HAMSTRUNG

The World of Chinese - - NEWS - BY HATTY LIU

世界级的中国火腿

Many peo­ple in China—and more than a few out­side it—con­sider Jin­hua ham to rank among the best cured meats in the world, along­side Parma, Ser­rano, and Vir­ginia. Yet de­spite its cen­turies-old tra­di­tion and do­mes­tic pres­tige, this pre­mium dish shares lit­tle of the fame and recog­ni­tion of Euro­pean equiv­a­lents. TWOC tells the story that Chi­nese ham needs

Con­sid­ered among the finest in the world, China’s cured ham still strug­gles to tell its story

从浙江到云南,中国的火腿极具地方特色。美味的食材里有家族的记忆,工艺的传承,还有进军国际的雄心。

Even in the hu­mid heart of south­east China’s rice coun­try in Jiangxi province, some­thing akin to win­ter be­gins ev­ery De­cem­ber. Those days, when the tem­per­a­ture drops to zero and there’s a bite to the air you can breathe, my grand­mother starts cur­ing salty pork for the sea­son ahead.

“We’ll have the meat ready to eat for the New Year. All our neighbors must be do­ing the same,” she’ll say, pro­duc­ing a ball of string to hang the dark­ened meat strips to dry be­side the laun­dry. “There’s no need to take a pic­ture.”

All the tem­per­ate re­gions of China, it seems, have sto­ries about the meats they pre­serve. On my grand­mother’s Spring Fes­ti­val ta­ble, larou (腊肉) and lachang (腊肠)—pork belly and sausage—tell tales about de­pri­va­tion and sur­vival. Cured on our own bal­cony, they pack a salty punch to the palate even now they’re no longer the meatiest dish the fam­ily can af­ford all year.

The pat­tern re­peats across China: Nan­jing back ba­con, made in the 12th lu­nar month; legs of ham gifted at Spring Fes­ti­val in moun­tain­ous parts of the South; the rhythms of salt­ing and feast­ing are em­bed­ded in the agri­cul­tural cal­en­dar and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to hold onto the sea­son’s best of­fer­ings.

But the lo­cal­ism of most of these del­i­ca­cies means you’ll be hard pressed to find them out­side their home re­gion, let alone out­side China— in­stead, you’re more likely to find re­ports of the grow­ing mid­dle-class taste for Spain’s pres­ti­gious Ibérico ham, which recorded sales of 2 mil­lion USD in China in 2016, or Italy’s Parma, which made 1.5 mil­lion USD.

These fig­ures are a trou­bling prospect for Ma Xiaozhong, pres­i­dent of the Jin­hua Ham Trade As­so­ci­a­tion. The epony­mous char­cu­terie, from the Jin­hua re­gion of cen­tral Zhe­jiang, may not be the old­est meat-cur­ing tra­di­tion in China—merely 1,400 years, a blip in the coun­try’s gas­tro­nomic his­tory— but it is def­i­nitely the most am­bi­tious. Ma claims Jin­hua, along­side Parma and Ser­rano, as be­ing “the world’s big three types of ham.”

A for­mer food-safety ex­pert, Ma

an­swered my call the first time from in­side the salt cham­bers of the Jin­hua Mu­nic­i­pal Salt Cor­po­ra­tion, where he was in­spect­ing the crys­tals. The cor­po­ra­tion is hop­ing to be­come the sole sup­plier of salt for all hams un­der the Jin­hua trade­mark in the fu­ture. “Salt is the only ad­di­tive to Jin­hua ham, so its qual­ity has an enor­mous im­pact on the ham’s qual­ity,” Ma said. This is only the first step, how­ever, to Ma’s real goal of hav­ing Jin­hua ham be­come what he calls a “first-rate in­dus­try,” one that of­fers “cul­ture” rather than merely a brand or prod­uct.

In the words of Chi­nese-amer­i­can au­thor Zhang Mei, it’s about “do­ing a good job in Chi­nese ham-sto­ry­telling.” Born and partly raised in the Dali Bai Autonomous Pre­fec­ture in Yun­nan province, Zhang is the au­thor of Trav­els Through Dali With a Leg of Ham pub­lished in 2016, which tells a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story to Ma’s about the role of ham.

“In China to­day, in ham-making, in every­thing, there’s a huge rush to com­mer­cial­iza­tion, to world dom­i­nance, to IPO,” Zhang told me. “It’s those tra­di­tional crafts­men who take time to do one thing, and the peo­ple who took time to cook for me, to share sto­ries with me…[it’s] those mo­ments when peo­ple con­nect that make Yun­nan home for me.”

Dali’s ham is not well known, even in its own province. Jin­hua, though, once had all the prom­ise of ham leg­end: Around the 11th cen­tury, Jin­hua ham was made only from the hind legs of an ex­quis­ite, blackand-white pat­terned lo­cal breed, the liang­touwu (两头乌, lit­er­ally “both ends dark”) or “panda pig,” and ex­clu­sively cured with sea salt. Pro­duc­tion only be­gan when tem­per­a­tures dropped be­low 10 de­grees Cel­sius; hams had to be trimmed to a dis­tinc­tive bam­booleaf shape, branded with an iron, and cured for a pe­riod of eight to 10 months. In the early 20th cen­tury, Jin­hua’s ar­ti­sanal hams cap­tured top prizes at in­ter­na­tional ex­po­si­tions in Leipzig in 1905, San Fran­cisco in 1915, and Honolulu in 1935.

Those days are sadly gone. The panda pig is now an en­dan­gered species, ac­cord­ing to a 2010 study by re­searcher Wang Gui­hong of the UN Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Lo­cal farm­ers in­stead pre­fer to raise non-na­tive breeds that could be bred quicker and brought in more profit. In an­other study in 2012, Wang crit­i­cized the Zhe­jiang Food Com­pany for del­e­gat­ing pro­duc­tion of Jin­hua ham in the 1980s and 1990s to en­ter­prises with­out re­gard to their lo­ca­tion or in­gre­di­ents, “[This] caused sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to the qual­ity and rep­u­ta­tion of Jin­hua ham,” Wang wrote. “The lo­cal el­e­ment of the prod­uct has been com­pro­mised.”

Con­trast this with Parma ham, a suc­cess­ful EU trade­mark that sells it­self on qual­ity—guar­an­teed by near-ob­ses­sive reg­u­la­tions that re­strict pro­duc­tion to 11 ap­proved Ital­ian re­gions with in­spec­tors to pay house calls on the pro­duc­ers. There’s also the les­son of Jamón Ibérico, in which

the mys­tique of the black Ibe­rian pig, acorn-fed and freely roam­ing the An­dalu­sian fields, helped its pres­tige—and price tag—sur­vive the in­dig­nity of a ban by the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture over con­cerns about swine fever. The USDA’S restric­tions on Ibérico were eased in 2007, while Jin­hua ham re­mains for­bid­den.

Ma is cagey about de­scrib­ing these chal­lenges, del­i­cately re­fer­ring to “tech­ni­cal pal­isades” that re­strict Jin­hua’s abil­ity to com­pete glob­ally. “The cul­tural con­tent is there… un­bro­ken for 1,000 years. Even to­day, lo­cal bride­grooms gift their new moth­ers-in-law a leg of ham; moth­ers eat ham to re­cu­per­ate from giv­ing birth; peo­ple who un­dergo surgery eat it for a speedy re­cov­ery,” Ma wrote to me. In Jin­hua there’s ham in the zongzi eaten over the Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val, the moon­cakes dur­ing MidAu­tumn Fes­ti­val, the sea­sonal broths. Ma con­cluded his tale with a flour­ish: “I owe it to my an­ces­tors—to make this my life’s work, to never let these tra­di­tions die!”

Back in Jiangxi, a woman I call Aunt Hu—for lack of a bet­ter name for my un­cle’s wife’s cousin—told me at length about ham from her home in the ru­ral county of Anfu in Ji’an pre­fec­ture. Anfu is one of China’s “three great hams” (along with Jin­hua and Xuan­wei ham from Yun­nan), was also ex­hib­ited in San Fran­cisco in 1915, and ac­tu­ally takes credit for the Chi­nese name for ham, huo­tui (火腿, “fire leg”), due to its his­tor­i­cal func­tion as rit­ual of­fer­ing for the gods more than 2,000 years ago. “We eat it reg­u­larly. When you in­vite a guest to a res­tau­rant, there’ll al­ways be a plate of ham to pin down the whole spread,” said Aunt Hu. Yet my ex­tended fam­ily, liv­ing in the city, knew far more about Jin­hua than Anfu ham.

In Anfu, com­mer­cially pro­duced ham is start­ing to take cen­ter-stage, as fewer in the coun­try­side keep pigs,

but there’s lit­tle mar­ket­ing to speak of. “The most au­then­tic Anfu ham is cured in the homes, in the vil­lages,” Aunt Hu in­sisted. “Peo­ple will just hang it over the stove and let it cure from the resid­ual smoke.”

Is it nec­es­sar­ily a tragedy for food sto­ries to re­main re­gional? In her book, Zhang re­counts meet­ings with friends, fam­ily, and strangers, that would in­vari­ably in­clude plate­fuls of ham—boiled with rice, served with lo­cal cheese, or eaten alone. “The most joy­ful by-prod­uct of food and eat­ing is peo­ple com­ing to­gether to share sto­ries,” she writes.

Zhang sug­gests an alternative to push­ing Chi­nese ham onto the world’s stage—it’s pos­si­ble, per­haps prefer­able, for out­siders to find things to ap­pre­ci­ate or im­prove about food in its na­tive habi­tat. At one point she writes of the new, in­ter­na­tional res­i­dents of Dali, making Span­ish-style paella with lo­cal ham: “It’s a very Dali gath­er­ing: itin­er­ants from all walks of life, din­ing on Mediter­ranean dishes us­ing Dali in­gre­di­ents, with our Bai ham as the star at­trac­tion.”

When I asked Aunt Hu for a re­li­able way to get good qual­ity Anfu ham from a north­ern city, her re­ply was much the same. “Just come see us next Spring Fes­ti­val,” she said. “I’ll give some to you. You’re fam­ily.”

Dali lo­cals cook ham to­gether with rice and pota­toes in a pot over the fire

Jin­hua ham has an ex­tremely dense fla­vor, and is of­ten used to make soup stock or fla­vor other dishes

In Zhang’s home re­gion of Dali, ham is cured by pierc­ing the meat with a sharp­ened chop­stick to let the salt pen­e­trate

Tra­di­tion­ally, Jin­hua ham is left to dry at least 10 months be­fore it is con­sumed

Af­ter two or three years of cur­ing, Yun­nan ham is scorched over an open fire, washed in spring wa­ter, chopped, and ready to con­sume

Jin­hua ham is of­ten packed in gift boxes and pre­sented to friends and ac­quain­tances on hol­i­days, along with sausage and other meat prod­ucts

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