Travels Through Dali: A Ham-Fueled Journey

Chongsheng Monastery portal in Dali, Yunnan, China

Travels Through Dali: With a Leg of Ham {Book Review}

by Catherine Shannon Ballman

Zhang Mei, founder of WildChina, dedicated to luxury, sustainable travel in China and beyond, ignored advice to pack light during a trip through Dali, Yunnan Province. She carried a ham with her.

In her charming and engrossing book, Travels Through Dali: With a Leg of Ham, Mei uses the ham as a launchpad to culinary adventure and cultural exploration.

Traveling, Ham in Hand

Mei and her team of photographer Liz Phung, creative director Thomas O’Malley and younger brother Zhang XI roped into being driver embarked on a one-week trip. They departed from Dali Old Town crossed the Cangshan Mountains to Yunlong and then turned north to Shaxi. They looped back through Pi Luo Ge and Weishan before heading home.

Along the way, they met and cooked with a cast of characters. Zhang, owner of A Herd of Goats, an agritourism project, a folk singer, cheese-maker and a Frenchman working on historic preservation. The ever-shrinking ham fed a traditional chef, a village chief and a reporter-turned-chef who hosts very small, private dining events for select guests. And there was enough left-over for lunch with old friend and housekeeper, Cheng Ayi.

Zhang Mei has created a major contribution to foodways, nailing the intersection of food, people and culture with this gorgeously photographed and elegantly designed book. Tradition and history shape the ways that people approached the ham, never preparing it the same way but incorporating the ham into their own food customs.

Travels Through Dali

 

Embark on the trip behind the book.

About That Ham

Yunnan ham is famous China-wide. Notable for a deep red color, dense texture and smoky and salty quality, the dry-cured ham is considered a triumph of umami.

To make this ham, all the elements come together. The ham, rump and trotter attached, comes from wild-foraging pigs raised only in Yunnan. The fresh, clean mountain air, an anomaly in China, and tradition of salt-making that goes back thousands of years, are the keys to the Yunnan ham.

Curing the Ham

Once the butchering is complete, the meat is salt-cured in a precise and time-honored method. A chopstick is splintered to make a spear used to pierce the meat across the haunch for better salt absorption. Corn alcohol is massaged into the flesh for to create a better bond for the salt; it’s considered to create a sweeter taste to the ham, as well. The meat is coated with a half-inch of salt and then a heavy stone is placed on top to eke out the last drop of moisture. After a week, the meat is hung up. Two or three years, voila! It’s ham.

Sourcing Yunnan Ham

Yunnan cuisine is having it’s moment throughout North America. But to enjoy the savory Yunnan ham, United States residents are going to need to travel to Canada. It’s on the menu at many of Vancouver’s best restaurants, including the Hong Kong outpost o the acclaimed and very pricey Mott 32 (1161 W. Georgia St.) and Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant (3888 Main St.)

Yunnan cuisine is having it’s moment throughout North America. But to enjoy the savory Yunnan ham, United States residents are going to need to travel to Canada. It’s on the menu at many of Vancouver’s best restaurants, including the Hong Kong outpost o the acclaimed and very pricey Mott 32 (1161 W. Georgia St.) and Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant (3888 Main St.)

But if a trip to Asia is on the docket, Dali has become a popular spot with Chinese tourists, as well as artists, editors and photographers. One of China’s most ethically diverse regions and ringed by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, the cuisine is weaves together many threads for a distinctive cuisine.

Fried Rice with Ham and Eggs

This book is packed with authentic recipes. Here’s one that Zhang Mei learned from her father when she was 10.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs
  • A pinch of caoguo (a relative of ginger, it is available at Chinese grocers)
  • 1/2 c. canola oil
  • 400 g. lean ham, skinned and cut into thin pieces
  • 2 dried chili peppers, whole or cut into pieces (optional)
  • 6 c. cooked rice
  • 1-2 twigs of spring onions, finely chopped to make 1/2 c. loosely packed
  • Salt, to taste

Directions

  1. Break eggs into bowl with caoguo.
  2. Beat with chopsticks un yolks break and mix with the whites.
  3. Heat oil in wok over high heat. Oil is at correct temperature if oil bubbles around a drop of egg.
  4. Pour in all the beaten egg, letting it spread out and bubble up.
  5. Use a spatula to break into bite-sized piece.
  6. Remove egg to a bowl.
  7. Fry ham and peppers in oil for 30 seconds.
  8. Return eggs to wok when ham begins to brown.
  9. Stir mixture.
  10. Turn heat to medium and add rice, cooking until it warms.
  11. Add half the onion (reserve the other half for garnish).

Serve hot or at room temperature.

And if you cannot get your hands on Yunnan ham, Mei says Smithfield ham can make an acceptable substitution. In a bit of irony, Smithfield business was recently acquired by WH Group, a Chinese firm.

Travels Through Dali: With a Leg of Ham is available on Amazon.