Where: Colourful Yunnan, 680–682 Swanston Street Carlton
What: The heat of regional Chinese food without the numb tongue
Who: Gingko Leaf Girl, Editor Extraordinaire
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
Gingko Leaf Girl always suggests the best restaurants – having introduced me to chilli crab haven Red Hot Wok and South Yarra fine dining spot Atlas with its perennially changing cuisine focus – so I was excited when she proposed that we visit Colourful Yunnan one cold Friday night.
Those who like to layer up in winter, beware. Colourful Yunnan packs in as much heat as its bowls of noodles, and I was forced to disrobe down to the tatty t-shirt I was wearing underneath the jumper that I mistakenly thought I’d be keeping on all day. The restaurant was jam packed with diners on the night we visited but we didn’t struggle to get a table, despite it being a Friday and despite us having no reservation.
Food publication reviews of Colourful Yunnan are scant, but the 359 Zomato reviews are decidedly positive – the Carlton restaurant has a score of 4.1 out of 5 and Colourful Yunnan has three other branches besides its Carlton one in Burwood, Hawthorn and Box Hill.
After visiting Colourful Yunnan, I read up on Yunnan cuisine. Due to the large number of ethnic minority groups that reside in the southwestern region and the numerous countries the region borders, it’s hard to pin down precisely what Yunnan cuisine is. Broadly, it’s a blend of hot and sour, and features plenty of mushrooms (on account of the 800 different wild mushrooms found in Yunnan), cuts of offal and fermented vegetables. I’m familiar with two of its most famous food exports – pu-er tea, my mum’s favourite type of Chinese tea, and ‘crossing the bridge’ noodles, Yunnan’s most famous rice noodle soup that you assemble yourself on the spot and which occupies centrestage on Colourful Yunnan’s menu.
People wouldn’t typically associate Chinese food with cheese, but Yunnan is also famous for its Rubing and Rushan cheeses – the former a firm goat’s cheese, the latter a yellow creamy cow’s milk cheese – made by its Bai people, an East Asian ethnic group. So next time someone tells you they don’t like Chinese food, I’d challenge you to ask them what they mean by Chinese food – chances are their understanding of Chinese food doesn’t include Yunnan food, or the multiple other regions that make up the vast panoply of Chinese food.
Half the descriptors on Colourful Yunnan’s menu had the word ‘spicy’ or a chilli symbol beside them, so this restaurant isn’t for you if you can’t handle the heat.
The restaurant had an expansive menu and we struggled to narrow down our choices; everything was jumping out at me – from the grilled Yunnan eggplant with hot pork mince sauce to the stir-fried chicken pieces with rice cake. We surmised that the crossing the bridge noodles wouldn’t be easy to share and bypassed it this time, though I will be back in the near future to try it.
What we did know is that Gingko Leaf Girl wanted noodles, I wanted rice and Editor Extraordinaire – who edits one of the country’s most longstanding literary journals – was amenable to both so we decided to share three dishes between us: barbecue spicy ox tongue, special stewed rice with Chinese ham and potato over a slow fire, and little pot rice noodles with stewed pork mince.
We triple-checked with Editor Extraordinaire, a mostly plant-eating white boy from Grafton, that he was fine with us ordering ox tongue, and despite never having tried ox tongue before, he was enthusiastic at the prospect.
And I have to say: I’m never judging a white person by the pallor of their skin again after watching Editor Extraordinaire hoe into the ox tongue. My favourite preparation of ox tongue has traditionally been Japanese gyūtan, where thinly sliced beef tongue is grilled over a charcoal flame and seasoned with salt, but Colourful Yunnan’s method was a close second.
Thinly sliced beef tongue had been interspersed with spherical slivers of crisp potato, dried chilli and peanuts. This was moreish, savoury and spiked with heat – I couldn’t stop picking at it but between the spicy bowl of noodles and this, I was periodically chugging on large glasses of water. Due to my dislike of Sichuan peppercorns, what I loved most about the spice in this dish was that it was fuelled by red chilli, which meant my tongue wasn’t numb after. Indeed, one of my favourite food writers Clarissa Wei says: “The spice of Yunnanese cuisine differs from neighbouring provinces in that it is sour and spicy, not numbing and spicy like the Sichuan province next door.”
Little pot rice noodles, or small pot rice noodles, is a popular breakfast item in Yunnan’s capital Kunming. The one we ordered came with stewed pork mince, thin curled tendrils of mushroom, garlic chives and preserved vegetables, and was tinged a deep red on account of the chilli oil in it. Warm, comforting and rich, it was a balm for the soggy wet day outside. It would’ve been a large bowl for one person and I’m glad we ordered it to share. Although they were rice noodles, otherwise known as mixian, don’t expect the wide thick ones used in pho or the thin flat ones used in pad thai – rice noodles come in as many varieties as pasta, and these soft and slippery rice noodles were long and thin, and made from fermented rice.
The last dish to arrive was the most physically impressive – a mountain of rice peppered with cubes of carrots, peas, Xuanwei ham and potatoes (my favourite part) was served to us in a cavernous copper pot. The best part (other than the potatoes) was the thin layer of crusted rice formed at the bottom of the copper pot. The rice was fragrant and well seasoned, with bursts of saltiness due to the ham and savouriness from the potato. We struggled to finish this, and forced Gingko Leaf Girl to take the leftovers home.
I loved every single thing I ate at Colourful Yunnan. What I enjoyed most was the fiery heat of the food without the tongue-numbing properties of Sichuan peppercorns, an ingredient I expected to be used heavily in Yunnan cuisine due to the region’s proximity to Sichuan. I was at four bloats because of pretty much everything I ate – it’s hard to pinpoint one thing, although the copious amounts of chilli, stock and pickled vegetables wouldn’t have helped – but the bloat outcome was very much worth it.
Colourful Yunnan is open every day from 11.30am to 3.30pm and from 5pm to 9.30pm.