Yunnan is having a moment. A long-coveted staycay spot for domestic travellers, China’s most diverse province – culturally, ethnically, topographically – is famed for its dizzying scenery, serene locals and an affection for loud colours that runs from its striking traditional clothing and jewellery, through its myriad festivals.
Now, the province that brought you 51 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities is collecting international kudos for its food – a hodgepodge pocket of south-west Chinese cuisine defined more by the quality and abundance of produce foraged from its mountains than any unifying culinary approach. Dry-cured Xuanwei ham and rubing (goat cheese, rectangled and pan-fried a la halloumi) are regional highlights, and speak of the geographical and cultural disconnect between Yunnan and China’s east coast, but it’s the province’s rice-noodle soups currently making a splash around the world – and with good reason.
“Yunnan is by far China's most ethnically diverse province,” explains Yunnanese expat and Southern Noodle Bar owner Lin De. “Separately, each minority’s food culture is relatively old, traditional and pure. But when brought together, they create the ‘essence of diet’, born of different food cultures learning from and influencing one another.”
A beat back from Gouger St on Market St, Lin’s Southern Noodle Bar has been a go-to for South Australia’s Chinese communities since opening in late 2012. It's one of the only specialist Yunnanese noodle restaurants in Adelaide, peddling honest renditions of the mixian (rice noodle) canon, among a smattering of drier noodle dishes and sides.
Here, kitsch and colourful adornments typical of Yunnanese restaurants are largely traded out for minimal white walls. The 20-seat diner is furnished, instead, by the in-and-out patronage. It’s a modest but cosy scene. Above the sipping and slurping we hear jingly order alerts from Chinese Uber Eats competitor Adelaide Songcan. A poster behind the counter recounts the origin of arguably Yunnan’s most iconic dish – crossing-the-bridge noodles.
The story goes that a Qing-dynasty scholar was studying to sit the imperial exam on an island in Nanhu Lake, Yunnan. His wife would bring him noodles every day, crossing the bridge connecting the island to the mainland to do so. But by the time the noodles arrived, they would be overcooked and soggy and the broth tepid. One day, the wife poured the broth in a thick earthen pot to preserve its heat, transporting the uncooked elements separately. She instructed her husband to drop the raw ingredients into the still piping hot broth himself and, like that, a regional staple was born.
The constituents of crossing-the-bridge noodles vary, but it’s generally a case of broth, protein, rice noodle and garnish. Southern Noodle Bar’s exemplary rendition features an artfully arranged plate of meats comprising paper-thin chicken, pork and fish, fish-flavoured tofu, squid, Xuanwei ham, a prawn and a quail egg, which is tossed into chicken broth and topped with coiled rice noodles, coriander, sprouts, peanuts and carrot. The final product is roughly as incongruous as it sounds: it’s not a particularly harmonious dish, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a salty contradiction, and a deeply satisfying one at that.
Lin is quick to point out her Southern Noodle Bar “doesn’t just do CBN”. “We also cook the equally famous xiaoguo mixian (Little Pot Noodles)” – another rice noodle number featuring a sweeter, vibrantly hued pork broth topped with pork mince and pickled Chinese vegetables. It’s perhaps the more cohesive option and just as delicious.
Southern Noodle Bar
Market St, Adelaide
0418 958 688
Mon to Sat 11am–9pm