Don’t let the Italians fool you. Despite their long, illustrious relationship with ham, a strict pride for their Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) on regional varieties, and internationally-craved plates of pizzas and pasta that all make use of it, they didn’t invent the stuff. At least not according to the Chinese.
When Marco Polo arrived in China in the 13th century, he was there to pilfer. Impressed with the culture and customs he saw on his travels, he returned to Venice with Chinese porcelain, paper money, spices and silks to introduce to his home country. It was from his time in Jinhua, a city in eastern Zhejiang province, he found ham.
Salt-cured Chinese hams have been in production since the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD). First records appeared in the book Supplement to Chinese Materia Medica by Tang Dynasty doctor Chen Zangqi, who claimed ham from Jinhua was the best. Pork legs were commonly salted by soldiers in Jinhua to take on long journeys during wartime, and it was imperial scholar Zong Ze who introduced it to Song Dynasty Emperor Gaozong. Gaozong was so enamoured with the ham’s intense flavour and red colour he named it huo tui, or ‘fire leg’.
Huo tui doesn’t quite resemble the soft, baked hams found on Australian Christmas lunch tables or the sweet slivers of San Daniele prosciutto, another dry-cured ham from Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia. Jinhua ham is tough, intensely salty and not meant to be eaten by the slice like western hams.
“Jinhua ham is complicated to cook with,” says Yin Bing Zhu, owner of his family-run factory, Sheng Yu Long in Jinhua. “It’s not the main food but more of a flavour enhancer – people in Guangdong province often use it to make soup.” Sheng Yu Long has been producing ham for more than 100 years, with every process still done by hand.
A visit to the Jinhua ham museum (yep, the city has its very own museum dedicated to ham), explains the handmade process in more detail, including the differences between Italian, French, British and American ham.
The Chinese were drying and curing hams before Europeans
For Jinhua ham, 36 procedures are necessary, including dressing, trimming, salting, washing, drying, fermenting and finally, smelling. After the ham leg is cleaned and dressed, it’s salted six times; about 25–35 days between each salting time. Next comes the fermentation process, where the ham is stored in a cool dark place for between 6–8 months for the ham to create its distinct aroma and flavour. The final step, known as ‘smelling’, inserts a bamboo stick or sharp bone into the meat. Once the stick is removed, the aroma is judged to test the quality of the ham.
It’s the salting process that’s the trickiest to get right, with only skilled ham masters knowing the correct salt-to-weight ratio and the perfect temperature for curing. “Our ham can only begin salting in winter,” explains Yin Bing Zhu. “We salt the legs from December to January, and wash the legs in January when it is cold and there are no flies around.”
In Australia, it’s not easy to find Jinhua ham commercially, and in many countries, including the United States, the ham is banned completely. Melbourne chef Tony Tan says he looks to European-style cured hams as an alternative. “I’ll use jamón or sometimes prosciutto in place of Jinhua ham,” says Tan, who says the flavour difference isn’t really noticeable. “Jinhua ham is drier than jamón, so it depends how you use the [other] ingredients. I use jamón in my XO sauce and more elegant Chinese dishes.”
Try our recipe for homemade XO sauce using Jinhua ham here
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This classic Cantonese dish is quick and easy to make but it does require some hefty gas-heat in order to cook properly. If you’ve ever watched wok-cooking in a restaurant, where the flames are prodigious, you’ll know what we mean. It’s best to cook this for just 2 people, as home gas supply isn't grunty enough to cook bigger quantities without the food stewing. If you want to make more serves, simply cook a separate batch.