Drying meat in Shanghai at wintertime
It is an at least 2000-year-old tradition in many provinces in China to cure and preserve meat in wintertime. Pigs were slaughtered after the ‘Light Snowfall’-date (around Nov 22nd/23rd), when the temperatures were plummeting, and this meat had to be preserved to last until next summertime.
And it was and is a tradition to cure meat for Chinese New Year festivities. The first day of Chinese New Year starts, when the new moon appears between Jan 21st and Feb 20th, which marks the change from winter- to spring time and is different every year. Curing of meat starts about four weeks before that first day of Chinese New Year.
Every province got its own specific specialties but is often universally called ‘La rou’. ‘La’ got a variety of meanings, but in this connection, for ritual meat sacrifices at the 12th month of the Chinese calendar, which had to be preserved for later. And ‘rou’ is a character meaning ‘meat’, not specifying from which type of animal.
‘La rou’ meat curing technique
The ‘La’ technique is to cure the meat for some days in a liquid of soy sauce, salt, sugar, yellow rice wine (Huang jiu) and ginger. Thereafter drying it briefly and hanging it outside into fresh air for some hours every day to get sun- and air dried. As the winter air is quite dry in Shanghai area, the meat is getting partially dehydrated and fat will be reduced by dripping off. And some people say, the meat will taste stronger due to air drying.
In rural areas, most of fully sun- and air-dried meat is produced, which can take some months long, until it gets fully dried. And in rural areas often the ready prepared La rou will be smoked additionally. On the other hand, in Shanghai, La rou will only be partially dried and mostly eaten at Chinese New Year festivities.
Total drying time depends strongly on exposure time to sunshine, intensity of sunshine, strength of wind, size of piece, type of meat a.s.o., and has to be felt with the finger if it has still enough elasticity and a cured outside. For a chicken – in average Shanghai weather conditions in January – three weeks air- and sun drying are a good estimate to be ready for eating. Bigger pieces will need up to four weeks for drying.
Pork meat for ‘La rou’
Pork is the mainly used La rou meat. Front- and hind legs were and are used to produce ham. But especially pork belly strips, other secondary meat parts, innards and the head are used for producing La rou. How this meat will be prepared for eating depends on the province the persons are coming from, as there are distinctive provincial varieties.
‘La chang’ Pork sausages
From fatty pork parts mixed with lean secondary meat parts, the famous La chang sausages are produced and hung for drying outside. There are two styles: Cantonese style La chang’s taste quite sweet and Sichuan style sausages are very spicy due to the addition of Sichuan peppers.
Air- and sun dried ducks and chicken
Besides of pork, poultry is regarded as the next best option for La rou. Ducks and chicken are prepared like pork, and are called ‘Ban ya’, meaning ‘Flat duck’ due to their shape for easier drying. But still: many ducks and chicken are just hung up a tree as they are, without flattening them. Often, poultry is getting steamed after sun- and air drying.
‘La rou’ beef and lamb
Beef (La niu rou) and lamb (La yang rou) are not so popular in Shanghai area. In general, inhabitants of southern provinces of China – to which Shanghai belongs to – prefer pork, in northern provinces, beef and lamb.
Air- and sun dried fish
Especially Conger eels (Muraenesox cinereus) are sold freshly in Shanghai; people buy the fish, which thereafter will be flattened and air dried. With a piece of paper on it, naming the owner, or which part of the fish belongs to them. These are massive fish, about 1,5 m long and there are markets, where they are curled around and being prepared for processing. Besides of Conger eels also all other kind of fish are being dried. Especially the meaty parts behind the belly opening.
Lessons learned from drying meat in wintertime in Shanghai
- Sausages, whole chicken, undefined meat parts and parts of fish – hanging on coat hangers, on trees and outside of windows – are a strong food tradition in China.
- Also, massive conger eels will be flattened and air dried in wintertime.
- Taste and textures of these various types of air-dried meat are quite special, and supplement very well rice bowls together with vegetables and sauces, but also as starters before main dishes.