Ham

大腺 mandarin: hwo-tway; Cantonese: fwo-toy

I mainly use two sorts of ham in my kitchen, one the densely smoked and salty Smithfield ham, and the other a lightly smoked and ready-to-eat Black Forest ham. A third sort, a honey- or sugar-cured ham, I use less frequently.

The Smithfield ham I use uncooked, the lean part finely slivered or minced into dishes either as a garnish or a salty seasoning (sometimes both). The fatty portion I mince and include as a richly flavored, salted fat mainly in steaming fish. In this way it most approximates the famous smoked Yunnan ham of China, which is unavailable here. Smithfield ham is sold cut into cross-slices about 1 inch thick in most larger Chinese markets, bagged in plastic so you can inspect its condition. It should be free of mold and superficial oil when you purchase it and should be refrigerated promptly when you get home. If mold should appear, you can scrape or wash it away, then safely eat what is beneath. As you use Smithfield ham, store the scraps of fat in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and keep the bone. They are invaluable as seasonings, and the bone is especially good in soup. Once bought and refrigerated, the ham will keep for a year or more.

If you cannot get Smithfield (which can be mail ordered in slices), use prosciutto or Westphalian ham, which are similar enough to Smithfield, though each has its own special character. Whichever the ham, nibble a bit of it before cooking to know how much salt it will be contributing to the dish, then adjust accordingly. All the recipes in this book that call for Smithfield have taken its saltiness into account. (And, a note to those who might wonder about eating “uncooked” ham: USDA inspection regulations require that hams be heated to an internal temperature of at least 137° during the smoking and curing process, which is sufficient to kill the Trichina parasite that has made us, as a nation, so wary of undercooking pork.)

For dishes where I do not want the intensity of flavor of a Smithfield and am looking for a full-flavored ham with character that I can sliver and chew on comfortably—say, as part of a cold noodle dish—I turn to a Black Forest ham. This is a small, ready-to-eat ham, which is very lean, very deep in color, and lightly smoked. It is likely to be the most flavorful ham in the case of a good specialty shop or delicatessen, and is head and shoulders above most all of the honey- and sugar-cured varieties for depth of flavor. Buy it in small quantities for almost immediate use, as its flavor will fade like any cold cut if kept more than a few days.

For fried rice and buns, where Black Forest hams are generally too lean, I use the best sugar- or honey-cured ham I can find. This, like the above, you must sample to know what you are getting.