If you have taken the amazing opportunity to travel through China's pictureque provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, you have surely noticed that unlike Sichuan's blazingly spicy cuisine, most of the dishes eaten in cities like Kunming and Lijiang, in China's southernmost Yunnan province, are a moderate blend of sour and spicy, tender and sweet - complementing well the province's mild climate.
While the ingredients are no less diverse than those used in Sichuan cuisine, what really makes Yunnan cuisine stand out is its unique blend of flavors, contributed by the province's numerous ethnic minorities. One item that is exclusive to Yunnan is called 'erkuai', a popular snack and one of Yunnan's famous "18 Oddities."
Literally translated, erkuai means "ear piece" but is actually a type of rice-derived cake named for the ear shape it commonly takes. In fact, rice is the only ingredient used in erkuai - washed and steamed twice to make it whiter and softer, and then quickly dropped into a stone mortar and pounded with a wooden pestle. After thoroughly mashing the rice, the dough-like result is kneaded on a wooden board to further push out any remaining air bubbles. The result is freshly-made erkuai, an aromatic rice dough that can be prepared in a number of different ways or eaten as-is.
Erkuai can be cut in to slices and cooked like noodles, grilled, barbecued, pan-fried with vegetables into a pancake, or even rolled flat and filled with savory meats and vegetables like a Mexican burrito. However, the most popular way to eat erkuai is as a quick and easy breakfast item, rolled into a round flat cake and wrapped around either sweet fillings like peanuts, sugar, and molasses, or with a spicy combination of nuts, chilies, and Sichuan pepper.
Yunnan's erkuai has a rich history dating back 400 years, and in fact, the traditional way of making erkuai was listed as an intangible cultural relic in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, in 2005. On your next visit to mysterious Shangri-la in northeast Yunnan or overland trek to Tibet through this unique province, don't miss a chance to try delicious erkuai - and see how many of the other 18 oddities you can spot along the way!