Xizhou Food Guide / Huajuan

Huajuan is a Chinese steamed roll that is named after its shape; “flower twist.” The dough itself is plain – just water, flour, yeast, and a touch of sugar – but sometimes it can be rolled with other ingredients such as brown sugar or minced meat.

Plain huajuan

I like to affectionately think of the sweet huajuan as the Chinese cinnamon roll. They are essentially the same thing: a sheet of yeast-leavened dough rolled with sugar. The only difference is that huajuan is steamed, and missing cream cheese frosting.

Otherwise, it is the same idea: a gooey, warm, sweet, sticky roll!

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24 Hours in Nuodeng, Yunnan (Ham Paradise)

After reading Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham, I knew that it would be impossible to go back home without a trip to Nuodeng, the village in Yunlong county that specializes in the famous Yunnan ham.

How famous is “famous?” Yunnan ham has been shipped around the globe since 1912, and became an international sensation when it won a gold medal at the Panama International Fair in 1915.

It seems that most villages or towns in China have a specialty food that becomes forever and only associated with them. You would never see a baba shop that wasn’t called “Xizhou baba,” or an ham restaurant not boasting “Nuodeng ham.”

Every October and November, all Nuodeng locals make their own ham. They rub fresh pig legs with almost a 1/2 inch of salt, have it sit in a cool dark place for about a week, then let it air dry for at least one year. The longer the ham cures, the better and more expensive it gets. The best ham has cured for 2-3 years.

We visited a local’s home to see the back room where they were storing their family’s ham. Opening the room brought an overpowering (but delicious) wave of the ham’s salty fragrance. The room was dark with two small electric fans on the ground to circle the air.

Nuodeng is small enough that there aren’t many restaurants, so we ended up finding a local woman’s home to try some ham. We tried ham slices plain, which made it taste particularly special; there was nothing to get in the way of the delicious, salty, smokey flavor. In a country where almost all food is stir-fried and rich with oil and spices, this was a real treat. Yunnan ham tastes like very thick prosciutto, deliciously fatty and flavorful.

Pre-sliced

Nuodeng is also famous for their salt. Their salt wells is actually what put them on the map during the days of the Tea-Horse Road, when salt was incredibly valuable. We visited the ancient salt office that was built in 1383, as well as a home where the family still makes salt the old-fashioned way (albeit probably just for tourists now).

The gate of the historic salt office
Growing salt crystals
Blocks of salt

Before we left, we tried to research Nuodeng. What sites should we see? What should we try besides ham? Besides Travel Cathay, a blog run by a foreigner who strives to feature “alternative travel destinations” in China, there were pretty much no English language resources. We were on our own; foreigners just don’t go to Nuodeng.

On the bus ride back, it rained so hard that one of the roads was flooded, so with the extra 3 hours, I struck up a conversation with a Yunlong local heading to Dali for the weekend. She asked if I had been to any other places in Yunlong besides Nuodeng, rattling off a list of villages that were smaller and “more beautiful.” I’m not sure how much I was able to get across with my Chinese ability, but I tried to explain that I would love to have gone to more places, but unfortunately I am just unaware of what’s out there!

Travel Tips
– We stayed at the Nuodeng International Youth Hostel, which was very nice and clean. 35 RMB (~5 USD)
– Ask your hostel if they can recommend a good restaurant. Chances are, they’ll bring you to a house that they have guanxi (relationships) with, so you’ll get cheap, delicious homestyle food!
– One day is good enough to see everything in Nuodeng. The town closes quite early and there are few lights, so it is nice to find a good cafe or bar and hang out there after dinner.

Xizhou Food Guide / Rose Cookies

Welcome to another post from my Xizhou Food Guide series, where I highlight different specialty foods from Xizhou, Dali, Yunnan.

A very popular dessert or snack here are rose cookies. Unlike the gooey, buttery, sweet cookies that we have in the US, Chinese rose cookies are made of a rather bland, flakey pastry with a rose jam filling. To be honest, they are not my favorite, but almost all shops throughout Yunnan sell them. They make for a great gift because they make for a beautiful presentation and they keep for a while (even without preservatives, they keep for about a month!)

I am including rose cookies in my Xizhou Food Guide not only because no guide is complete without them, but also because I recently had the chance to visit a local rose cookie factory, Adaxia. It was interesting to see that even though they are produced in a factory with sterile, large-scale equipment and hair nets galore, the rose cookies were still handmade. Adaxia also produces its own brown sugar and rose jam, all of which are used in their cookies.

Bottled rose jam
Making rose cookies with matcha pastry

Rose cookies usually come in three pastry flavors; original, matcha, and lavender. The flavors are very subtle, but the colors are striking.

I have also watched my favorite Muslim bakery make rose cookies, and (no surprise) their process is almost identical. I love the contrast between the two photos below; the flour-dusted Lao Tou hunched over his messy work desk, and the anonymous young lady dressed in a white sterile uniform at the factory.

While I won’t be bringing any rose cookies home for friends and family, the rose jam itself is delicious on its own and would make a great gift. I have been dreaming up all sorts of recipes that highlight it, all of which use a lot more butter and sugar! Rose scones? Rose coffee cake? Rose jam has a wonderful unexpected flavor that pairs well with so many baked goods.