A juicy glazed ham will be occupying the place of honor at many dinner tables this Easter. However, in the west ham is not a food we normally associate with Chinese cuisine. While we may have feasted on fiery stir-fried pork and chilies at our favorite Szechuan restaurant, or enjoyed a hearty plate of Shanghai Lion's Head Pork Meatballs, most of us would not think of ordering a dish of steamed ham seasoned with ginger and peppercorns.
China's Most Famous Ham
That's unfortunate, because the cured hams produced in China's western provinces of Yunnan and Hunan are world famous. Yunnan ham, from the province that is "south of the clouds" of Szechuan, is particularly renowned for its rich flavor. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, Yunnan ham won an award at the 1915 Exposition celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. (Source: Sinohost Internet site). It is extremely popular in China, where in addition to purchasing it from the butcher, you can also buy pieces of Yunnan ham in cans. Besides steaming Yunnan ham, you'll find it in appetizers and soups such as winter melon and shark's fin, usually with sugar added as a seasoning to balance its salty tang. In The Taste of China, Ken Hom reminisces about enjoying a dish of Fantasy Pork at a Yunnan restaurant:
"It was properly braised, with just the right enhancing seasonings that gave the meat a robust but not overpowering fragrance.
The rich wine sauce and subtle sweetness of the other ingredients combined beautifully with the taste of pork."
Yunnan ham is also a rich source of “umami,” the indescribable fifth taste found in certain types of seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes and other food containing glutamate.
Unfortunately, cured hams from Yunnan and Hunan are not available in the west.
However, Smithfield hams, from Virginia in the southern United States, are a good substitute. (According to the Epicurious site, Queen Victoria enjoyed their smoky flavor so much she ordered six sent to her household every week). When preparing either a Yunnan or Smithfield uncooked ham, soak for several hours or overnight to remove the salty flavor, and scrape off any mold before cooking.
Unless the recipe calls for it, there's no need to purchase a whole ham - you can buy prepared slices. Below you'll find several recipes featuring ham to add an Asian flair to your Easter celebrations.