The wooden aging room is dark and cool. Hams hang from the rafters, strung up in long, crowded rows that reach from the ceiling to just a few inches above the floor. The air is dense with an aroma extraordinarily similar to that of well-aged Parmesan cheese—salt and protein concentrated to their very essence; pure umami.
Peng Qingnan moves carefully among his hams, checking to see how they’re aging. He uses a special tool carved from a cow’s calf bone, a long, thin needle with a bulbous rounded base. First he uses the base like a xylophonist’s mallet, tapping on the hams to see if they sound soft or firm; then he slides the needle into the meat, removes it, and sniffs. The aroma tells him whether the ham is aging well. It should smell the way it will taste: meaty and salty and almost sweet. If the wrong bacteria have crept into the pork, it might smell sour, like pickles or unripe plums.
Peng has been making ham in Fan Jia Village, near the city of Huize, since 1986, when he returned from army service in Henan Province, in central China. Peng and his parents worked as butchers, selling pork at the local market, but in the mid-1980s, as the country’s first economic reforms were going into effect, he made the decision to start his own business. Until then, all the hams in the area had been made by community groups and sold through the gongjia (the system in which the government bought and sold all local products). Peng knew he could do better on his own and taught himself the art of ham making through trial and error. These days, Peng still butchers whole hogs and sells most of the meat at the morning markets, but in the winter he uses all the rear legs of the animals to make ham.
Two years ago, Peng’s twenty-four-year-old son, Peng Zehui, moved back home to learn from his father. The younger Peng and his uncle have since expanded the business, investing in a cold room (a walk-in freezer the size of a shipping container) so that they can make hams year-round. Peng Zehui’s wife, Fan Zhucun, also joined the family business, selling the remaining pork at the market each morning.
Peng, however, continues to make his hams the traditional way, starting the process at the winter solstice, when the weather is cold. He has built two aging rooms at his house: a large, concrete room where he ages regular hams, and a smaller wooden room, right next to the family living room, for his highest-quality hams. These are made from larger-than-average pigs raised carefully on small farms, and they age for at least two years before they are sold.
Peng saves some of the best ham for his family, and his wife, Tao Lianfen, prepares it in a wide variety of ways. The meat from the thin part of the ham, near the foot, and from the rounded end are the toughest and are usually boiled or stewed. The meat from the center of the leg is steamed with wedges of potatoes, stir-fried with bright, vegetal green chiles, or simply sliced and served on its own, salty and tender and utterly delicious.
More from Cooking South of the Clouds
- Lijiang Baba Filled Flatbreads Recipe
- Dali-Style Cucumber with Vinegar and Chile Sauce Recipe
- A Typical Yunnanese Kitchen Pantry
- Babao Style Duck Stewed in Beer Recipe
Reprinted with permission from Cooking South of the Clouds by Georgia Freedman and published by Kyle Books, 2018.