My name is Anthony and for a year and a half I was fortunate enough to live, work, and play in a vibrant village community in Yunnan’s ethnically Bai area. From my vantage point as a long term resident in a destination that attracted a lot of short term tourists, I was able to see hidden flows of visitors along with the waxing and waning of traditions. This is a brief glimpse into one of the many facets that made the village of Xizhou and the people so memorable.
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The town square bustles in the heat of the mid afternoon sun. Just moments before, a large tour bus unloaded a stream of tourists on vacation for their May holiday at the front of village. Through the commotion of both out of towners and locals alike, snack selling vendors yell above the crowd trying to attract attention to their booth in the already crowded outdoor market.
In a quiet corner of the square a flat bottomed metal frying pan warms up. The size of a truck tire, the greased up pan sizzles, heated from above by the glow of hot charcoals. Next to the basin sits an electric powered fan that blows a steady stream of cool air, ensuring a slow but persistent heat source.
Next to the frying pan, a woman is bent over a wooden work bench kneading dough back and forth. Her hands and arms are covered in flour as they mechanically and methodically add a series of ingredients onto a circular patch of flour. A layer of rose petal jam 玫瑰酱 Méiguī jiàng , a dash of brown sugar 红糖 hóngtáng, and a smattering of red bean paste 豆沙 Dòushā all fall onto the blank canvas. The woman folds the elastic dough over and over again sealing in the ingredients shut inside the bun.
Two curious tourists on summer vacation from school in Chongqing wander by her stall that sits at the edge of the square simply referred to as 四方街. Under a wide brimmed umbrella meant to block out the intense sun, the two young girls with porcelain white skin, as white as the dough, ask the woman “这是什么呀？Zhè shì shénme ya? “What is this?”
The woman looks up and smiles brightly. With a thick Yunnan accent she replies 这是喜洲粑粑！来，尝尝一个！Zhè shì xǐ zhōu bābā! Lái, cháng cháng yīgè! “It’s Xizhou Baba, Come have a taste.”
The girls having never heard of this local delicacy are eager to be adventurous. A small steamy slice is put into their hands. The crispy outer crust quickly oozes with a sticky syrupy mix. Quickly they shove the baba into their mouth, too hot to hold for too long. Instantaneously they both exclaim 好甜哦！Hǎo tián ó ” It’s so sweet!” as they cover their mouths with both hands.
Somewhat resembling a pizza in size and texture, the flavor is anything but. The baba comes in two flavors, sweet 甜 and salty 咸. The salty baba contains minced pork, chives, and heavy amounts of pig lard giving the baba a flaky outer crust. The baba is best eaten when piping hot right out of the chinese style oven. Unfortunately as the snack cools and the temperature drops, so does the deliciousness factor.
Xizhou Baba is the culinary identity of Xizhou village, a suburb of the tourist mecca in Dali Yunnan province.
The village of Xizhou is spectacular in itself. Small alleyways wind through houses made of baked clay bricks, adorned with elaborate entrances that lead into private courtyards. The crumbling facade of the village was built up during the first half of the 20th century by wealthy merchants benefiting from overland trade with Tibet and Southeast Asia.
You won’t get lost for too long meandering through the back streets of Xizhou. All roads lead back to the village square 四方街. In the square, as many as 5 different families are all making Xizhou Baba by hand, using almost the same exact method. Luckily there are enough tourists to go around for everyone. Business is booming.
People in Xizhou have been making baba for generations. The baba is an easily transportable snack that doesn’t spoil making it the perfect companion for both travelers and farmers alike.
A few minutes walk back to the front of town where the new highway has just been constructed, more small booths are setup to attract the hoards of driving motorists who are commuting back and forth between Lijiang and Dali.
Here a short video about XiZhou Baba from Dali T.V travel show. It’s in Chinese but you can still see how it is made and appreciate the village in general. Xizhou Baba make it’s first appearance on 01:45 and on 06:00 they start going through the cooking process.
No Youtube? Watch this on Dali T.V website.
For most middle class Chinese who are just sprinting through Yunnan on quick vacations Baba may be the only taste they have of Xizhou . Luckily, both the village and the snack leave a pleasant 回味 Huíwèi “aftertaste”.