Nothing so beautifully portends the arrival of the Chinese New Year holiday as the sweet and pungent aromas of China’s famous dry-cured hams. Passed on as gifts, embellishing holiday dishes or simply enjoyed by themselves, they are an essential part of the Chinese New Year. These much-beloved preserved meats also have a long and fascinating history.
The more I study the history of food and wine, the less consensus I find. There’s a general scientific consensus that the Suidae genus to which the pigs belong gradually appeared during the post-dinosaur Tertiary era when mammals began to diversify. But epicurean historians are split over where the first pigs were domesticated and who actually made the first hams.
Most studies indicate either China or the Near East as the areas where pigs were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago. Some hypothesize that multiple domestications may have occurred in both places at about the same time, making pigs the second earliest beast to be domesticated after the dog.
Preserved meats, including dry-cured hams, came later and their point of origin is in similar dispute but China was certainly one of the earliest cultures, if not the earliest, to preserve pork by salting, curing and smoking.
With many centuries spent refining the process of making dry-cured hams, these culinary treasures are now an integral part of Chinese epicurean culture.
Jinhua ham is the gold standard of Chinese dry-cured hams. Produced in the city of Jinhua of Zhejiang Province, Jinhua ham is prized for its golden skin, rose-like flesh and pure white fat. Intense and sensual aromatics and flavors make this the preferred ham to adorn and enhance the flavors of many of China’s most famous dishes.
Eatable as soon as the elaborate 10-month process of prepping, salting, washing, drying, shaping, ripening and post-ripening is completed, the ham reaches its optimal flavor after an additional 12-24 months of proper storage. Like a fine wine, a few years of proper storage accentuate the finest aromatic and taste attributes.
Jinhua may be China’s most famous dry-cured ham, but these are other delectable swine delicacies. Anfu ham is an ancient meaty treat from Jiangxi Province. First made in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), this ham is renowned for rich, savory flavors and a tender creamy texture. Like Jinhua, it’s often used as a flavor booster in dishes but can also be enjoyed by itself.
Rugao ham was first made in 1861 in Jiangsu Province. It comes in a dizzying diversity of colors, weights and flavors. The best examples of Rugao ham tend to be thin-skinned, relatively lean and have subtle flavors.
Xuanwei ham, produced in Xuanwei County in northeastern Yunnan Province, is said to be a favorite of Dr Sun Yat-sen. The unique climate of northeast Yunnan is a paradise for raising the Wumeng hog and for curing and fermenting its meat.
Some Chinese chefs I’ve worked with prefer this ham to the more famous Jinhua ham, claiming that Xuanwei hams have a perfect balance between saltiness, sweetness and savory qualities. They also praise the diverse uses of Xuanwei ham in cold to hot dishes and in mild to spicy dishes.
The aforementioned hams are all delicious by themselves and add distinction to some of our favorite Chinese dishes, but they magically become even more resplendent when paired with the right wine.
Volumes have been written on the synergistic relationship between European-style hams and regional wines, but there’s an unfortunate dearth of information on pairing wines with classic Chinese ham dishes.
In fact, Chinese dry-cured hams boast qualities such as rich and savory flavors, saltiness and slightly sweet, luscious mouth melting fat that make them ideal companions to certain wines.
Three ideal wines styles are dry white wines, especially those with a healthy dose of acidity, dry Sherries and medium to light body, fresh red wines with moderate tannins.
A plethora of suitable dry white wines are available in Shanghai. Some of the best choices with dishes having weighty dry-cured ham contributions include Australian Riesling wines from Eden Valley, French Alsatian Rieslings, New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs and my preferred partner, Spanish Albarinos.
The fruit in these wines balances and complements the savory and salty flavors of the ham, while the acidity cuts through any fattiness while cleansing the palate.
In the case of the famous sweet dish, honey Jinhua ham and crispy wafer in steamed bread, I recommend going with a semi-sweet German Riesling or Gewurztraminner.
When Chinese dry-cured hams are enjoyed alone in solitary splendor or in heavily seasoned or spicy dishes, they may overpower many dry whites. Intensely flavored hams and ham dishes need equally intense wine partners and the perfect solution is a dry Manzanilla or Fino Sherry, as these fortified wines have the strength to stand up to the most salty and flavorful ham dishes while also providing the mouth cleansing qualities of a dry white wine.
I have also had great success pairing good Beaujolais wines with Chinese ham dishes. Thanks in large part to the excessive hype of Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais wines have a somewhat inane reputation.
Gamay, the grape used to make Beaujolais reds, has an extroverted and exuberant personality. In super young Beaujolais Nouveau wines these characteristics can be a little over the top, making them somewhat like a hyperactive child who’s only tolerable in small doses.
There are good Beaujolais wines; especially the wines from the 10 cru status villages, namely Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fluerie, Julienas, Morgan, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and Saint-Amour. Look for these names on the label and you’ll get a fine wine that’s also one of the most food-friendly wines in the world.
These wines retain the exuberant fruitiness of Gamay grape but in a more restrained and elegant manner and they have good acidity. These qualities help them match nicely with many Chinese cured ham dishes including the renowned Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (fo tiao qiang 佛跳墙).
Young Pinots are another option as they have the combination of fruitiness and acidity that works so well with dry-cured Chinese hams. With a more mild ham dish, try a young Burgundy and with fuller flavored ham dishes pick a bold Central Otago Pinot Noir.
I wish all readers a wonderful Chinese New Year replete with the Chinese ham of your choice experienced in union with an embellishing wine.