The first time Georgia Freedman set foot in China while a student at Columbia University, the Santa Barbara-raised writer/editor wanted to leave almost immediately.
“I was a shy person, I liked my alone time, and China is not a culture that respects personal space,” said Freedman. But she was encouraged to stay by her parents as well as Marianne Partridge, the editor in chief of this newspaper and a lifelong mentor. “The longer I was there, the more I felt at home,” she said. “By the end of the summer, I had gotten used to all of the little things that make life hard.”
In fact, she’d fallen in love with the city of Kunming and the surrounding Yunnan province, which is the size of France and arguably the most culturally and naturally diverse area in Asia. Located in the southeast, bordering on Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet, it’s a somewhat more mellow and bucolic version of China than the log-jammed bustle we often see in media, yet simultaneously more dynamic, with a hurricane of ethnicities existing on top of each other.
“There are places like Vietnam that are laid-back, and even the busy cities don’t feel so rushed and people are very kind,” she said of adjusting. “In China, you don’t get that impression. It’s just a different way of approaching culture, but it is fascinating and interesting all the time.”
As she navigated a post-college career through the magazine world of New York City — eventually becoming managing editor of Saveur before age 30 — Freedman plotted to return with the idea of doing a book, even enlisting her photographer husband, Josh Wand, for the ride. In 2011, as Freedman shifted to freelance writing and Wand arranged to work from afar, she explained, “We picked up our lives and two cats, who were not happy about the travel, and moved to a sixth-floor walkup in Kunming.”
The city had exploded to three times the size of what it was a decade earlier, and they chose to live in the heart of the old town rather than the more westernized outskirts. After early-morning work sessions, they’d explore the narrow streets together each afternoon and take longer weekend excursions into Yunnan’s colorful corners, Wand shooting and Freedman blogging about it all, despite the spotty Internet.
After about two years, they returned to the United States and settled in the Bay Area, where they had a baby girl. Freedman spent the next two years — and another year of back-and-forth travel with Wand in 2016 — developing the recipes and stories she collected from across the region into Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories from China’s Yunnan Province, which was published in September.
The beautifully shot, engagingly written, and smartly laid-out hardcover is much more than a cookbook full of eye-opening recipes such as stir-fried banana flower, ghost chicken with tea leaves, and breakfast noodles with pork and sweet-spicy sauce. Each region is introduced with rich descriptions, most recipes include educational anecdotes, and there are profiles of a master ham maker, a grand dame of “Crossing the Bridge” noodles, and a family of fragrant yak and flatbread cooks, among many others. If you’re at all inclined to travel through undiscovered places or eat exotic foods, just a few pages will make you want to drop everything and fly to Yunnan right away.
In fact, many Chinese do that already, escaping Shanghai and Beijing to find a slower, unique way of life and cooking in Yunnan. “The Chinese are generally foodies,” said Freedman, explaining that the region is known for its eclectic cuisine. “When Chinese tourists travel, they go out and look for the local specialties. They have learned from guidebooks or friends — like if we all knew about Cincinnati chili or that you come to California to find avocados.”
And the locals are very proud of their regional cuisines. “That’s one of the first things that a taxi driver asks, “Do you like the food here? Does it suit you?’” explained Freedman. “Everybody was really thrilled to be sharing their foods and to find that foreigners were also interested.”
Today, as much of China homogenizes due to globalization, many communities are even trained to show off their traditional foods, dances, and customs. That allows them to make money closer to home, rather than at faraway factories, and promotes cultural preservation, which is one of the Communist Party’s founding tenets. Said Freedman of this display of ethnic pride, “It is not a subversive act so long as it’s part of celebrating China.”
Despite that openness, there were innate challenges to the project, both in the ways that people cooked — like on close-burning charcoal grills that aren’t what we find in the U.S. — and even more so in the ingredients, many of which simply do not exist here. There were actually “hundreds of recipes” that she couldn’t use. For instance, said Freedman, “There are a lot of pickles in Yunnan, so unless someone is growing their own chives and harvesting chive blossoms and pickling them, we can’t do it here.” (She recommends TheMalaMarket.com for fresh Sichuan peppercorns and other harder-to-find items.)
An adventurous eater used to spice — thanks in part to growing up in jalapeño-laden California — Freedman didn’t run into many dishes that she didn’t like. “I try to avoid dog,” she said, explaining that it was a rare offering and she only ate it once. “And I am not such a fan of bee larva. But deep-fried honeybees with deep-fried mint leaves are delicious — they’re crunchy, and they taste like honey.”
Though the book is focused on plate and place, it is really Freedman’s treatment of the many people she meets that push Cooking South of the Clouds into a much more readable category than simply a recipe collection. “I wanted to make sure that everyone I was working with was really happy to share recipes in the context of a book — that’s important to me,” she said. “This is not a book about me; this is a book about them and their foods. I am just the American who knows what will work on an American stove.”
Georgia Freedman will sign copies of Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories from China’s Yunnan Province on Sunday, November 25, 2 p.m., at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.). See georgiafreedman.com.