2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Nine Dumplings in Yunnan

Nine Dumplings in Yunnan

It was a rainy October morning in Kunming. The capital of Yunnan, China’s most southwesterly province, sits at over six thousand feet so it was prone to this kind of wet, lethargic weather this time of year. The city, known for its nonchalance, seemed even more laid-back from the drizzly dampness. It was my first day back since I had studied abroad here in college. I had loved it then and was looking forward to rediscovering the city that had properly introduced me to China. My first order of business was breakfast.

The place I found was just a couple of minutes’ walk away from my guesthouse. It was a wide space, with tiled walls, tiled floors and pitiful lamps hanging from the ceiling. Its front was open to a quiet street. The cook labored alone in a tiny kitchen by the door with rusty pots, pans, and bowls cluttering his counters. With its striped awning hanging over the entrance and peeling Coca Cola ads pasted to the walls, the joint seemed oddly diner-like. The cook even wore a white chef hat.

Breakfast is always an uncertain meal in China. It’s almost like the Chinese, having put so much variety into their lunches, snacks and dinners, decided to neglect the first meal of the day and left it only the scraps. Often it is nothing more than a bowl of watery rice porridge and some fried dough. But the bizarre diner held promise. Its breakfast menu was long and sophisticated. I ordered directly from the cook who grinned as I asked for pork and chive dumplings, a sweet sesame ball and a bowl of congee.

The nine dumplings arrived in a metal tray. The water droplets condensed on their doughy skin indicated they had been steamed. I mixed soy sauce in a tiny silver tray with cilantro and dried pepper flakes. The congee was tasteless and soupy with little red beans floating in it like dark boats upon a yellowy, glossy sea. The fried sesame ball was wet and deformed like a stress release ball that had been squeezed too hard. The teal basket that contained my breakfast is covered in grease from the ball rolling around on its way over. Besides the hole in its side, it could have been one of those trays you’d get at Johnny Rockets.

I needed a beverage. At the counter, there were three big vats with various fruits floating in liquid and I asked the waitress what they were. “Alcohol,” she said and pointed at each of them, “Red bayberry, papaya, Chinese olive.” Thinking it might be the equivalent of a mimosa, I asked for the bayberry and she filled a used rice-wine bottle to the brim. I took a sip and realized that what I thought would be a sweet libation was actually yellowish, transparent death water. Its faint sweetness made the burn worse, like snorting burnt sugar.

My stomach felt uneasy from the grease and alcohol and I couldn’t finish my sesame ball. I turned back to the congee, which had been waiting for me like a loyal pooch, but it had gone cold and so I didn’t finish that either. By this time the place had filled up a bit. There was a group of four cheerful guys smoking cigarettes and laughing to my right. One of them wore a bright pink woman’s sun hat. An old man with bed head and a brown jacket nibbled on a steaming plate of fried rice while a mother and her son sat in front of me sulking. They ordered tea.

I sat there for awhile, nibbling at my two dollar breakfast and sipping grimly on the fruity death. It’s good to be back, I thought.

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