Now in the height of winter, count yourself lucky if your friends or family have planned ahead and stowed away a healthy supply of dried bacon. If they haven’t, start knocking on doors in Guancheng. It’ll be worth it.
When the frosty fall wind starts to blow away the humid, hot air of summer, it’s showtime for hanging meat above your head. Long strips of fat, greasy and dark meat merrily dangle everywhere: from balconies, rooftops, under eaves, parks and squares. Thickly sliced, bird shaped, long necked, webbed feet, sharp clawed, judging by the shape, you vaguely know the animal of origin. Then, the next thing you notice, you are biting one of these mysterious local treats in a food stand with a side of fried broccoli. Surprisingly, the taste is actually above mediocre.
La rou (Mandarin) or lop yok (Cantonese) is Chinese-style bacon or cured pork belly that is widely used in Chinese cuisine all year round. La—meaning the last month in Chinese calendar—indicates the exact time to produce this homemade delicacy.
It’s one major member of the big meaty family of la wei, which translates to the taste of “la.” For thousands of years, pork belly, pork shoulder, ducks, geese, duck guts, sausages and fish have all been preserved in this natural way for the upcoming Spring Festival and the whole of winter.
Since the tradition has been carried on one generation after another, people don’t see any offense in hanging meat in their own property, or even in public zones, regardless of the city’s blooming modernity.
When autumn wind comes, it’s time to eat la wei.
From the end of November to January, locals waste not a moment to buy hundreds of RMB-worth of pork to start the first batch of the winter treasure. Time is money, but money can’t buy good weather. Cool and dry sunny days ensure good flavors and long shelf lives, which appear only during this time of the year in Guangdong.
Usually half of the finished products will be handed off to friends and relatives as a special seasonal gift. Now, rising food safety problems have increased the popularity of homemade la wei. Every family tends to have its own secret recipe and is proud to present their product each year.
“I’ve been having this since the day I was born. We locals love la rou. It has a very strong and aromatic aftertaste,” said Mr. Wang, a villager from Machong. “The way we make it, with natural air drying, is certainly different from fire drying. We won’t buy from outside, we make the best la rou.”
In southern provinces, such as Guangdong, Hunan and Sichuan, la rou is made from pork belly with even layers of lean meat and fat. In the north, beef is more often to be chosen for bacon. Unlike Hunan or Sichuan, where bacon is smoked, Cantonese air dries their bacon, which is claimed to retain the original flavor and match Cantonese cuisine’s simplicity and purity.
Sugar and rice wine (Fenjiu from Shanxi specifically) are two distinctive ingredients for curing the pork, adding a sweetness and alcohol fragrance to the meat. The dark color comes from dark soy sauce and light soy sauce is also applied for a dense and rich flavor. After at least one day of marinating—with a careful stirring from time to time—strips of bacon are ready to be hung outside for one week.
Since the tradition has been carried on one generation after another, people don’t see any offense in hanging meat in their own property, or even in public zones, regardless of the city’s blooming modernity. For these meatsmiths, whether or not they can devour high-quality bacon is all that matters.
Putting aside the mannerisms issue, you might wonder if it’s really suitable to dry meat in potentially polluted air? Good point. More or less 30 years ago, the city was saturated with mind-blowingly fresh air that would only do magical things for bacon. Can the air-borne pollutants be absorbed by meat and harm human tissue? Probably, but thinking about all the fertilizers and chemicals added to all the other foods we eat, one week of soaking in moderately polluted air doesn’t seem quite as big of a concern. Plus, Chinese bacon requires washing and thoroughly cooking before consumption. Pollution may not be the biggest issue.
The biggest concern, however, is whether or not these precious recipes and family traditions can be carried on to future generations. The practice of producing homemade la rou had seen a decline in recent decades, just like many other traditional snacks and foods. Many young people have already quickly adapted to dynamic international foods and now consider this local delight obsolete.
How long will it take before the old culture is revitalized to past glories again? Simple, find a way to make it cool and people will pay top dollar to try it. We’ll make a fortune.