I looked at the menu and read it out to the table.
‘Listen to this! ‘Yunnan Specialties: Deep Fried Honeybees with Yunnan Beef Jerky and Malt Crisps’
‘Wow!’ said E. ‘I wonder what malt crisps taste like? I really want to try malt crisps’
‘Did you hear me?? I just said HONEYBEES! This is the first time you get to try eating honeybees and you’re more interested in the malt crisps?? What are malt crisps anyway??’
We were having dinner at the newly opened Southern Barbarian in Lujiazui. Everything told me it was going to be a fine night. Firstly, they specialize in homestyle Yunnan cuisine, from the part of China that meets with Burma, Laos and Vietnam. The food is complex and uses ingredients not found in other Chinese cuisines, like goats cheese, and certain wild herbs, edible flowers and mushrooms. ‘Homestyle’ makes it sound like the cooking is rustic, but the execution and presentation of the dishes is polished and expert, but true to its roots. The menu includes famous dishes -‘cross-the-bridge noodles’ and sauteed pomegranate flowers, and a host of lip-smacking dishes you’ve never heard of but will be desperate to try out. Honeybees being one.
Secondly, the beer list. Southern Barbarian now has around 80 beers from Belgium, USA, Australia and the UK, the best selection of beers anywhere in Shanghai. You could come just to try the beer, true, but then you would miss out on some of the best food in the city.
Thirdly, by a quirk of fate and bad weather we were the only customers, which meant we had owner and Yunnan native Feng Jianwen all to ourselves, and he obligingly helped us choose the best dishes and answered all our questions.
We began with his suggestion of salt and pepper Yunnan goats cheese. Delicious. Followed by crispy mint leaves with spiced beef jerky, high on flavour, and a scorchingly hot chilli and basil salad. The barbecued whole freshwater snapper arrived next, butterflied, crisp skinned and sweetly smoky. It was a refined, sophisticated version of the barbecue river fish I had eaten a few months ago in Guilin – spiced with a cumin and salt rub before being grilled on charcoal. This was followed by an incredible dish of slow-roasted Yunnan pork, served with strong flavoured black beans and pickled vegetables. I would have come here just for this dish, it was so good – salty, intense black beans and sweet and tender pork slices.
But then the honeybees arrived and stole the show. E went straight for the crinkle cut malt chips, of course, but realising they were all crunch and no flavour she was soon scooping up those bees as fast as her little chopsticks could manage. And how did they taste? Creamy, nutty, firm and delicious. Not at all insect-y. Not at all like honey. Surprisingly more-ish. Surprisingly something you would order again next time.
And there will definitely be a next time – this place is a real find.