It’s the season for a heart-warming Cantonese classic: dry-cured meat.
Nothing says winter in Hong Kong like the shopfronts of Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun bursting with bundles of dry-cured sausages, bacon-like slabs and duck legs hanging from the door frames. Collectively called laap6 mei2 (臘味), or the foods of the final month of the lunar year (laap6 jyut6 臘月), these are cured and dried meats not unlike Italian salumi or French charcuterie – all of them invented as ways of preserving meat in the days before refrigeration.
Different styles can be found all over China, but in Hong Kong, the Cantonese style prevails. The most common type of laap mei in this city are laap6 coeng2 (臘腸) sausages. They’re made primarily with pork or duck — lean meat and chunks of fat, or liver with fat for liver sausage, known as yeon2 coeng2 (潤腸) — which is then combined with soy sauce, salt, sugar, five spice powder, rose liquor (mui4 gwai3 lou6 zau2 玫瑰露酒) or the Chinese sorghum wine known as kaoliang (gou1 loeng4 高粱), which is distilled with rose petals and sugar. All of this is stuffed into dried and reconstituted small pork intestines.
“Laap mei are actually available all year round nowadays but they are particularly popular in winter season because these are strongly flavoured, fatty food,” says Daniel Chui, director of Seventh Son, a restaurant known for being a bastion of Cantonese culinary traditions. “In our restaurant we would only serve [it] in winter season as we believe one cannot actually make good quality laap mei without the so-called ‘autumn wind.’ In Guangdong or Hong Kong where we do not tend to have indoor heating, such high fat salty meat goes well with boiled rice and vegetables.”
In some dishes, like claypot rice with laap coeng, with all its delicious fats and flavour infusing the rice as it cooks, laap mei is the centre of attention. In others, it’s a slightly meaty, fatty addition to a complex architecture of tastes, like in turnip cake (lo4 baak6 gou1 蘿蔔糕), where finely diced laap coeng is mixed in with other flavour-builders like dried shrimps.
According to traditional Chinese medicine philosophies, glutinous rice warms the stomach as it takes longer to digest, so fried glutinous rice (saang1 caau2 no6 mai5 faan6 生炒糯米飯) with laap coeng is another winter favourite. Along with peanuts, dried shrimps, spring onions and shiitake mushrooms, it makes for an umami-packed accompaniment to any winter meal.
Beginning to disappear from menus is classic dim sum dish of a steamed bun wrapped around a sausage (laap6 coeng2 gyun2 臘腸捲), which, in season, can again be found at Seventh Son and other old-school Cantonese restaurants like Lin Heung.
Where to eat
Why we like it: A bastion of Cantonese culinary traditions, offering everything from perfect dim sum to celebratory suckling pig (made in house, book ahead), set in a comfortable two-storey space, with attentive service.
Where: 5-6/F, Kwan Chart Tower, 6 Tonnochy Road, Wan Chai, (+852) 2892 2888 – www.seventhson.hk
Lin Heung Teahouse
Why we like it: 1950s tea house offering plenty of atmosphere if you’re in a mood for a raucous, kitschy morning of dim sum, sharing tables with old regulars as well as visitors, or dinner with rustic Cantonese dishes like eight treasure duck (baat3 bou2 aap3 八寶鴨).
Where: 160-164 Wellington Street, Central, (+852) 2544 4556.
Where to buy
Wing Wah stores: daily fresh made preserved sausages can be found along the famous moon cakes and other traditional Chinese cakes. Multiple locations at www.wingwah,com.
Yue Wo Hop Kee: 190 Des Voeux Road West, (+852) 2547 7655
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.