“What would I use as a metaphor for the best part of my life if there were no longer any sweets?”

—Yoko Tawada translated by Susan Bernofsky  

Mei Zhang, from TRAVELS THROUGH DALI: WITH A LEG OF HAM

Mei Zhang, from TRAVELS THROUGH DALI: WITH A LEG OF HAM

Published by Penguin China (May 2016)

All photography by Elizabeth Phung

THE HAM CURING OF MASTER'S WELL VILLAGE

'THIS IS the guy. He has your ham,’ Zhang tells us, motioning to Mr Yang Xuegong. Yang, as you will find out, is a family name shared by many Bai people in Dali prefecture. This Yang, a farmer, has silvery sideburns framing a lively face darkened by fifty-nine summers in sub-alpine conditions.

Zhang grins enthusiastically and doles out cigarettes to Farmer Yang and one of his sons. Yang and his wife have three sons all together, in addition to one daughter and two grandchildren, all of whom live in this village.

Farmer Yang smiles shyly as we loiter in the yard of his farmhouse, which is on a hillside in the valley. In the yard is a clutter of tools, motorcycle parts, clucking chickens and children’s toys, all cloaked in mingling aromas of wood smoke, cow dung and freshly brewed tea. Mushrooms dry in garland-like necklaces, hanging on nails tacked into the wood-panelled wall. A small handheld wooden loom gathers dust in the corner. Beside it sits a neat pair of cloth shoes whose cotton soles are stitched with thick knots, similar to those found on the feet of the terracotta warriors. As if on cue, another of Yang’s sons enters the yard, brandishing an enormous haunch of pink flesh like a club. The Yangs no longer raise their own pigs, having switched to chicken farming some years ago. Our ham-to-be, weighing in at a hefty 26 jin (13 kilograms), is sourced from the local market.

A table is cleared and the leg plopped, fat side up, on to it. There is a hush;    all eyes turn to Farmer Yang as he takes a chopstick, breaks it lengthwise to create a spear-like point, and pierces the blotchy flesh in a dozen places to help the salt penetrate. His granddaughter, a 5-year-old in a peach top, clings shyly to the leg of her uncle. It’s a ritual they’ve all watched before.

Farmer Yang washes his hands and unscrews an old water bottle. ‘Corn alcohol,’ he says, massaging the sweet-smelling liquor into the flesh. The alcohol, while killing off bacteria, will work as an adhesive for the salt. ‘And it gives the ham a sweeter taste,’ adds Zhang, nodding knowingly.

I pass one of my cylinders of Master’s Well salt to Yang. He crumbles it like a sandcastle, adds some store-bought salt, and pats the mix liberally on to the ham, the plump meat cushioning under his slow, steady touch. Eventually the leg is entirely shrouded in what looks like half an inch of day-old snow. It’s a mesmerising ritual: Farmer Yang, cigarette dangling from his lips, raises the ham-to-be by the ankle and affectionately works salt into every nook and cranny.

Satisfied, he takes a sip of tea and proceeds to explain how a heavy stone will be positioned on top of the leg to squeeze out the moisture, which is then collected and boiled to extract the salt for reapplication. Finally, a week or so later, a loop of wire will be tied around its ankle and the ham will be ready to hang inside the house. Time, a little smoke and the cool mountain air will take care of the rest.

In two to three years, our Master’s Well ham will mature into something much more desirable. That’s too long for us, though, so Farmer Yang goes to fetch another leg that he salted two years earlier.

Eventually, ham number two arrives in the arms of another son. It’s immediately clear that time has brought some changes to the ham. Its outer surface has darkened and dulled to the colour of baked mud – rusty, crusty and calcified – and it’s dotted with little islands of pale mould. It’s also about a third smaller than its original size, thanks to salt leeching out the moisture.

‘We’ll go to cook in their new house,’ Zhang says, swatting a fly, ‘away from the animals.’ A pair of protesting chickens are picked up by the legs, a basket is filled with fresh eggs, and Farmer Yang’s granddaughter exchanges the baby goat she’s been cradling for an old cooking oil bottle filled with liquor, mixed with what at first glance appears to be hundreds of little yellow flowers. On closer inspection, they’re wasps. Wasp, snake and lizard liquors are said to be good for men’s health – in Yunnan, at least.

Our procession marches down the hill and across a covered wooden bridge, past cherry blossoms and curious dogs.

The Yangs’ new house is a modern construction painted Bai white, with glass windows, a balcony, a neatly swept yard and an outside toilet. We gather in the yard under a deep blue sky, and soon a fire is crackling contentedly on the concrete outside the house. One of Farmer Yang’s sons takes our ham and starts the process of waking it up from its two-year slumber.

Crack, crunch, thunk. Yang’s chopping is music in these parts, a sound that signals celebration and plenty. He turns a chunk of ham flesh-side up to display the cut surface. Everybody cranes their heads to look; a neat cross-section draws a collective sigh of appreciation from the spectators. It seems that this show of skill is as important in Bai village life as carving the Thanksgiving turkey is in the US.

We examine the jewelled interior: velvet-red meat patterned with seams of fat like the finest Dali marble. Time has done its work.

‘See, every villager here knows how to make and prepare a ham!’ exclaims Zhang triumphantly. ‘This is a salt village – it’s the culture.’

Our ham is butchered into chunks, with one sizeable slab set aside for lunch. The whole process from burning to chopping takes a good hour. ‘It takes about 10 minutes to cure a ham, but it takes a lot longer to prepare it for eating.’ Zhang comments, discounting the years in between.

A sliver of milky white fat is trimmed from the edge and tossed into an iron wok warming on the remains of the fire. Salt Maker Yang then roughly chops our slab into chunks and drops them into a pot of simmering water.

By now, the ham fat in the wok is opaque and bubbling. Jue cai, a stalky green fern from the mountains, is tossed in, and it also starts to sizzle and steam. A moment earlier, Salt Maker Yang was hacking through flesh and bone. Now his muscular arms delicately prepare the ferns, which transmute into a brilliant jade against the coal-black seasoned wok. It’s a process to which he devotes all his attention, as if nothing matters at this moment besides the ritual of cooking.

A low, square table is placed a few metres from the fire, bordered by four simple bench seats. Out come the eggs, fried by Farmer Yang’s daughter in lots of hot oil so that the whites have fluffed and crisped delightfully at the edges, while the yolks have remained tender to the touch. More vegetables in enamel dishware are served; bottles of Dali beer are uncapped and candles are lit to keep the flies away. Finally, the table receives its centrepiece: our ham, boiled and presented simply in a dented aluminium bowl.

For the second time today, all is quiet. I notice the faint gurgling of the stream as we chew and savour the food. High above, a herd of white goats moves slowly and silently along the steep mountainside. It could be Farmer Yang’s wife leading them, Zhang says. But we’re too far away to tell.

So what of our ham? It is Bai mountain food at its most primal and unadulterated. Some pieces are thick, others thin; some are dark and gamey, others pale and sweet.

We pick out the chunks we fancy with our chopsticks, each little more than a mouthful, and eat them over fluffy white rice. The boiling has mellowed the saltiness. The meat is chewy and rich, fatty and unadorned. It marries perfectly with the fresh eggs, making this meal a sort of pastoral Yunnanese version of bacon and eggs.

Bacon and eggs is a dish I rarely eat, and if I do I only ever manage one egg.

Today, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I eat three.

Irina Dumitrescu, CURRYWURST

Irina Dumitrescu, CURRYWURST

Claire Thomson, ELVIRA AND OTHER STREAMLINED PIGS, OR, 16mm OF DANISH BACON

Claire Thomson, ELVIRA AND OTHER STREAMLINED PIGS, OR, 16mm OF DANISH BACON