Recently, a friend came from Hong Kong and brought me a most fitting gift, a tranche of Jinhua ham 金华火腿, the most famous Chinese ham you’ve never heard of! It brought back memories of childhood in Shanghai, when we had a relative who came to visit from the countryside who brought an entire leg of the Jinhua ham as a present. It hung on a bamboo stick in our living room next to our washings and I would gaze up at it longingly, taking deep breaths to enjoy its aroma. Slowly we would cut paper thin pieces from the leg and use them sparingly in the cooking, to give food an extra depth of flavor and to heighten the 鲜 (Xian) or unami taste. We would never eat it raw like the Iberico ham. With frugality, the leg seemed to have lasted years before it completely disappeared off the clothes line.
Jinhua ham was first mentioned in written records in the early 8th century during the Tang Dynasty. Due to its red color, it was referred to as Huotui, or fire leg. It has been said that reports of its production spread and was eventually transmitted to Europe by Marco Polo. It is a type of dry-cured ham named after the city of Jinhua, where it is produced, in the Zhejiang province south of Shanghai. It is traditionally made using the hind legs of a breed of pigs native to China known as the “two ends black” 两头乌, which have black hair growing on their heads and hindquarters with white midsections. It is chosen for its quick time to maturity, excellent meat quality, and thin skin. To make a traditional Jinhua ham, it takes 3 to 6 years, not unlike a well cured Iberico ham.
So, if you are a ham aficionado, Jinhua is a name you should be adding to your glossary along with Jabugo, Parma and Bayonne!