I have the utmost respect for my predominantly Chinese neighbors in the minimally gentrified nook of Sunset Park that I call home, but those feelings are not what drew me into the world of traditional meat drying. I was driven to investigate this little-understood foodway solely by pangs of curiosity and the stench of unemployment—not necessarily in that order.
Last winter, when I was gainfully employed, my roommate Peter and I moved into a brand new nondo. During the tour, Peter was spooked to discover that from the balcony above us hung damp slabs of meat offset by a faint glimpse of the Manhattan skyline.
A few of the ground floor units got the memo as well, using their burglar bars as mounts.
It was a nice apartment, and the meat didn’t look human, so in we moved. I didn’t see any more meat festoonery until nine months later. It was fall, right after my job dropped me on my ass. Bit by bit, the moist loins reappeared, hanging from the ground floor windowsills. One too many daytime cooking shows finally drove me to action—I would dry and taste the goods myself. As a broke American, I’m used to ingesting preserved foods year round but, I wanted to try preserving them myself without the added chemicals.
The language barrier between myself and my neighbors left me with only Google to turn to. I found little on Chinese meat drying, other than that it’s often done in preparation for the Chinese New Year celebration. I did, however, find a blog by one Lingling Luo, a Chinese blogger living in Germany who’d made an entry about the practice. She kindly responded to my email with step-by-step instructions. To prep the meat, I would need to put all of the spices on the slab, letting it marinate in the fridge for 2-4 days before hanging it out to dry over a period of 1-3 weeks. After drying completely, it could be stored for about six months without refrigeration, the salt being the main preservative. If frozen, it could last up to a year. Later, the meat could be hydrated again by boiling it in water.
Out in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, meat is extremely cheap at stores like Fei Long Market, right off the 8th Ave N train station. However, a trip to Key Food in Park Slope netted me two lamb chops for the “Manager’s Special” price of $2.31, half off similar cuts. At home, I prepped the meat with soy sauce, sea salt, table salt, cumin, chili pepper, freshly grated ginger, and cinnamon (a little addition of mine for its antibacterial properties) and let it marinate for four days.
After that, I realized I was missing something very important—string to suspend the lamb from the balcony. I improvised by cutting the straps from a promotional nylon mini-backpack I had laying around. I then took the bowl out to the balcony adjacent to roomie’s bedroom, hanging the slabs prominently in tandem with my neighbors’ cuts, causing a meaty eyesore for him once again.
Outside, the lamb chops were exposed to temperatures between 25 and 40 degrees. Day by day, I watched the meat harden into itself with surprisingly no smell. After eight days, I decided it was done. The meat was so hard and dry that I couldn’t imagine it getting any drier. I stored the chops in plastic baggies in the fridge, though I could have left the desiccated stuff on the counter just as safely, according to Lingling.
There is always a dark side to saving money and messing around with “illicit” cuts. In terms of food safety, as I learned while studying for the NYS Food Protection Course certificate, (another of my “hey, let me try this!” unemployment whims) there are strict guidelines for conditions at which meats should be kept to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria, many rules of which were broken during this experiment. The meat was technically dried at safe temperatures (below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, according to food safety experts). But it was also exposed to MTA bus exhaust and who knows what else.
That’s why I was still a bit hesitant to actually swallow the grub. It had also been waving at me from the window for over a week. We’d gotten close. But when I finally dug in, the flavor was salty going down, but surprisingly tender, even if it was a bit less plump than if I had stopped at marinating it. I wanted more!
After my experiment, I consulted two research scientists to get their opinion on the practice (something I might have done beforehand.) Dr. Kit Keith L. Yam, Graduate Program Director of the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University, said it is generally safe for the average person, but there are many variables governing its safe consumption, and if the product is not properly processed and handled, there is a potential health risk.
I also emailed Rutgers Food Microbiology professor Dr. Thomas Montville. “I won’t touch such a complex cultural topic with a ten-foot thermometer,” he wrote back. “I wouldn’t eat it either.”
I guess that leaves more for the rest of us. Or me, at least. I find I like having a little dried meat in the cupboard, along with some canned goods, in case of a dinner or Snowpocalypse emergency. I think I’ll dry some fish next.