In Chengdu, there’s no better symbol of winter than a balcony or clothesline festooned with ropes of sausages.
Because sausages feature prominently in Sichuan’s traditional Lunar New Year feasts, the celebratory display lingers above the city's streets for weeks as its people wait for the year’s crop of smoky-salty-spicy links to finish curing in the chilly air. The meaty ornaments can be seen dangling from hangers on tree branches, strung up on bamboo poles between motorcycles, or even draped across ladders or chairs. Many people take over the courtyards of their apartment complexes, the sidewalks and streets, even the public grassy areas around the city to accomplish their meat-curing goals in time for Chinese New Year’s Eve. That’s when the sausage links find their way down from the city’s balconies onto its dining tables.
Sichuan sausage and smoked meats are savory, spicy and numbing. A far cry from the candy-sweet links of Cantonese cuisine, Chengdu’s sausages hit with that classic Sichuan mala punch. Their flavors are big and noisy – this is not the kind of sausage you can just pop in a bun and eat whole. Typically, Sichuan cured meats are served up like an unpretentious charcuterie board: simply steamed or boiled, then sliced thinly while still warm. Though shavings of Sichuan bacon are often stir-fried with cauliflower, and can even be found at chuanchuan (串串) skewer shops around the city, these meats shine brightest without the meddling of other flavors.
With their rich fattiness, cured meats help fuel the drinking sessions of New Year’s feasts that extend beyond the celebratory lunch itself. The spicy, floral and citrusy notes, imparted by chillis and Sichuan peppercorns, also pair quite well with local baijiu.
A generation ago, nearly all sausages were homemade. Every family had their own recipe and relatives might gather in early winter to do the work together: grinding pork, salting it, spicing it with Sichuan peppercorns, stuffing the mixture into pig intestines, tying them off into links. More likely than not, the conversation would turn to boasting about one’s own recipe and arguing about which region’s sausages were the tastiest. These sausage-stuffing parties served as the first step in the countdown to the new year.
These days, fewer families have the time or skills to make their own sausage by hand, so they purchase them instead from vendors at wet markets or have them made fresh to order. Butchers do the dirty work, but when the sausages are taken home, the links are strung up at the residence in accordance with tradition. Times may change, but not the desire to signal prosperity and preparation for the new year. Meat is, after all, expensive. More meat means more glory.
Smoked pork belly (腊肉 larou) also features heavily in the meaty canon of Sichuan winter foods. The fatty meat is cured with a toasted salt and spice rub, then hung to dry before being smoked. No smokehouse or professional equipment is required; even a smoke box is optional. Meat is simply hung over a hot smoky fire wherever one can be built – for example, the curb in front of your shop, or in the open space between apartment buildings. Most commonly, the boughs of a cypress tree are burned, creating a resiny fire that imparts considerable flavor and a dark charred color to the larou. Citrus peels or sugarcane bark can be added to the fire to add a more zesty flavor.
Some people do prefer to speed up the process by using a barrel to contain the smoke. Again, improvised containers are common; all that’s needed is a cut-away to keep feeding the fire as well as wire hangers from which to dangle the meat. Either way, the act of smoking larou is a public spectacle that often draws a crowd. The smoke also tends to attract lazy neighbors or relatives who have caught wind of what is going on. Many of them will arrive holding a bag of meat, “… since you got the fire goin’ already.”
In the depths of the countryside, particularly the mountains of Chongzhou and Dujiangyan, regions famous for their smoked meat, farmers may prepare a few dozen pork bellies at once and smoke them all together in a makeshift tent of tarps. But in Chengdu, open cooking fires have been blamed as a major cause of air pollution, and the local government has cracked down within city limits. As a result, many urban families who lack property (or willing relatives) in the countryside cannot smoke their meats as they would traditionally have.
Many city families now make “sauced meat” (酱肉 jiangrou) instead. Cured in a spicy marinade that often includes toasted salt, Sichuan peppercorn, five-spice powder, and soy sauce, the meat is much redder and brighter than larou; while still deliciously salty, it is considerably less smoky in flavor. Jiangrou owes its growing popularity not only to environmental concerns but also health concerns over consuming smoked meat. Saucing is also far less labor-intensive than smoking meat. A neighbor might sidle up to your smoky fire with a slab of pork belly to make larou, but it would never occur to them to borrow your sauce as a shortcut to making jiangrou.
Pork is the most common of the seasonal cured meats, but saucing and smoking are by no means limited to the meatiest parts of the animal. Pig faces, tongues, ears, ribs and trotters are also cured, each prized for their unique texture. The first time I accidentally walked into the “meat room” of a rural acquaintance, I was startled by a row of a dozen charred pig faces. Very Lord of the Flies. Nowadays, when I see a smoked pig face, my mouth waters at the thought of the elasticity and crunch of the cheeks, snout and ears. Nor are the annual meat displays limited to pork. Whole smoked ducks, fish, rabbits and pheasants dangling from the clotheslines are a common sight as well.
In Sichuan, as in the rest of China, meat on the bone, cartilage and gristle are not shunned but embraced for their textural complexities and depth of flavor as compared to, say, a tender steak. In this spirit, Chengdu’s seasonal links include a local variation: “rib sausages” (排骨香肠 paigu xiangchang). These sausages are made from rib meat; the finger-length links each contain a short rib bone. So while Westerners pay extra for deboned poultry and pork, people in Chengdu go to the extra effort of “re-boning” meat because it's more fun to eat a sausage that offers a challenge to the teeth.
With holiday meats being such a cherished commodity, it should come as no surprise that sausage theft is a real phenomenon. Food is a common gift in Sichuan for any occasion, but it takes on even greater significance around Chinese New Year, when families make the rounds, visiting extended family and other households. The amount of food presented often represents the prosperity of the giver. The pressure to bring home impressive gifts of food at this time of year is quite real, and for some people, the visual temptation of sausages and larou hanging around the city is too much.
That’s why smoked meats and sausages are usually hung from balconies high above the ground, beyond the reach of would-be thieves. Meanwhile, owners of street-level meat displays make sure the goods are never out of eyesight. In the countryside, the smokehouses are often guarded at night. But the thieves persist. Last year, a friend of mine was robbed. His first-floor garage, which housed electronics and drawer full of cash, was broken into. Hundreds of dollars worth of smoked ribs were stolen. Nothing else was taken or disturbed.
text and photos by Jordan Porter. top photo by Jake Homovich.
Got a hankering for homestyle larou? Gather a load of cypress boughs to fuel the smoker, then head to Jordan Porter's Chengdu Food Tours blog for a guide to Sichuan-style smoked pork belly.
If your smokemaster kung fu proves worthy to the task, you'll end up with enough larou to whip together a pork belly stir-fry (炒腊肉 chao larou), a classic cold-weather dish that our friends at The Mala Project refer to as “once-cooked pork” – the cool indie cousin to that ubiquitous twice-cooked Sichuan creation everyone already knows (回锅肉 huiguo rou).
Jordan Porter is a food writer and the creator of Chengdu Food Tours. Originally from Canada, he has a passion for sharing food and experiences in his new home with visitors from across the world. In his free time, he likes to explore Sichuan, tell jokes, and rock and roll.