Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The smoked charcuterie of Hunan with leeks

Chinese charcuterie generally gets short shrift in the West because it still is pretty much unknown. But if food lovers could taste what it is that Hunan, Guangdong, and many other provinces have to offer in the way of cured meats and sausages, all of this could change in an instant.

Take for example Hunan's smoked cured pork, called Hunan larou in Chinese. It is a perennial favorite even in places like Taiwan, where there isn't an enormous contingent from that region, a testament to the intense flavor and juicy texture this variety of gammon supplies.

Like most Chinese charcuterie, Hunan-style cured pork is marinated and then air-dried for a few sunny winter days. But there the similarity ends. While most other cured meats are simply dried, Hunan's specialty is smoked over a cool fire, permeating the flesh with a sweet, heavenly flavor. Also unlike other varieties, this is a fairly moist cured meat that is taken from the picnic cut (upper front leg), salted and marinated with the skin on, and given a bit of curing salt to keep the lovely pink hue of the meat. 

The skin is often rather soft on a good piece of Hunan larou, so you can keep it on if you wish. Just be aware that the skin will pop a lot when exposed to high heat, as with stir-frying, so use a spatter guard. If you do remove it, keep it in a bag in the freezer with any other ham-like scraps and bones for tasty additions to winter soups, as it adds a gentle smokiness and depth to the broth.

Pink flesh with marbled fat
Nowadays there are some good brands -- some of them based in Taiwan or Hong Kong -- that offer meat produced in the U.S. Get those. They are vacuum packed and will keep for quite a while without refrigeration as long as the bag isn't opened. Once you do pierce the plastic, though, seal up the meat in a reclosable bag and store in the refrigerator for up to a week or so, at which point it might begin to suffer in quality.

When you choose a piece of cured Hunan pork, look for a nice, solid piece without a whole lot of scraps tossed in to max out the total weight. It should have a good piece of skin at one end with a layer of fat underneath. Avoid any pieces that look like they were taken from the shoulder, where there are lots of sinews and broken pieces of muscle interspersed with stringy fat. 

Cut off whatever amount you want, wipe it off with a damp paper towel, and then slice it up. If the meat is at all hard, sever off a hunk and then steam it on a plate for about 10 minutes, as this will soften it up considerably.

One of my absolute favorite ways to cook this is in a Hunan specialty called Hunan Cured Meat with Leeks, or suanmiao chao larou. We used to order this often at an old Taipei restaurant that specialized in spicy central Chinese cookery called Tianrentai. Located across from my personal temple of good food, the South Gate Market, it sat on a corner of Roosevelt Road, an artery that ran from the federal buildings all the way down past Taiwan University. Lots of great eating on that street, and more on that some other time.

A good piece of larou
Hunan is located in the central regions of China, just east of Sichuan and nestled next to Jiangxi province. Heaven knows what they did for seasoning before chilies were imported from the New World, but in the past couple of hundred years, those little red firecrackers completely transformed the local cuisine, as well as that of just about every other inland area to Hunan's west and south.

But back to the dish under discussion. Suffice it say that this dish was always ordered by us simply because nobody could do it better. Sweet shards of fresh leek were woven between the cured meat, thin slices of pressed bean curd (doufugan), fresh chilies, and loads of garlic and ginger. The sauce was a delectable balance between pain and pleasure: hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang) and sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang). If you are a devoted chili head, feel free to amp up the heat with more fresh chilies and another scoop of the hot bean sauce, but try not to completely drown out the smoky flavors.

The pressed bean curd adds a nice counterpoint to all the serious flavors in this dish. Like so many classic Chinese dishes, this is another yin yang component: blandness against punchy flavors, soft texture with chewy, white against deep colors. It's all part of a package that guarantees perfect balance. 

One of my favorite Hunan dishes
Hunan cured meat with leeks
Suanmiao chao larou 蒜苗炒臘肉 
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multicourse meal

1 small leek or half a large leek
2 squares pressed bean curd
5 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 cup thinly sliced Hunan-style cured meat
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced ginger
1 red jalapeno, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon spicy bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
1 tablespoon sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang)
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 teaspoons sugar
Roasted sesame oil
1. Trim the root end and the dark green leaves off of the leek and discard. Carefully clean the leek, making sure that all of the sand between the leaves has been removed. Cut the leek on the diagonal to make diamond-shaped pieces. Cut each beancurd square in half and then slice each piece horizontally into about 4 thin sheets.

The main ingredients
2. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. Add the leeks and quickly stir-fry them until the edges just begin to brown. Remove the leeks to a plate or scoot them high up on the side of your wok. Add the sliced meat to the hot oil and quickly stir-fry them until the fat is translucent and the edges have started to brown. Again, remove them to a plate with the leeks or scoot them high up the side of the wok, but leave as much of the fat in the bottom of the wok as possible. Stir-fry the bean curd slices and add them to the leeks and meat once the edges have browned.

3. Toss the garlic, ginger, and jalapeno slices into the wok and quickly stir them around in the remaining puddle of fat to release their fragrance. Push them to the side and spoon both the spicy bean sauce and the sweet wheat paste into the hot fat; cook the sauces quickly to remove the raw taste and then add the wine. Stir it around for a few seconds more, and then return the leeks, meat, and bean curd to the wok. Sprinkle the soy sauce and sugar over everything and toss the ingredients well. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Dribble a bit of sesame oil over the dish and serve while very hot.

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