Experiment: Hunan-style Smoked Ham Hock

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Few North Americans would associate smoked meats with China but, in fact, the smoking of various foodstuffs is not at all uncommon. Tea-smoked duck is a well-known favorite in Sichuan cuisine and Jinhua-ham from Zhejiang Province is used in a variety of preparations across the country. Other foodstuffs, like shrimp, tofu, and chicken are often also smoked in various ways before being used as ingredients in more complex dishes.

Hunan Province is also reputed to produce smoked pork products that rival the best equivalents in the west like Prosciutto, Smithfield, and Westphalian Ham. I can’t recall actually ever coming across anything identified as being Hunan smoked ham in any stores I have visited but I did once buy something identified as ‘Chinese Ham’ which could, I suppose, have been Hunanese in origin.

In his book ‘Henry Chung’s Hunan-style Chinese Cookbook’, Mr. Chung describes Hunan Ham as being ‘celebrated’. He wrote his book back in 1978 and, at that time certainly, imported Chinese foods were far less abundant and he had to make do with substitutions when creating dishes for his famous San Francisco restaurant. He tells us he has found smoked ham hock, Canadian bacon, regular smoked bacon and picnic ham to work well and writes: “I have fooled a lot of Chinese friends into thinking they are eating smoked Hunan Ham by steaming a slab of American bacon for an hour and then slicing it.”

A while ago, I came across some vacuum-packed smoked ham hocks at my local Northern Store. I remembered a recipe I had seen in Mr. Chung’s book and grabbed one to try.

 

Isn’t that beautiful? There is not a lot of meat on the hock but there is enough that one of this size will easily do one or two people, or more, possibly, if several dishes are being served as part of a Chinese meal.

The recipe I had in mind is entitled ‘Smoked Ham Hock (Canadian Bacon) with Hot Black Bean Sauce’, and is at page 50 of Mr. Chung’s book. I am not sure if he mistakenly thinks Canadian bacon and Smoked Ham hock are the same thing, or just means it to be a potential substitute, but his recipe clearly does use the hock. Unfortunately, as with most of the recipes in his book, there is no picture illustrating the end result.

As you will see a little further on, I depart from his recipe in a number of ways but I am reproducing his version below so you can see what I used as a starting point:

 
Smoked Ham Hock (Canadian Bacon) with Hot Black Bean Sauce
2 lbs. smoked ham hocks
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic
1 cup green bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon hot red pepper powder
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 green onions, cut into 1 inch pieces
 
Place ham hocks in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour or until the meat easily separates from the bone with a fork. Remove hocks from water, allow to cool, take off meat from the bones and slice into 1 inch slices.Heat a wok for 1 minute over high heat. When oil is smoking hot add black beans and garlic and mash them together. Stir in the ham hock slices. Add green pepper, soy sauce, hot red pepper powder, and chicken broth, and stir continuously until well blended. Add green scallion and salt. Served hot, it is delicious.

Now … on to my experiment:

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From the outset, I deviated from Mr. Chung’s recipe. He uses scallion in his version but adds it near the end so that it is ultimately served in the finished dish. I also used scallion but, except for one small stem cut into short lengths, I used the two green onions he calls for only in the initial cooking of the hock. I also added two good-sized slices of ginger, which are not used in the version above but which, I felt, would impart a nice fresh flavor to the meat. Mr. Chung directs you to simmer the hock for about an hour but I elected to go longer. I brought my pot to a boil and then turned the heat down to very low and let it simmer for the best part of an afternoon… three, or possibly four hours in all. After that, I turned off the heat and let the hock cool in the simmering liquid.

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Once the hock was cooled, I was able to simply slide the bone out without needing to use a fork.  I cut the meat into three separate portions as you can see. Two I used in the dish, while the third piece was mostly just a piece of skin and fat. Normally, I might try and find a use for this (adding body to a stock, perhaps) but I didn’t have an immediate use for it and I discarded it. In making this recipe, you can do the simmering part ahead of time and, indeed, I let the pieces sit in the refrigerator overnight so that they were nicely firmed up for slicing the next day.

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Above is a picture of the ingredients for the final cooking …

The hock pieces were cut cross-wise into sections about a ¼ inch thick. If you look, you can see that I tried to include the skin on as many sections as I could. I cannot tell from Mr. Chung’s recipe if that is what he would have done (although my guess is he wouldn’t) but I thought the skin would add depth of flavor and a nice texture so I left it on. It was partly for that reason that I simmered the hock for longer than he suggests.

I use green pepper as per the original recipe but not quite in the same way as Mr. Chung. First. I blanched the pieces in boiling water for about 45 seconds or so and then plunged them into cold water to arrest the cooking. This allows me to add them later on in the final cooking of the dish and thus preserve the color and nice fresh taste of the pepper.

The remaining ingredients include:

  • Garlic paste (I used a commercial preparation from a jar)
  • Soy sauce
  • Sliced green onion,
  • Salted Black beans (I will l be featuring these in a later post)
  • Chopped salted chili

Mr. Chung uses ‘hot pepper powder’ in his dish, but I chose to use my own homemade salted chopped chili. This basic preparation, or 辣椒 (duò làjiāo), meaning chopped hot pepper, is a mainstay of Hunan cookery and I was very surprised to note that Mr. Chung never mentions it in his book. Hot pepper powder will indeed add the requisite spiciness to this dish but the salted variety not only gives a nice fresh chili taste but adds some nice flecks of color to the finished preparation as well.

I chose not to use any additional salt in my version; not from any health considerations, but rather because the ham and the salted black beans add enough salt on their own. Astute readers will also note that I don’t use the ½ cup of chicken stock called for in the original recipe. I thought that this was way too much liquid and, instead, I reserved the simmering liquid so I could later use a little splash or two, as you will see below.

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The Method

First, heat your wok to about medium and add a tablespoon or so of oil. Use more or less of the oil depending on how fatty your meat is to begin with. Once the oil just starts to shimmer a little, add in the hock slices. Now…  and this is an important part … the trick here is to be gentle and not start vigorously stirring and tossing right away. Instead, gently maneuver and turn the pieces until they are all nicely browned and getting a little crispiness on all surfaces. This will give a nice flavor and texture to the meat and, more importantly, will help prevent the pieces from falling apart later and spoiling the finished appearance of the dish.

Once the meat is done to your liking, slide the pieces up the side of the wok and let the oil drain back down.  Turn up the heat and just when the oil begins to smoke, add in your chili and then the garlic. As soon as you detect the fragrance of these ingredients, in three or fours seconds, or so, add in the black beans, and a few tablespoons of the reserved simmering stock. Right away, add in the green pepper. Let everything steam and bubble for a moment or two until the liquid is just about evaporated and then toss all the ingredients, incorporating the meat. Add the soy, toss for a few seconds more and plate.

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I served the dish with fried rice and Choy Sum in oyster sauce. I will be featuring Choy Sum, and the recipe I used on this occasion, in future posts.

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 The Verdict

This was definitely tasty, if not spectacular. It is not the sort of dish you would expect to find on a banquet menu, by any means, but it is a nice homey, meal and easy to put together after the initial preparation of the hock. In truth, unless I had a lot of cheap smoked hock available, I don’t know that I would bother with this dish very often. Instead, I would be inclined to just use a good smoked ham, or even a smoked picnic shoulder where the skin and sub-cutaneous fat was not too thick. In future attempts, I might also up the amounts of black-bean and, if I wanted a good, fiery flavor, use a spicier chili paste instead of my homemade salted chili.

4 thoughts on “Experiment: Hunan-style Smoked Ham Hock”

  1. My wife uses it to make stock for Dal … she boils it until the meat comes away from the bone and then eats the meat dipped in vinegar while the skin and bones get returned to the stockpot … I love her dal, but the meat dipped in vinegar thing is not my favourite 🙂

  2. It’s hung up raw above a wok for months in villages all over hunan. I used to live there and the flavour is from hunan cooking over them months… At least 6 anyway. Its called la rou. Pronounced la row.

    1. Actually, là ròu (臘肉) covers any sort of cured cut of pork, pretty much. You might like my attempt at doing a non-smoked version in another blog post Homemade Chinese-Style Preserved Pork Belly (五花臘肉). That must have been a wonderful experience in Hunan!

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