It was during my final week in Yunnan, the far southwestern province bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. I had just been hired to write a guidebook about Hong Kong and only had a short time to explore before moving there for good.
I had been living in Dali Ancient City and spent most of my time those three months around Er Hai Lake in Dali County. But Dali County is just one of twelve counties in Dali Prefecture, which covers 11,370 square miles (29,450 sq km). I wanted to see some more far flung places. So I got on a small bus and rode over mountains and around steep curves until I arrived in Shaxi.
Halfway between Dali and Lijiang, Shaxi is one of the towns on the ancient Tea Horse Road to Bengal that is still in relatively good condition. The scenery is amazing. The architecture is beautiful. The town has a laid back vibe. I walked through the fields and saw local people wearing their traditional clothing. Children who had just gotten out of school celebrated summer break by tearing their papers up and flinging them in the air. A local music group was practicing, and they let me watch. Then at night my fellow hostel stayers and I sat outside on the square and drank beer.
Compared to Dali, it was less crowded and more relaxed but just as worthy of visiting. I would have stayed longer, had I time, but I had just a few days there, and in that time I had to try its local food.
Shaxi, like Dali, is a town with a population that is majority Bai ethnicity. Shaxi is about 90 percent Bai; Dali 60 percent. The Bai are one of the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China. Eighty percent of them live in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, which was the base of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms. At its peak, Nanzhao had conquered northern Burma and defeated the Tang Dynasty in battles, expanding all the way to Chengdu. Only the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty could eventually conquer the Dali Kingdom and integrate Yunnan into China.
So they are the same ethnic group, from the same prefecture, sharing much of the same history and culture. Do the Shaxi Bai eat the same foods as the Dali Bai?
“Do you eat huangmen chicken here in Shaxi?” I asked. No, one of the Bai people working the desk at the hostel said. That’s Dali people’s food.
I went to a small family-owned restaurant out down the road away from the square to see.
“I want your most authentic, most te se (‘characteristic’) local food,” I said.
I went to take a look at what they were cooking, and I was clueless. There were some colorless, thin round things in their wok. They didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen cooked before.
“What is this?” I asked.
The chief said a word I didn’t know.
“Is it a vegetable?”
“It’s not a vegetable.”
“What kind of meat is it?”
“It’s not meat.”
What could it be if it wasn’t meat or vegetable?
When they delivered it to my table, I admit my first instinct was disgust–disgusted intrigue. Fried, oily, segmented things whose bodies plump at one end. It was served with fried crunchy strips of rice cake.
Looking at it, I thought, why would you go to a small town in rural China and order the most te se dish on the menu? Not even on the menu. You didn’t even look at the menu! They gave me just what I ordered. Not like a restaurant that doesn’t trust the foreigner can eat their food and makes something tame, Americanizes it for them. I did want to experience something authentic, didn’t I?
I took one between my chopsticks and lifted it towards my mouth. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. It really didn’t taste like anything. It was just crunchy and had a little bit of a texture.
The dish was bamboo worms—the things that grow up to be moths. Cut open a stick of bamboo, and you can find a feast of these. Omphisa fuscindentalis is the name of one of the most popular of the bamboo worms served in Yunnan and Thailand.
A year or so later, I was back in Shanghai visiting a Chinese friend, and I took her to a Yunnan restaurant. I ordered her bamboo worm larvae, as well as other things. She did not end up eating any, but I enjoyed it. The bamboo worms there were cooked with mint leaves and spices. It seems the restaurant in Shanghai did a more elaborate recipe than the one in a local person’s home cooking restaurant.
The fried worms were minty and fragrant; they take on the taste of whatever they are cooked with. The restaurant is called Yunshang—Beyond the Clouds—and it’s located at the end of the Nanjing East Road pedestrian road and Henan Middle Road. I would recommend it. (I say, eating larvae at a local restaurant when you aren’t expecting it is more exciting than going to a restaurant with the plan already in your mind and time to mentally prepare.)
Bamboo worms were not my favorite dish in China. Not even close. But larvae and dragon flies and scorpions are the best dish to have with your friend who is visiting China for the first time.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.