Yunnan Ham from a Grandmother Room
Updated: Apr 10
To find out more about what we ate in Yunnan, including my encounter with a 40 year old mother of all hams, read the article here:
Growing up, I was regaled by tales of the mythical mellow richness of the Xuanwei hams from northeastern Yunnan. They were small boned, thin skinned, thick fleshed and tasted of high mountain air our China-born cook reminisced. A plain winter-melon soup could be miraculously transformed by the addition of a piece of the bone. A few slices of the delicately textured meat slipped between poached chicken would make that homely dish worthy of an emperor. Nothing like this, our cook would wrinkle her nose up at my mother, as the two of them made white bread sandwiches with the putrid pink slices of sliced ham my mother bought from one or other of the two supermarkets in our city.
In the post-colonial Singapore of the 1960’s, with a China behind the bamboo curtains, Xuanwei hams from Yunnan were a dream.
I was nearly twenty when I finally tasted what purported to be the real thing — two vile slices of rancid leather from half a leg that my mother lugged back from her first trip to China. To say it was disappointing would be an understatement.
In the years since, I’ve encountered better Yunnan ham. But that mythical mellow richness our cook craved eluded me. Until last week … on the shores of Lugu Lake more than 500 kms away from Xuanwei.
The remote country surrounding the lake in northwestern Yunnan is called the Country of Daughters. Here, grandmothers of the Mosuo tribe rule and women inherit. Here, where men do not marry and women do not wed, I met the mother of all hams.
She was lying out on a bench, below a five year old and a fifteen year old. She’d kept well for her age, forty! All three of them had been deboned and defleshed, stripped of their trotters and hocks, their insides scrapped clean except for a layer of fat. Then they’d been rubbed with salt, sewn back together and pressed flat. They’d been lying there, in front of the doorway of the Mosuo grandmother room, taking in the mountain air drafting in, being smoked by the fires from the cooking earth till they’d turned almost ebony.
The ham from the forty year old and fifteen year old was long gone. There were some five year old hams hanging from the rafters. My mouth watered. But, the hams were for exhibition only.
My encounter with sublimity came the next day.
Heaven in the mouth
The Mosuo treasure their daughters and take their pigs and their rice seriously. When a girl comes of age at thirteen, she’s stripped naked of her children’s clothes in the family’s grandmother room and dressed in her adult skirt and tunic while standing with one foot on a sack of rice and the other on a salted pig.
Rice, pigs, what comes out of their fields… In the Country of Daughters, these are what a woman can rely on as the men come in the night and leave before sunrise.
The Mosuo grow a round-grain red-husked mountain rice that boils up into softly chewy pearls. They also grow an extremely sweet large kernelled yellow corn, hairy skinned beans, fat striped cucumbers and fiery hot chillies. And then there are the pigs, black-skinned and sprightly.
Mosuo pigs don’t live in pens. Like the horses, cows, goats and chickens, they are let out daily to forage on whatever the mountain mountains provide. They grow fat on meadow spurges, sweet corn-cobs , mushrooms, pine-nuts, walnuts, and the droppings from apple, pear and date orchards.
If a family receives eight to twelve visitors, a little pig is slaughtered and cooked right away. More than that, and it’s a goat! Big pigs, more than one, are sacrificed at coming of age ceremonies, funerals and feast days. One is served right away. The others are gutted, salted, and hung to dry to make the famous Mosuo ham.
Lazho, a Mosuo friend, cooked us both types of pigs on the hearth of her grandmother room, then served them to us in the courtyard of her family home in what turned out to be a heavenly whole-food experience.
We were a party of twelve. We got a little pig, most of which was simmered in a broth flavoured with fresh bean pods and parts of a previously killed and preserved big pig.
The young meat, stewed over a corn-cob fire in the hearth of the grandmother room, had a indescribably fresh sweetness. The remainder of the little pig was braised with bitter-gourd squash, the bitter and sweet melding nicely to melt in the mouth.
We were also offered four and five year old ham strips from the big pigs, stir fried with fresh forest mushrooms. The ham was unctuous and smoky; the mushrooms tasted of forest. The whole, fried in ham dripping and sharpened with a sprinkle of Szechuan pepper, reminded me of a walk down a deep dark wood. I felt the cholesterol thicken in the veins at the side of my throat even as I bit and chewed and swallowed, then reached out for more.
The piece-de-resistance was Lazho’s zhu piao rou, chunks of aged smoked bacon fat which are the highlight of any Mosuo meal.
The zhu piao rou we ate was four years old. It had been lightly boiled in the bean soup, then taken out and cut into 1 inch chunks. Imagine a piece of shiny jade, caramel on two or three sides, amber the rest of the way through. Imagine picking up the chunk and dipping it into a bowl of finely chopped fresh chilli peppers. Imagine biting into something textured like the inside of a Mars Bar, but salty and burnt and gammon all at once. Imagine the richness flooding your mouth, then sliding down your throat leaving the bite of chilly behind.
I took another piece.
A whole-food experience
It wasn’t just the dishes so lovingly prepared by Lazho that made our Mosuo lunch so memorable. There was the cool air coming down from the Mother Goddess mountain behind Lazho’s house. There were the corn fields and rice fields outside the courtyards, the wallows at the side of the house where the chickens and pigs spent the nights.
There was the camaraderie engendered by the low tables and shoulder to shoulder seating. The gentle enquiring conversation over yak-butter tea, tsampa and home grown apples before our meal started. The laughing and teasing over duty-free Johnny Walker afterwards.
We didn’t just have heritage Yunnan ham, we shared in the heritage of our hosts. We connected.
Back now in Singapore, thousands of miles away and fantasizing about curing zhu piao rou in my refrigerator, I finally understand our long-dead cook’s longing, her very human hunger for the taste of hearth and home.