel company often cited as one of the world’s best. Her company’s success has made Zhang an international figure who speaks regularly on how she made the journey from a hole-in-the-wall office in a Beijing hutong to the head of a globally recognised operation.

Travels Through Dali touches on some of Zhang’s back ­story. Born in Dali to an electrician father and a mother who died young, Zhang moved to Kunming when she was 10 and eventually made her way to Harvard Business School. Now, she has homes in Washington, Beijing and Dali, and is married to John Pomfret, a former US foreign correspondent and author of Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China (2006), one of the better books about the changes China went through in the 1980s and ’90s.

But if Zhang is not a writer by trade, then she is a traveller who knows her home province intimately. She is also as food-obsessed as any Chinese girl who grew up in the lean years of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, when rationing was still widespread. Indeed, Travels Through Dali had its genesis more than 10 years ago as a never-completed cookbook.

Zhang’s busy business schedule meant she had just a week to complete her road trip. But she packs a fair amount into the seven days, and seems to have eaten as much ham as is humanly possible during that time.

Cured ham for sale in the town. Picture: Alamy

The first part of her journey takes her from the well-worn cobblestones of Dali’s old town to the far less well known Yunlong County, where she buys a 13kg leg of the famous local ham that will accompany her on her travels.

Along with Dali, Yunlong County is the heartland of the Bai people, one of the 25 or so minority groups that make Yunnan China’s most ethnically diverse region. These days, many Bai are abandoning their traditional stone and tiled-roof homes for less picturesque modern houses, while country life itself is far less of a draw for the young.

Examining the changing patterns of life in rural Yunnan, however, plays second fiddle to Zhang’s encounters with various village chefs. They are the principal characters of the book and it’s a shame that most of them don’t have personal stories as exciting as their culinary abilities. The focus is very much on how to make the dishes, with just a few titbits of the cooks’ lives thrown in to the mix, whether Zhang is in Yunlong County, or subsequent destinations Shaxi and Weishan.

It is perhaps a little unfair to expect Travels Through Dali to be anything more than a gentle foodie tour of central Yunnan. But there are times when the book comes alive not with the sound of a sizzling wok, but with Zhang’s own bittersweet memories of her childhood. A chapter in which she returns to the hillside where she used to live, to cook a meal with her former neighbours, who were also her parents’ workmates, offers a tantalising taste of what the book could have been if Zhang had been prepared to delve deeper into her own past.

She is also tight-lipped on how the impact of mass tourism has transformed parts of Yunnan. The few villages that are thriving in Yunlong County are those, such as Nuodeng, that have become destinations for day trippers. The locals aren’t complaining, because they can sell their renowned ham at higher prices and it’s easier to make a living running a restaurant than farming. But it’s a less authentic experience.

Shaxi and Weishan are both also on the brink of experi­encing a significant rise in tourists. Dali’s transformation from a bohemian paradise for Chinese and Westerners into a destination where the main streets are as crowded as the Forbidden City offers a sobering reminder of how tourism in China differs from that in any other country because of the sheer number of potential visitors.

Food lovers, though, will not be disappointed with Travels Through Dali, given the variety of rare recipes and the 150-odd colour photos that accompany them. Certainly, Zhang’s book made this former Yunnan resident nostalgic, as well as hungry to sample some of that well-travelled leg of ham.