EnlargeCredit: Ariana Lindquist
The dish, called mugua ji, seemed straightforward enough at first—fried potatoes and chunks of chicken bathed in a sweet-tart sauce, with enough chiles to give everything a glowing orange hue. Then I bit into a slice of the fruit called mugua, the firm, sour Chinese flowering quince, which tastes like a cross between a guava and a green papaya. Suddenly my meal transformed into something wild and surprising. Here, in my newly adopted home of Yunnan Province, I am forever discovering produce I've never seen before, ingredients that thrive in this part of China that meets Tibet on one side and Southeast Asia on the other. This is the place where the foods and culture of China's Han majority give way to those of the country's other ethnic groups. The balance of sweet and sour and fiery elements in muguaji is a hallmark of the cooking of the Bai people of west-central Yunnan. Though I continue to learn more about the cuisine each day, I will always be amazed by how much magic one fruit can bestow on a simple chicken stir-fry.