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Improving a classic: 火腿蒸乳饼 Steamed Yunnan ham and white mountain cheese


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The slow-cured ham of Xuanwei 宣威火腿 and the lightly-processed cheese from the high-pasture cattle north of Shilin 石林乳饼 are both big Yunnan favorites. It shouldn't be in the least surprising to learn that they are often combined, more often than not by simply steaming them together. It was a marriage of flavors made in food heaven and I would wager that nearly every family in this part of China makes it at home on a regular basis, using just ham and cheese without anything else. 


I make it with some regularity too, but tonight I fancied it up in a way that compliments the primary textures and flavors. Came out real good and the process was straight forward. Let me show you the method. 


The only trick if you live overseas might be finding authentic ingredients. I believe you could substitute another cured (not smoked) ham such as those from Smithfield in the southeasten US, and you could use a good quality Italian bufala mozzarella for the cheese. Wouldn't be exactly the same, of course, but it should still be good.


Wash some red and green peppers and peel the outer tough skin off a mild Bermuda onion 洋葱。I used red bell peppers 红甜辣椒 and the long green half-hot chilies 青辣椒, but you could substitute locally available varieties, as long as they are fresh and full of flavor. Cut these vegetables up as shown; no need to be too fussy about it. 


(Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.)


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The cheese vendor offers to slice it at the time of purchase and I usually say yes because it saves some labor at home. He does it freehand, using a piece of stout monafilament string. He cuts it just right, but if you are doing it at home, don't slice it too thin, or else it will fall apart when steamed. China is not known for its cheeses, but this Yunnan product is an exception to the rule. Different versions of it exist around Dali, where it can be made from goats milk, and around Lijiang, where it can be made with milk of the great hairy alpine yak. 


I buy my ham in a block and then slice it myself, making the cuts thin but as thin as I might with prosciutto . I include a little fat, but not as much as most Chinese cooks. They often prefer the slices to be nearly a third fat. You could adjust that element to taste. My ham lady has a brother in Xuanwei Town 宣威县城 who hangs and cures these hams for about half a year. 



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The prep work is simple and fast, and now you are almost ready to apply the heat. Select a shallow bowl that will fit in your steamer. If you don't have a steamer, you can use your wok with a wire rack and a lid. Spread a layer of onions in the bottom of the bowl, follow that with a layer of cheese topped with ham. Sprinkle on plenty of sliced red and green peppers, then do it all again. Two layers is usually enough, but there is no law against more if your dish is deeper than mine. 


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This dish doesn't need any added salt because the ham supplies just enough. Place it in your steamer and set a timer for 25 minutes. At that point I usually wash up my knife, cutting board and any other prep dishes that might have accumulated. So much easier than waiting till later and it gives you clean work surfaces. 


















Near the end of the cooking time, I usually make a tablespoon or two of thin corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to use to thicken the pan juices before serving. This makes a fine gravy to use in topping your rice. One nice thing about steaming a dish like this is it doesn't dry out. Nothing more to do until the timer dings, then lift it out. Pour some of the juices into the bowl with your corn starch slurry and combine well. Drizzle it over the cooked ham and cheese. 


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The flavor of the vegetables melts into the primary notes of the mild cheese and the ham and does it without getting in the way or becoming confusing. I've made this dish for several Yunnan natives, and as conservative as they sometimes are, none have yet turned up their noses and walked away.


Changing a classic comes with some risks and is not always successful. The "less is more" mantra often applies. But this time the modifications yielded a real winner. Try it yourself for your family or your friends and see what you think. Pretty sure you won't be disappointed. 



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Haha! Spanish ham should work well. 


China has a long tradition of producing excellent ham, but not much for the international export market. In Yunnan everyone swears by this Xuanwei ham 宣威火腿, but Jinhua ham 进化火腿 has won major prizes too. It's made in Zhejiang, eastern China. The best of these take 8 to 10 months to cure. I've never tasted it and Yunnan ham side by side. 


I was thinking about steamed food this afternoon and how people in the west may not realize how important it is here. It's an ancient technique, but for some reason today it isn't considered "sexy" or "chic." It still has a large place in home cooking and "family style" dishes, which are often more simple and unadorned than restaurant fare.  

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22 hours ago, abcdefg said:

corn starch slurry


This is an American term?


When I hear the word “slurry” it conjures up something completely different! 


I did a quick bing and it appears on a few websites with corn starch. For me it’s mostly something associated with livestock! 


Recipe looks great. I need to get some Yunnan ham! 

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Thanks @ChTTay -- I'm not really sure whether "slurry" is a proper culinary term or not, come to think of it. 水淀粉 captures it better, corn starch mixed with water with the result being more liquid than solid. 


I'll bet you can find Yunnan ham there in Beijing. Or Jinhua ham for that matter. It should work just as well. 



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Cornstarch mixture maybe? Or forget it and just say “cornstarch mixed with water” ? 


Doesn’t matter really, it just really stood out as I read it. 


I’m sure you can but it’s never as good. Better to try make a friend from Yunnan and get their mammy post some. Failing that find a friend who is going and get them to buy some! 


My partner’s work mate gave a bag of Sichuan sausage homemade by their mother. They posted a load of it from the hometown in Sichuan to Beijing.  It was unbelievably good! 

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Slurry has become the standard term now (seriously) because of its unmistakable appearance.

I was reading about cheese-making techniques of the Yi (inspired by the other thread in the other forum) just a few days ago!

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