Tried and tested, the best ham hock dishes date back centuries
By Li Anlan
PORK knuckle, also known as ham hock, unleashes rich flavors when simmered in soups and braised in stews.
This inexpensive cut of meat is a local specialty in the ancient water town of Zhouzhuang in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, about two hours’ drive from Shanghai. There, it is known as Wansan pork knuckle, named after Shen Wansan (1330-79), a successful businessman of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the richest man in the region.
Historically, pork knuckle was considered poor man’s food, both in China and in Germany, where the dish still enjoys some popularity.
In Zhouzhuang, it’s considered a must-have dish at holiday celebrations and formal dinners. Visiting the town, one can see many butchers and restaurants selling both fresh and packaged Wansan pork knuckles.
“This tradition was passed from one generation to the next, and the people in Zhouzhuang have kept it alive for hundreds of years,” said a man surnamed Ze, who is an expert on folk customs in the town.
Wansan pork knuckle is stewed in huge iron pots on old-fashioned stoves that use firewood instead of natural gas.
“Many seasonings and herbs are added to flavor freshly sourced pork knuckles,” Ze said. “The stew needs to simmer four to five hours to reach perfection.”
Sometimes, the stew is left to simmer all day over low heat. When thoroughly cooked, the knuckles are so tender that the meat falls off the bone.
The history of Wansan pork knuckle traces back to the Ming Dynasty, when Emperor Hongwu visited Shen’s hometown and was served homemade pork knuckle. The emperor asked how the dish was to be eaten without a knife. Since it was considered a crime to present a knife in front of an emperor, Shen simply pulled the bone from the pot and used it to cut the meat. The emperor Zhu was duly impressed and praised the succulent flavor of the dish.
In the ancient town today, there are about 40 or 50 restaurants and shops specializing in Wansan pork knuckle. For the most authentic dish, Ze recommends Shen’s Restaurant, or Shen Ting Jiu Jia.
“It is best enjoyed with green vegetables like bok choy and toothed burclover (a popular Yangtze Delta vegetable), and is usually accompanied by Wansan yellow rice wine,” Ze said.
Other regions of China have their own versions of pork knuckle. In Sichuan Province, for example, locals cook Dongpo pork knuckle, named in honor of poet Su Shi (1037-1101) from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Legend has it that Su first came up with the dish in Hangzhou, stewing chunks of pork belly to make a rich broth. Other tales suggest that Su’s wife, Sichuan native Wang Fu, first cooked Dongpo pork knuckle.
Either way, Su loved pork, an inexpensive meat for a not-so-wealthy poet. When he was banished to Huangzhou in Hubei Province, he wrote verses about cooking pork cuts that the rich disdained and the poor didn’t know how to cook properly.
Dongpo pork knuckle starts off with fresh knuckles that are first boiled in water, then steamed to remove excess fat. The pork knuckle is then placed in a clay pot filled with soup stock and seasoned with scallions, ginger and Shaoxing wine. The knuckle simmers for three hours or more until tender, and is served with a side sauce.
Another classic Chinese pork knuckle dish is shui jing zhou hua, which translates as “crystal pork knuckle flower.” It is a cold dish that’s made by boiling the pork knuckle with condiments, removing the bone, then wrapping the meat tightly in plastic wrap and letting it cool in the fridge. The meat is sliced and served with a dipping sauce.
China is not the only country where pork knuckle is considered a delicacy.
Schweinshaxe, which originated in Bavaria, is served in many restaurants and breweries in that region of Germany. It’s considered by many to be an ultimate comfort food, especially in winter.
Raw pork knuckles are marinated in a richly flavored, and then the knuckles are roasted until the skin crisps and the meat becomes tender and succulent. Traditionally, a whole Schweinshaxe is treated as a serving for one, with sides of mustard, potatoes and sauerkraut.
In northern Germany, this cut of pork is called eisbein. It is boiled rather than grilled, and served with sauerkraut. The meat, usually cured or smoked before cooking, is juicier and more tender than its roasted counterpart, but it is also fattier and chewier.
The name eisbein, or “iced bone,” reportedly originated from the old tradition of using the large pork knucklebones to make ice skates. In medieval Europe, ice skates were sometimes made from the bones of horses, cattle or deer.
In Philippines, pork knuckle is served in a dish called crispy pata. The hock is boiled in spices and left to air-dry for crispiness.
Then the meat is deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and chili.