Yunnan is famous for ham, this is a relatively well-known fact (if you’re a long-time follower of WildChina, you’ll know that our founder, Dali native, Mei Zhang, even has a book called Travels Through Dali: with a leg of ham). However, did you know there are three distinctly different types of Yunnan ham?
The three major Hams of Yunnan are: xuanwei ham, heqing round-leg ham and nuodeng Bai ham. Out of these three, the most coveted is nuodeng ham, which can only be produced in one geographic location on earth: the mountains of Nuodeng village.
This location has a history as well, primely positioned on the age-old trade network of the Ancient Tea Horse Road, the nuodeng ham traveled far and wide, from the homely village of Nuodeng, both west to the thin-aired plateaus of Tibet, and south to the tropical jungle-lands of Myanmar and Vietnam.
So, why is nuodeng ham so special? As with grape wines and baijiu, the concept of terroir (environment), is key. Nuodeng village is located 150-kilometers (~100-miles) due-west of Dali, and as such, has a similar climate; warm and humid, protected by the valley walls. It is also home to a crucial ingredient for curing ham – salt. The Nuodeng salt well has over 2,000 years of history, and is so deeply engrained in the local earth, that the salt runs through the natural spring water as well, infiltrating every step of the ham-making process.
The pigs themselves are also from Nuodeng village. Here, black-haired hogs are native to the valleys of the surrounding 1,800-meter (5,900-foot) Hengduan Mountain range. For breakfast the pigs are given salt well water mixed with vegetable paste. When out ranging free, they have access to graze on wild vegetables, fruit and fungus. This free-range raising is said to be the reason for the especially tender ham that is produced in Nuodeng.
The Nuodeng village remains true to its roots today. This is easy to see, even on the surface, with brown earth homes dotting the hillside and black-haired hogs running free through the surrounding mountains. A closer look reveals the local residents, primarily of the Bai minority, who are famed for their diligence and honest work.
The people are the true reason for the quality of the ham. They persevere with traditional ham making and curing techniques, following the guidance of nature, the tried-and-tested length of curing time, and end with a product that is 100% hand-made. Patience and tradition are what make the ham of Nuodeng.
After the ham has underone an initial curing, it is coated with a paste of cooking-fire ash and salt brine to keep it fresh, fragrant and insect-resistant. A peek inside any given house in Nuodeng reveals hams hanging from every viable beam, where they will stay to air-dry and age for a minimum of three years.
Upon completion, nuodeng ham is cut into thin, tender slices. Even here, tradition comes in to play. The cutting technique involves using oil to slice extra thin, revealing marble-textured slivers of resulting ham. The finished ham is marked by its moistness, and rounded sweet and salty flavoring.
Sustainability is a core of our part of our mission and practice, fostering human to-human interactions and connecting rural communities with intrepid travelers. As a travel company, we embody sustainability both at home, in our workplace, and away, in our trips. But, what if we could do even more?
With this idea sprouted the WildChina Bazaar, a marketplace connecting local artisans from around China with online consumers. And, as with everything we do, there is a story at the root.
In this series, we’ll be bringing you the story behind each of the products on our marketplace, so you know who you’re buying from and why the purchase these products is meaningful.