Chinese Preserved Sausage – 臘腸
Sausages may be generically referred to in Chinese as Xiang Chang (香腸 ), which essentially means ‘fragrant intestines’. This may sound a little unappetizing, or even alarming, at first, but one must recall that the traditional method of making sausages involves stuffing a mixture of meat and other ingredients into a long casing made out of either hog or cow intestines.
The most common type of Chinese sausage is the simple pork variety you see pictured above. It’s Chinese name, which appears in the title of this post, as well as on the front of the package, is pronounced là cháng in Mandarin, but , in cookery books and the like, you most commonly see it referred to by the Cantonese ‘Lap Cheong’, ‘Lop Chong’, or some variant thereon. Again, the name includes the character for ‘intestine’ but the modifier, Là, specifically means the twelfth lunar month, which was a traditional time for preserving food, and thus indicates that these sausages have been cured…
The method for curing the sausages is largely the same as that used in commercially produced Preserved Pork Belly and the process I employ for my own Homemade Chinese-Style Preserved Pork Belly. That is to say, the meat is brined, almost always with sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate being added, and then air dried over a period of days or weeks.
Here you can see a whole sausage, along with a couple of slices so as to illustrate the composition in cross-section. The ‘chunkiness’ of both the meat and fat used in the blend will vary from brand to brand, with some being quite finely ground, as they are in this particular case. Others have a much coarser consistency and, in some types, ‘knobbly’ bits of fat will be visible through the casing.
The reddish color apparent in most cured Chinese sausages is a result of the use of nitrates (in this case sodium nitrate) as a preservative. Along with the regular salt and the air-drying, the sausages will keep for a good long time and, indeed, you will sometimes see them just displayed on a shelf in many Asian grocery stores. For the sake of prudence, however, I keep mine in the refrigerator both before opening the package and afterwards. Even after opening, though, I have kept sausages in my fridge for months without any noticeable loss of quality.
The curing process, both for plain pork belly and for sausages, results in a heavenly, sweet aroma and flavor that is very reminiscent of apples. This is immediately apparent as soon as you open the package and the lovely flavor persists even through fairly long cooking times. It is quite pronounced, actually, with the result that just a little sausage can be used to add delicious flavor to other ingredients of a dish.
It is generally recommended that this type of sausage be cooked before eating, and, while I suspect you probably won’t suffer any ill-effects from eating them raw, it is best not to take chances. If you want to add slices of cold sausage to an appetizer platter, or otherwise include them in a cold dish, you can pre-cook either by boiling for a few minutes, or else by popping them into your rice steamer as you cook rice. You can then cool and slice the sausages when desired and, as an added benefit, you will impart some of their sweet fragrance to the rice itself.
Besides simply cooking sausages in rice, you can obviously serve them in or on top if plain, or fried rice as well. This is an excellent use as it allows the sweet and umami flavors to add an additional fillip to ingredients that might be otherwise a little bland. Beyond that, preserved Chinese sausages can be stir-fried with vegetables, braised with other meats, such as chicken, or steamed along with other ingredients in dim sum type preparations. We shall be looking at a few of those uses in due course…