If you’ve ever been in south China during the winter, you’ve probably seen it hanging from the eaves and windows, drying in the sun like bundles of flowers—lawei (腊味), or cured meat, is a southern specialty, used in everything from congee to hot dishes, and loved especially in the countryside. So what’s the story behind this Chinese take on jerky?
It all goes back to Layue (腊月), the 12th month of the lunar calendar, which was traditionally reserved for making sacrifices to the gods. In the past, this meant slaughtering a veritable farmhouse of animals—pigs, chicken, sheep, ducks, fish and so on. Handily enough, it was the people, not the gods, who got to enjoy the spoils with extravagant Spring Festival feasts. But even after days of gorging, most families couldn’t polish off the mountain of meat, which meant they needed to find a way to preserve it for the coming months.
Enter lawei, a tradition that would take root in the south, where short, humid winters meant limited access to natural refrigeration. The cured meat, which most commonly included pork (腊肉làròu), chicken (腊鸡 làjī), fish (腊鱼 làyú) and sausage (腊肠 làcháng), was a hit; historical records show that more than 2,000 years ago, Confucius charged every student some larou as a tuition fee.
So how is it made? The meat is cut into strips and marinated in salt and spices for several days, before being hung in the sun to dry. In many places in Guangdong, Sichuan and Hunan, smoking the meat is an indispensable final step to infuse it with an appetizing color and fragrance. Lachang, the fatty sausages often used in southern cooking, are prepared in a slightly different way—seasoned sliced pork is stuffed into a pig’s small intestines and hung to dry.
Though the flavor may differ from region to region, all kinds of lawei are heavily salted to ensure that the meat will stay good for at least a year. In some place, people take the extra step of guarding against flies and mosquitoes by smoking the lawei using cypress branches, which have special anti-bug properties.
In the weeks running up to Spring Festival, households throughout the countryside in South China hang their kitchens with lawei, letting the sluggish winter sunshine dry the meat and turn it darker. (The fish, layu, and sausage, lachang, are especially popular during Spring Festival.) Later, it will be served alone or cooked in dishes, and is especially good with liquor and rice. Many parents who still live in the countryside pack their city-dwelling children with lawei when they leave, to take a little piece of home back with them.
However, although lawei is a delicious and ingrained part of Chinese food culture, it’s not good for everyone, especially for older people, or anyone with high blood pressure, blood lipids or blood sugar. Lawei is usually rich in fat and cholesterol, and contains some nitrite. But in moderation, it’s a tasty and relatively harmless treat.