Yunnan is the kind of place people speak about with misty eyes – and for good reason. It’s the land of pineapple rice. They eat fried goat’s cheese. The weather is perfect. And it’s got Shangri-La. If she’d been Chinese, Joni Mitchell would have sung a song about it.
For a decade now, the province’s cuisine has been popular for China’s first-tier urbanites – bright flavours that throw the sugary sweetness and salty oiliness of Shanghai and Beijing into stark relief.
Established 14 years ago in Beijing – nearly a laozihao brand with that history – Middle 8th has made its first foray in Shanghai. Of course, as any new restaurant venture seems to be nowadays, it’s set in the upper reaches of a shopping mall (welcome to Shanghai 2016). But that aside, the space is outfitted beautifully: a series of photo portraits depict young monks wrapped in dramatic red robes, bench seating is upholstered in bright, swathes of fabric and artfully wrought metal teapots accent the space.
The menu hits all the classics you might expect, with a strong showing of various mushrooms and the requisite fried goat’s cheese. The mixture of minced pork, black pickled cabbage and red and green peppers in the country-style heisanduo (黑三剁), literally translated to ‘three minced in black’, has all the right flavours for the dish – salt to the max and perfect with a bowl of rice – but is oddly gluey in consistency.
Then there is the pineapple rice. It’s also gluey, but that’s to be expected and warmly welcomed. It’s a sweet, delicious mess of glutinous rice studded with fruit and nuts.
Get anything in a banana leaf. The excellent beef roasted in banana leaf wrap (蕉菜包烧牛肉) comes punctuated with bright flavours from spring onions. Don’t miss the mushrooms – it is Yunnan after all. The stir-fried mushrooms tossed with pine nuts (松林蘑菇) also arrive packaged in a banana leaf. Juicy and tender, they are a definite highlight.
Less common but equally a classic in culinary standing, the ‘steamed pot chicken’, or jinbuhuan qiguoji (金不换汽锅鸡), is at once delicate and complex. It’s said its history stretches back to the Qing Dynasty at least, and it’s heralded as medicinally powerful. But legends and health benefits aside, know that you’ll just be slurping down some very excellent chicken soup in a claypot – clean, clear, unadorned flavours with a hint of ginger.
On the opposite end of the spectrum – a super punchy, bold taste you can’t miss – is the Tibetan ‘fragrant’ pig (仁安藏香猪, on the menu as ‘Baked Yunnan Mine Pork’). It’s a jumble of fatty, thick-cut pork tossed with petite mushrooms, sliced chili and green onion and is a dish to return for.
Not everything is fabulous. The Yunnan cheese prawns (乳饼大虾, rubing daxia) seem like a great idea – goat’s cheese and prawns, what’s not to like? But in reality, they arrive as a trio, served on sweet white toast, deep-fried and with a side of ketchup. If you made the mistake of ordering them, leave them.
But the misses are few and far between and while Middle 8th isn’t necessarily bringing anything totally novel to town, when the tried-and-true Yunnan options seem to be Lotus Eatery
, Lost Heaven
and Lotus Eatery again, it’s a welcome addition serving some excellent, and interesting, dishes.
By Cat Nelson