The King of (Chinese) Sausage
I just recently got turned onto Chinese charcuterie simply by walking into the various markets in Chinatown and becoming terrified.
Terrified at the throngs of people jammed into tiny spaces between bins of flopping, half-dead fish and strangely phallic green things that may or may not be vegetables. Terrified of dried shrimp, dried fish, and dried "I have no fucking idea what that is but I'm going to pretend that I didn't see it". Terrified of the smells and sights, of things called Black Moss and preserved cabbage and strange things resting in jars and, most of all, terrified of trying to actually pay for what I've picked out (hint: I've learned the ancient art of Bag-In-Buddha's-Hand Long Arm Counter Stretch which, in addition to being useful in handing money to the cashier, can kill your opponent with just 3 quick strikes to her little ol' mid-section).
By now it seems as if I've stepped into one of these Stockton Street markets dozens of times. Nevertheless, that same old fear ever so often pervades my every living being. Most times I'll make it to the entrance, look in, and be like "No. I'd rather rip my nose hair out one by one than jump into that mess."
So as you see, it has taken me some time to actually find the courage to buy those weird things in jars, pay for them, make it out of the store mentally undisturbed, and then, finally, use them in a dish.
Now I can (sometimes) bravely walk in, recognize those preserved black beans or dried shrimp or dried rice cakes, and then 5 minutes later, pink plastic bags in hand, happily head towards home.
A word of advice: anyone you see crossing or walking down the same side of the street with pink plastic bags in hand, show them a little extra courtesy. You have no idea what they just went through.
That, and they can kill with just a flick of the wrist (while waiting for change, of course).
One of the strange and crazy ingredients found in Chinatown markets that had me stumped for a while were the Chinese sausages. Initially I bought them at any ol' place and used them to flavor rice or "lo bok go". Since I sucked so bad at attempting to make lo bok go (a good thing, since it's so greasy), I stuck to the rice.
You can buy the Chinese sausages (in Cantonese, "lop cheong") anywhere – a lot of it is imported – but I eventually found a local place on the quite, peaceful alleyway, known as Walter U. Lum Place, called Guang Zhou King and King Sausage that makes its own. King and King is almost the antithesis of the crowded, hectic, impersonal, and yes, rude, places you often find on Stockton Street.
First, can you smell that? It's clean air. As soon as you walk in, there are no pushy old ladies giving you the "what's he doing in here" look, either. Instead, you are welcomed by a small, but open, space; on either side metal shelves are holding dried, canned, and jarred foodstuffs – soy sauce, noodles, etc. Towards the back is where the real action is.
There is where you will be greeted by a gentleman who appears in his late 50s or early 60s and whose demeanor immediately puts a smile on your face.
The first time I went in, I knew this was the place I wanted to shop for the rest of my lop cheong buying days. This is the source. This is in accordance with all things that are good. It was airy, clean, welcoming, and not one pushy old lady in sight.
The owner sits in the back of the store where he is surrounded by dozens of hanging sausages, bacon, and flattened dry-cured ducks. Often he will call out, "Hey brother! What can I do for you today!" I usually pick out a couple of the regular pork sausages and some of the liver/pork sausages, but lately I've gone for the dry-cured duck legs (in Cantonese, "lop op") and the bacon. Whenever I've had questions, the owner has always been happy to give me various suggestions and tips.
To tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about trying these duck legs, but the end result ended up blowing my mind. The dish I made with them was simple, quick, easy, and tasty. Granted, I didn't really have to shop for anything except for the duck legs, since I already had everything on hand.
The first dish I made with the meats I bought at King and King was Steamed Cured Duck Leg with Asparagus Tips and Rice. Using a cup of washed rice and two cups of water, I brought the rice to a boil over high heat, uncovered. Just when small holes of escaping steam started to form, I sprinkled on top a couple of minced shallots, laid the duck leg fat side down,
and surrounded it with the asparagus tips (you could easily substitute broccoli or "gai lan" – the Chinese broccoli). Then I covered the pot, turned the heat down to low, and let it steam for the next roughly 15 to 20 minutes. Afterwards, I removed the duck leg, carefully removed the meat (it's hot!), and diced it.
What came next was a simple matter of plating. The taste of the duck was rich, flavorful and salty, so, really, no salt or sauces were needed. The duck has so much flavor that it would be a crime to cover it up with soy sauce (which would be salt-overload) or any thing else. I mean, I didn't even want to mix it into the rice with the asparagus.
Instead, I treated the rice as a buffer between bites and the asparagus as a side dish. Of course, the rice is partially flavored with the melting duck fat that was absorbed from the leg while cooking, so it has a certain merit beyond being a mere side of cooked, white rice.
Eating this duck leg isn't the same as eating duck confit, which also is naturally salty. Duck confit has a much more delicate flavor and texture that has been developed by cooking first and then preserving in fat for several months. This air-dried, salt-cured, duck leg is much more assertive, a little tougher, and saltier, but nonetheless, rich and tasty. The color of the meat is a striking dark red.
The second dish I made with the charcuterie from King and King involved the sausages and the bacon. It is Chinese Bacon and Sausage Stir-Fried with Rice and Chinese Broccoli.
I should emphasize that often in Chinese cooking, the sausage and bacon, unlike Western cuisine aren't the main stars but rather the players in the production. Not to say they don't stand out and aren't featured players, but rather they are usually in-company-with rather than acting solo.
For one thing, the Chinese-style bacon (or in Cantonese, "lop yuk") cooks down to almost nothing since it's mostly fat. It's basically cured pork belly with some meat. It comes with the rind attached, so before cooking you should trim that off. Like lop cheong, it has a sweet and slightly spicy (think 5 Spice Powder) flavor to it.
Like the previous dish, this one was quick and easy. I used the day-old, leftover rice from the previous dish to prepare a quick stir fry with the cured meat I had on hand, plus some "Chinese broccoli" (or in Cantonese, "gai lan") that I had bought while sending several Chinese shoppers and the random lost white tourist to an early grave using my Buddha's Stretch technique.
After finely chopping the sausage and bacon, I gently sauteed them in large skillet. If I had to do this over, I would've cut the bacon, and especially the sausage, into larger angular cuts. I did, however, cut the gai lan stalks into large angular cuts, and reserved the leafy portion to the side.
After lightly sauteeing these things, I reserved them to a side dish, turned up the heat to medium high and added the rice. The bacon and sausage renders enough oil to the pan that you never have to add oil. It's also best to break up the rice clumps before you attempt to stir fry.
Once the rice had heated up and was beginning to stick to the bottom, I added a little pepper, the meat/veggie mixture, the gai lan leaves, and some water to release the rice on the bottom and to steam cook the rest of the food.
After about 10 minutes or so, it was ready to chow down on. You could add a little bit of seasoning, although it's not necessary. I think when you have such fresh and superior products as these, it's really a mistake to "drown your food".
Besides, you'd be totally unworthy of the Pink Bag hero/heroine status if you did so.
And why even risk that?