Visitors to Yunnan Province in southern China are inevitably intrigued by its food. Because of Yunnan’s unique climate and geographic location, many ingredients used in its cuisine, especially those wild vegetables, flowers, and spices, are hard to find elsewhere, making its cooking truly distinctive and local.
Luckily, some of Yunnan’s signature dishes earn kudos not because of exotic ingredients but great ideas, and can be easily recreated in your kitchen no matter where you live. Crossing the bridge noodles (过桥米线), which I wrote about previously, is one example. Today’s dish, rice with potatoes (洋芋焖饭), is another one.
Cooking rice with potatoes is quite popular in Yunnan. Although it started as a humble peasant dish, it’s now served in fancy restaurants as well, cooked and served in beautiful copper pots and enriched with Xuan Wei Ham (宣威火腿), one of the most revered hams in China, or exotic mushrooms foraged from the forest.
You certainly do not need to have access to a copper pot or Xuan Wei Ham to try this dish, because the real stars here are rice and potatoes. When fried potatoes are cooked with rice, their great chemistry together results in wonderful flavors and aromas. Adding ham or any cured meat makes the starches richer and more complex. Seasonal vegetables bring freshness and a sense of time to the dish throughout the year. In April, I added fava beans to my rice. Now in May, when peas are sweet and tender, they naturally become my top choice for the dish.
While a copper pot, because of its excellent thermal conductivity, does a great job in cooking the rice evenly and creating a thin layer of crust at the bottom of the pot, you can achieve similar results by using a clay pot, a Dutch oven, or any thick-bottomed pot. The key to the success of this dish is to keep the heat really low during the last stage of cooking, so you don’t end up burning the rice at the bottom while undercooking the rest.
Yunnan rice with potatoes (云南洋芋焖饭)
Makes 2 servings
3.5 oz (100 g) short-grain rice
7 oz (200 g) starchy potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
2 oz (60 g) bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 oz (30 g) or more fresh or frozen-thawed peas
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
- Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. Fry the bacon until it starts to brown and render its fat, about 2 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a plate.
- In the same wok with the bacon fat, fry the potatoes over medium heat until lightly golden, about 4 minutes. Season the potatoes with the salt and set aside.
- Add the rice to a clay pot or Dutch oven, together with 200 ml water. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer. Cook, covered, until the rice has absorbed most of the water, about 5 minutes. During this step, stir with chopsticks from time to time to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom. Mix in the potatoes and bacon. Cook, covered and over very low heat, until the rice is fully cooked and a thin layer of crust starts to form at the bottom of the pot, about 15 minutes. Add the peas on top and cook, covered, for another 2 minutes. Adjust seasoning as needed and serve immediately.
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