China is among the countries with the most popular culinary heritage in the world and the history of their cuisine dates back to over 1,000 years ago with several ingredients and cooking styles. In this write-up, we will be exploring one of the most popular meat dishes in China – Chinese Ham and Bacon. Read on to learn more.
What is Chinese Ham?
In China, ham is a salted pork leg that is commonly known as ‘fire leg’ or ‘huo tui’ to indicate that the ham has been thoroughly treated and cured. Simply, Chinese-style ham is dry-cured and smoked, and it has a slightly dry texture and a savory, smoky flavor. Regional hams exist in China and those produced in Yunnan, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu provinces are popularly renowned for their deep flavor. Along with that, you can easily find cured, smoked ham all over China, but ham that is produced in China isn’t exported to countries such as the United States. Instead, it is sold in small portions at various butcher shops and grocers around Chins.
Chinese Ham History
When Marco Polo from Venice arrived in China in the 13th century, he was impressed with the culture and customs in China. During his time in Jinhua city, which is found in eastern Zhejiang provice, Marco came across ham and he was fascinated by its deep flavor, preservation method and cooking styles. He learned that Chinese ham has been in production ever since the Tang Dynasty that reigned between 618 and 907 AD.
The first records of Chinese ham are found in the book titled ‘Supplement to Chinese Materia Medica’ by Chen Zangqi, a Tang Dynasty doctor who was convinced that ham from Jinhua was the best and most flavorful. Generally, pork legs were mostly salted by Jinhua soldiers who would often take on long journeys during wartime and it was introduced to the Song Dynasty emperor by an imperial scholar known as Zong Ze.The Song emperor then named the ham ‘huo tui’ or the famous ‘fire leg’. The pork leg doesn’t necessarily taste like nor resemble ham from Australia, Vietnam or Italy. Instead, it is tough, intensely salty and it is more or less a flavor enhancer in food.
When you visit the Jinhua ham museum that is entirely dedicated to Chinese ham, you will get to learn more about the hand-made process, how it is cooked and eaten. Also, you get to understand the various differences between Chinese ham and Italian, British, American, and French ham.
Chinese Ham Styles
As mentioned earlier, there are several regional hams that exist in China and they greatly differ from each other. That said, here are some of the most popular Chinese ham styles;
Jinhua ham is a popular Chinese ham style and it is a dry-cured ham that is named after the famous city of Jihua in Zhejiang province of eastern China, where it is produced. The Jinhua ham is believed to have originated from the Tang Dynasty and transmitted to Europe by Marco Polo. It is highly regarded in Chinese cuisine and the Chinese prefer to add its unique and umami flavor in almost all their dishes. Besides that, it is also eaten as a cold meat dish and it is considered the best ingredient for producing soup stock.
According to the Chinese from Jinhua city, the ideal ham should have a shiny and smooth yellow outside, an abundant layer of fat surrounding the dark and red-toned meat, a small joint and hoof, a rounded shape in the style of a bamboo leaf, a fine textured meat with significant levels of intramuscular fat, and a salty, umami-like taste that is pleasing to the tongue. In addition to that, the ham should have small amounts of mould, which is believed to add to the flavor and savory nature of the Jinhua ham.
Anfu ham is another type of dry-cured ham, which is named after Anfu town in Jiangxi province, where it originated. The Anfu ham gets its flavor from being salted and smoked and it can be eaten on its own as a snack or it can be used to add flavor to various Chinese dishes. It is said to have originated from the Qin Dynasty and the meat is much thicker than the Jinhua ham but the skin is very thin. Along with that, it is red with a yellow tint and after it is cured its shape looks like ‘willow leaves’, and it can remain edible for several years. In 1915, it was featured in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and it is greatly valued by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China.
Rugao ham is a dry-cured and flavorful ham that originated in Jiangsu province in China. It is said to have originated from the Qing dynasty in China and it was first prepared Circa 1851. Based on the Chinese calendar, this savory ham is mostly produced during the winter season, whereby the curing process commences between November and December, and also during the Spring season, where the curing process begins between January and February. Typically, the local breed of Jiangquhai pigs are used to make the rugao ham and it is a well-renowned ham in China. Currently, the ham is greatly produced in Rugao, which is found in Jiangsu province, and this is the town which the ham is named after.
The Xuanwei ham is a dry-cured ham that is popularly found in the Qujing Prefecture of Yunnan province in China. It has a two hundred and fifty year history and it dates back to 1766. In 1909, it was first created and produced by a business man in Yunnan China. During this time, it was mass-produced and upon production, it gained massive popularity in the region. The ham is similarly shaped to a pipa and it has an aesthetically pleasing rose-red color. In 1911, the ham was canned and in 1912, it was first shipped around the world. This particular ham enjoys a high reputation globally and it won a gold medal at the Panama International Fair in 1915. Ever since then, it has been an international sensation and is mass produced in China.
The pigs of the Wujin breed from the Xuanwei district in China are used to make this ham because they have a high body fat content and muscle quality. During the processing process, the green legs of the pigs are salted about 3 times before they are put in a ventilated chamber for about 8 months to a year. Along with that, certain molds are said to alter the flavor of the ham so they are used during the processing process.
How to make Chinese Ham
The table below summarizes the Ham making/production process. The entire process is separated into 6 stages, staring during the winter season and ending the following autumn season.
Undamaged and well-developed legs are selected, remaining blood in the legs are squeezed out and other unwanted parts are cleaned out
Salting (using plain salt or sodium nitrate)
Done at low temperatures between 5–10 °C to hinder bacterial growth and prevent salt penetration. The salting process is repeated about 5 to 7 times, with an average time period of 1 month.
Soaking and Washing
Once the leg is dry, it is soaked in water for approximately 4 or 6 hours before scrubbing, then soaked for another 16-18 hours
Drying and Shaping
Here, the ham is de-hooved, trimmed into the desired bamboo leaf shape and branded with ion before hanging it up to dry in the sun. When liquefied fat starts to drip, the sun drying process is stopped
Dried hams are hung in low room temperatures so that it can dry, cure, and develop aromas over about 6 to 8 months. Here, the ham seamlessly ferments through molding.
The ripened ham is cleaned off dust and mold, a thin layer of vegetable oil is applied to soften it then the dried hams are piled on top of each other so that they can ripen for another 2-3 months. By the end of the 3 months, the flavor should be intensified.
How to cook Chinese Ham
There are several ways to cook Chinese Ham. It is mostly used in several Chinese cuisines to flavor various stewed and braised foods, and it is also used for making the broth and stock of many Chinese soups in the region. Some popular dishes are: the Bone-in Chinese Ham, Asian Pineapple Glazed Ham, Chinese Ham Stew, Baked Ham with Asian Barbecue Sauce, Chinese Black Bean Sauce Braised Ham, Sticky Glazed Char Siu Ham, Sticky Glazed Asian Ham, Chinese Ham Bone Rice Soup (Congee), and many others.
What is Chinese Bacon?
Chinese bacon is simply the pork belly, and less frequently from the shoulder, that is cured with dark and/or light soy sauce, sugar, strong white Chinese wine and other flavorful ingredients, such as cinnamon or star anise. It can be air-dried or dried then smoked and it is popularly used as a flavoring ingredient. It is easily found in nearly all Asian markets and you can find a variety available, including bacon cured with a signature mix of wine and other flavors, some unsmoked, and others well-smoked and ready to eat.
Chinese Bacon Style
Just like Chinese Ham, there are several regional styles of Chinese bacon and they somewhat differ from each other. They are;
Sichuan Bacon is considered one of the most popular Chinese Spring Festival foods, and it is a popular choice for food in Sichuan. After the Sichuan bacon is salt marinated and wind dried, it is smoked with the branches of Alamo for better flavor. Often it has ingredients such as Sichuan pepper, star anises, cinnamon bark, dark and light soy sauce, rice cooking wine, bay leaves, and sugar.
Traditionally, Hunan bacon is made towards the end of the year when the weather turns cold, so all preparation steps can be done safely from the beginning to the end without the need for refrigeration. Hunan bacon is often so salty and has a lot of spicy flavors. For this reason, it is rarely eaten by itself like the American bacon. Instead, it is almost used as seasoning in most Chinese dishes as its salt content readily season up any dish. Along with that, the fat on the Hunan bacon is not supposed to be rendered so much as it is one of the best parts of this bacon style.
The aroma profile of Guangdong bacon features strong alcoholic, sauce-like, and sweet attributes, and it is popularly known as lop yuk. It is a staple in Chinese cuisine and it is mostly made during the late autumn or early winter period. It is often accompanied with clay pot rice, another popular dish in Guangdong.
Chinese Bacon History
The History of Chinese bacon dates back thousands of years to 1500 B.C, where the ancient Chinese often cured pork bellies with salt, creating bacon. As time went by, the curing trend that originated from China slowly spread throughout the Roman Empire and the Anglo-Saxon peasants started cooking with bacon fat. Eventually, the curing process gained popularity in various parts of the world and it was fully incorporated in different cultures. The Greeks and Romans made bacon an integral part of their cuisine and with time, bacon became a delicacy in France, the United States, Germany, and England.
How to make Chinese Bacon
Generally, curing of bacon is done through a process of rubbing it with salt (dry curing) or by injecting it with or soaking it in brine (wet curing). Bacon brine often has multiple curing ingredients, such as nitrates and nitrites, which stabilize the color of the meat and speed up the curing process. Once the bacon is cured, it is dried in weeks or months of cold air, or it may be boiled or smoked before consumption. For safety purposes, the bacon is treated to prevent any diseases and sodium polyphosphates can be added to make it much easier to slice and reduce spattering during the pan-frying process.
How to cook Chinese Bacon
Aside from being a central ingredient in sandwiches and salads, bacon is used as a flavoring or accent in various foods. Along with that, it is also used for barding and larding different roasts, especially game meat and it is also used to insulate or flavor roast joints by being well-layered onto the meat. In addition to that, all Chinese bacon benefits from a long and thorough soaking in water, so that the meat can get tender without losing any flavors. Also, you can choose to steam the bacon depending on your specific recipe. Some of the most popular dishes are;
Lacquered bacon, Chinese bacon and Brussels sprouts, Chinese stir-fried rice with bacon, Bacon dahs, Chinese bacon salad, Chinese bacon in pasta, Bacon, Shiitake mushrooms & glutinous sweet rice, Chinese bacon risotto, and Chinese bacon frittata, among others.
Chinese Ham vs. Bacon (Bacon and Ham Difference)
Historically, the terms ‘bacon’ and ‘ham’ directly referred to different cuts of meat that were packed in identical packages or brined identically, and often in the same barrel. However, there are notable differences between the two. The table below highlights significant differences between Chinese ham and bacon.
Ham is cut from the hind leg of a pig or even other parts of the carcass
Bacon is strictly cut from other parts of the pig, such as the belly, shoulder, loin, or back.
Pre-cooked before packaging
Sold and packaged raw
Can be eaten without cooking and can be served cold (Also can be added to various recipes to make delicious dishes)
Must be cooked before eating and is often eaten when hot (Also can be added to various recipes to make delicious dishes)
Contains a higher amount of sugar from the brine used
Bacon is more salty, though sweet ingredients such as maple syrup or brown sugar can be used for flavor
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