LitFest 2017: Mei Zhang on Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham

The Yunnan-born author talks to us ahead of the Shanghai literary festival

The Shanghai International Literary Festival returns to M on the Bund this month with 30-plus talks, discussions and workshops over 12 days. Every day this week we're introducing you to one of this year's featured authors.

Yunnan-born Mei Zhang is the founder of WildChina, advocate for sustainable travel, and author of Travels Through Dali With A Leg Of Ham – a wonderfully photographed tome that is part cookbook, part travelogue, and part personal history.

What inspired this book?

'I think when you travel, you eat. To me, travelling and eating are so intertwined that I can’t really see them apart. Whenever I travel to a destination, I meet the local folks, and they have a way of going about their lives, and that means the way they live, they dance, they eat. I’ve been travelling for the past 20 years, so I just see it as a natural product coming out of that.

'I did attempt writing recipes about ten years ago, when I went to a cooking school in Yunnan, but it didn’t quite happen. I got busier with WildChina, put the recipes in a file on my computer, and kept them there for a while. Two years ago we were looking at writing something about the journey of WildChina, to mark our 15-year anniversary, and it was suggested we publish a book. I thought: My God, what a dreadful idea! But then, I thought for a while. I think people do want to know stories from the road, and for me, it’s all about meeting the very common people – farmers, restaurant owners, workers – who define the place. I find people stories endlessly interesting, and decided to bring the people and the food they eat together.

'The time I spent working on this book was among the best times I’ve had in my career, and I felt compelled to share that with other people who don’t have the time or access to do it.'


Why did you decide to focus on ham?
'We chose ham because it’s so personal to me growing up in Yunnan. Ham was a luxury – and an entire leg of ham signalled an abundance and prosperity that we didn’t have back then. And it’s so neat for me to see the intersections of culture. Later in the book, when I get to Dali, I meet a Spanish chef who cooks Yunnan ham. He cooks it the Spanish way, in paella, and the way he cooks the rice is very similar to the Dali one-pot rice cooked in Yunnan by the Bai people. So these two cultures are unrelated, but there’s so much similarity in this food, and I find that fascinating.'

How important was showing the area’s diversity?
'Yunnan is home to 25 different ethnic groups, and Dali itself has always been a fusion town, because all the expats and foreign missionaries have been going there for centuries. Dali has always had a very steady base of its own culture. Yes, there is fusion culture and fusion food, bring whatever you want to the city, but Dali remains Dali.'

Mei Zhang will be speaking on Tuesday 21 at midday. Travels Through Dali With A Leg Of Ham (Penguin Random House) is available at Garden Books, priced 380RMB. Find full details for this year's LitFest here.