Pork 35: Bamboo Shoots Braised with Ham (筍煨火肉)

“Slice winter bamboo shoots and the dry-cured ham into square pieces and braise them together. Soaked the ham twice in water to rid it of salt, then add rock sugar and braise until soft.

Official Xi Wushan indicated that if one has already braised the ham but wishes to save it for a meal the following day, it is important that it be kept immersed in its braising liquid. Come the next day, simmer the ham in the liquid just until it is hot enough to be served. Should the ham be stored dry without its braising liquid, it will toughen and desiccate. On the other hand, keeping the ham immersed water would make it flavourless.”

持牲單::筍煨火肉
冬筍切方塊,火肉切方塊,同煨。火腿撤去鹽水兩遍,再入冰糖煨爛。席武山別駕雲︰凡火肉煮好後,若留作次日吃者,須留原湯,待次日將火肉投入湯中滾熱才好。若乾放離湯,則風燥而肉枯;用白水則又味淡。

Though bamboo shoots are a key ingredient in this rather confusing recipe, the real star here is the ham. (Credit: Joi Ito)

This recipe makes no sense at all. First, Yuan Mei starts off by telling us to cut and braise the bamboo shoots together with the ham. His then goes completely on a tangent, saying that the ham needs to be soaked twice in water to leach out its excess saltiness before being braised with sugar.

If one were to follow the instructions exactly, one would braise the bamboo shoots with the ham, throw away the cooking liquid twice, add the sugar, and continue to braise everything. But you would have done is essentially thrown away all that good flavour from the bamboo shoots and ham, which would end up giving you a dish that is bland and tasteless. Alternatively if you assumed that you just braise the ham with the bamboo shoots all the way with sugar, ignoring that salt leaching part of the second sentence, this dish would likely pickle your tongue while you eat.

My own interpretation of this recipe requires the re-cobbling of Yuan Mei’s instruction as follows: First, you soak the block of ham twice with fresh changes of water. Second, you cut both the ham and bamboo shoots into squares. Finally, braise everything with rock sugar. If done this way, you should have something neither salty or bland, but just right.

I am also not sure the last paragraph is actually true. If you fished out the ham from its cooking liquid and put it into a well sealed container, I sincerely doubt that it will dry up overnight. But assuming for whatever reason this is true, it should probably only be done with ham. For instance, if you cooked red-cooked pork and let the meat soak overnight in its cooking liquid, there is a good chance that the pork will become tough and overly salty. Stewed meats in the likes of red-cooked pork should be stored separately from it’s cooking liquid. The two should be recombined only when the dish needs to be reheated before serving. In fact, this is the method recommended by Jesse Lee (李嘉茜) in her excellent cookbook “Shanghai flavours”(上海味兒).

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