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Using prime local ingredients: Yunnan huotui 芹菜炒火腿


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Yunnan ham is a local specialty that you should definitely sample any time you're in the area. The best version of it comes from Xuanwei County 宣威县 in Qujing Prefecture 曲径州 in northeast Yunnan, well off the tourist trail. It's readily available here in Kunming, and I often buy it at the market.


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In the center of the city nice stores sell large packaged chunks or even entire hams to affluent tourists from other parts of China. That's probably what you saw Lao Zhang smuggling into his berth on the train back to Beijing last year. Whole hams are fairly expensive, and are a popular gift for someone you like a lot or hope to impress.


Today I bought a nice thick slice of it from my usual vendor, who kindly gives me flavorful soup bones free of charge when I ask her. My loyalty is therefore unwavering. Sliced off a bit with a very sharp knife and then cut that into slivers.


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Sliced a small red bell pepper and several sticks of broad celery 四芹。Chinese celery also comes in a slender variety, which is usually chosen for dumpling stuffing 饺子。


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Minced a little garlic and ginger. This is such a common combination of spices in Chinese cooking that it is often just written shorthand as 蒜姜。Set it all out, ready to go.


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The rice cooker signaled me that its task was done, so I fired up the wok. When it got good and hot, tested with a few drops of water, added a small amount of oil 少量食油。Gave the meat a half minute head start, then added the other ingredients. Stir fried over high heat for about two minutes, using a flipping motion of the spatula 翻炒。


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Sprinkled it with a pinch of granulated sugar 白砂糖 and gave it a light dusting of white pepper 白胡椒粉。At the end, splashed in a made-ahead slurry of one teaspoon corn starch 小粉, one tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽, and a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒。 No salt needed because the ham supplies all that's necessary. Stirred it fast for another half minute, and served it beside a mound of steamed rice.




Took only minutes to make and didn't taste half bad. In Kunming restaurants you can get a variety of delicious dishes made with Yunnan ham. And if you find that you can buy some, it's an easy ingredient to use in your kitchen at home.

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Thanks, Shelley. This ham isn't smoked; instead it's dry cured in a process that takes at least 6 to 8 to months. It is first salted, then put in a dry cellar on wooden racks to age. Turned and rotated using a schedule. The taste depends not only on the curing process, but on the type of hog used. The best ones are a breed referred to as Wumeng hogs 乌蒙猪 that are not overly fat and have disproportionately long legs.


They are left to roam relatively free in large hilly pastures in this sparsely-populated and mountainous part of Yunnan. Xuanwei County, where they are raised, is at the base of Yunnan's northeastern "neck," in a part of the province that is otherwise mainly known for mining and raising goats. (The map of Yunnan and the map of mainland China are both said to look something like a big flying bird.)


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They are supposed to date back at least to the Qing, having been documented during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝。They aren't terribly well known internationally, even though they have won some prestigious prizes. Xuanwei ham and wild mountain mushrooms are probably the two most famous specialty foodstuffs to originate here in Yunnan.


When cured and ready to sell, they are kind of flat and are said to resemble a 琵琶 pipa (Chinese lute.) At major gift-giving times, it's not uncommon to see people riding the bus with a ham on their lap or walking on the street with one slung over a shoulder.


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When looking at Chinese recipes it's important to note that lots of times what they mean when they call for 火腿 isn't this kind of high quality product at all. Instead it can mean processed ham, even rolled into sausages combined with filler and "mystery meat" 火腿肠。

About the slicing: The vendor I usually buy from has a little "shaved ham" that they sell mainly for use in soups. The lady says it dries out so quickly that it isn't good for much else and discourages me from buying it. So I get a small block instead and cut it myself as needed. Keep the remainder well wrapped and refrigerated.


Often I use just a tiny amount, more as a condiment than anything else. Sprinkle some in with the beans or the eggs. Has a taste that is partly salty and partly sweet, fairly complex, probably due to aging and controlled fermentation.

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The ham lady said she's been selling more of the very thin "shaved" slices recently to people wanting to make mooncake 月饼。It's a popular ingredient for those here in Yunnan. And it's definitely that time of year. Mid-Autumn Festival is right around the corner.

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Nice post, abcd! 'fraid I'll have to pass on trying it this time as I don't eat pork, but ham is one of the things I miss most about meat. Woe is me!


Is the taste comparable to a prosciutto or a serrano ham? I believe both are also dry cured. When I was young, we would have friends who would bring us back the jamon iberico from Spain in a similar way to what you describe - slung over a shoulder or hidden in bags depending on whether they were driving or taking the train. Was always a treat as my mother would prop it up on a little stand and shave off super thin slices. Not sure if people cook with it, but we never did. 

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Thanks, Alex. The taste is similar to prosciutto. When I lived in South Texas (Houston) prosciutto and melon was one of the summer staples that my wife and I often served as a first course when entertaining friends for dinner. One of my (very minor) regrets is that I cannot buy a little bit of prosciutto today, plus some serrano and some iberica ham, to do a side-by-side comparison tasting. 


I've read that China makes one other excellent ham which is nationally prized, and that is Jinhua ham 金花火腿 from Zhejiang. Since you are heading to Hangzhou if I remember correctly, maybe you will have a chance to investigate it. Not sure I've ever tried it.


Shaving the very thin slices at home is a good test for one's 刀法。Not easy to do well and it requires a very sharp blade. Would add, that rightly or wrongly, this ham is not usually eaten as is; it's usually cooked. One combination that is a favorite with locals is a pan-fried slice of ham on top of a slice of mountain goat cheese 乳饼。It is also made as a "sandwich" with one piece of ham between two pieces of cheese (steamed.)




Top quality Yunnan Xuanwei huotui is fairly expensive. Not surprising because it takes lots of skill and effort and time to produce it. The small piece I bought this week (can't remember the weight -- probably 200 or 300 grams) cost 20 or 25 Yuan.

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You remember correctly! I will be flying to Seoul on Monday night, spend a day there (long layover allows for some sightseeing!) and then head to Hangzhou the day after. Looking forward to sharing a timezone with ya, abcd. 


We used to eat melon and prosciutto often. Grew up in an Italian neighborhood and prosciutto rains from the skies here. Interesting that Yunnan generally cooks their ham - is this a preference, or a safety concern, or a difference in the production method?

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Interesting that Yunnan generally cooks their ham - is this a preference, or a safety concern, or a difference in the production method?


I'm not sure why. But I have adopted their custom and don't eat it raw. Honeydew melons 哈密瓜 from Xinjiang are nearing the end of their season. Delicious and sweet. Maybe I will try some uncooked with a slice or two of melon.


Seoul is a great place for a layover. Good plan. I often stop there for exactly that reason when flying from China to the US. Hope you find Hangzhou to be a congenial place! I've enjoyed going there a couple times as a tourist.

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