Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong . . . Kunming? The city of Kunming, nestled in southwest China’s mountainous Yunnan Province, might not have the international name recognition of larger Chinese cities, but this capital city has a lot going for it.
Kunming’s laid-back vibe and manageable size set it apart from the bustling megacities of China’s east coast. Its year-round mild weather has earned it the title “City of Eternal Spring,” and its smog-free skies are a luxury in a country plagued by air pollution. To take advantage of this, locals and visitors love to spend time outside, whether hiking in Kunming’s Western Hills or venturing to other gorgeous natural spots in this mountainous, ecologically diverse province. On the border with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, Yunnan Province is also home to at least 26 native ethnic groups whose various cultures and cuisines make its capital city a fascinating place to visit—and dine! I’ve compiled a foodie guide to my favorite city in China, skipping over foreign-owned and Western restaurants (which you can find in English-language guidebooks) in favor of harder-to-find local Kunming food specialties. Enjoy the city and all its delicious offerings—you won’t find them anywhere else!
The Local Breakfast
There are plenty of breakfast options in Kunming: Yunnan’s ubiquitous mixian noodle soup, fried dough sticks with soymilk (youtiao doujiang), and baozi, steamed buns with various fillings. But my favorite breakfast food in Kunming is shao erkuai (烧饵块), a local snack sold exclusively in the morning from street carts and small storefronts. I can best describe it as a hot rice pancake wrapped around a fried dough stick with a variety of sauces and toppings. There are usually at least three sauces: a sweet peanut sauce (tian), a savory brown sauce (xian), and a spicy red chili sauce (la). Pick any combination of the sauces and then point to the toppings (which usually include potato strips and fermented vegetables) you want. Make sure to ask for youtiao, a savory fried dough stick.
Look for vendors on the street or in small storefronts. Go early; you’ll have your best luck before 8 or 9 a.m.
The Food Street
Yuanxi Road (园西路)
Walk east from the east gate of Yunnan University
Yuanxi Road (园西路) is a narrow, hilly street located near the east gate of Yunnan University. Popular with local students, it’s packed with vendors and small shops. Walk along the street and try any snack that looks tasty—hand-pulled noodles, fried squid, sushi, shaved ice, cream puffs, bubble tea, etc. When you’re blissfully full, walk up the hill to Yunnan University and stroll around the gorgeous old campus.
The Organic Restaurant
Tusheng Shiguan (土生食管)
25 Jindingshan North Road, inside the LOFT Jinding 1919 complex, area B
金鼎山北路25号， LOFT金鼎1919 B区
It’s not always easy to find locally grown, organic food in Chinese cities, but you can get a delicious, farm-fresh meal at Tusheng Shiguan (土生食管) in the Jindingshan arts district. The menu changes daily based on what’s in season but always features Yunnan specialties. Try some version of the fuzhu (腐竹), or dried tofu skin, as well as the da jiujia (大救驾), a local stir-fried dish with rice pancake, eggs, and veggies. Don’t forget to take some time to browse the small studios and galleries in the area.
The Courtyard Ambience
Shiping Huiguan (石屏会馆)
Cuihu South Road, Zhonghe Alley 24
If you’re looking for traditional ambience, look no further than Shiping Huiguan (石屏会馆), a restored 19th-century courtyard complex that once housed scholars hoping to pass China’s imperial exam. Shiping (石屏) is the name of a county a few hours south of Kunming, and the restaurant is famous for their Shiping tofu (石屏烤豆腐) and Shiping fried fish (石屏煎鱼). You can also try another Yunnan specialty, rubing (乳饼), or fried goat cheese. This restaurant is a bit pricier than other places on this list, and it’s best to make a reservation in advance, especially for dinner or for groups. Follow your meal with a nighttime stroll around neighboring Green Lake Park (翠湖).
The Comfort Food
Heavenly Manna (吗哪)
Wenlin Street, Wenhua Alley 76 (near Salvador’s Coffee House)
I’ve never been a fan of mashed potatoes in the US, but I love Yunnan mashed potatoes. Called laonai yangyu (老奶洋芋), these potatoes are mashed up and mixed with various spices and herbs, a flavorful alternative to plain old American mashed potatoes. Try the laonai yangyu, along with other dishes, at Heavenly Manna (吗哪), a cozy little restaurant in the bustling Wenhua Alley area.
Dai Ethnic Eats
Yingjiang Dai Specialty Snacks (盈江傣味特色小吃)
83 Luofeng Street (a small green storefront, nearly identical to one down the street)
Yunnan Province is home to at least 26 native ethnic groups, the most of any province in the country, and you can find many ethnic cuisines in Kunming. Having spent time in Dai villages in southern Yunnan, I am a big fan of Dai cuisine. Similar to the food of northern Thailand, Dai food is known for its spicy and sour flavors. For a unique Dai food experience, try shou zhua fan (手抓饭), a delicious platter of rice, meat, fruit, and vegetables that you eat with your hands. It often includes pineapple sticky rice, grilled meat or fish, and a variety of dipping sauces, among many other tasty morsels. You’ll need two or more people to finish a platter. There are several great Dai restaurants in Kunming, but I recommend Yingjiang Dai Specialty Snacks (盈江傣味特色小吃) for their excellent, affordable shou zhua fan.
The Coffee Shop
Guangzong No. 3 Cafe (光宗三号咖啡馆)
Wenlin Street, Guangzong Alley 3 (Guangzong Alley is just a bit west of Wenhua Alley)
Yunnan is known for its pu’er tea, which you can taste in tea rooms throughout the city. The province is less well known for its coffee, even though it’s the coffee production capital of China. Try coffee from western Yunnan’s Baoshan Region at Guangzong No. 3 Cafe (光宗三号咖啡馆) located in an old-style Kunming building with a delightful rooftop terrace. It’s down a small alley and a bit hard to find but is a great place to relax or chat for a couple of hours.
Uncle John’s The Brew Pub (约翰叔叔的啤酒教堂)
28 Xinfa Road, off Chuanjin Road, near Sinopec
Uncle John’s The Brew Pub (约翰叔叔的啤酒教堂) is another hard-to-find gem tucked away in a quiet factory area. Once you find it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised: the brew pub is cavernous and lively and brews more than 10 beers on site. Sample a few beers by ordering a flight. If you’re looking for craft beer in Kunming, Uncle John’s is the place to go.