Cured sausages are the harbingers of good cheer ushering in the new lunar year. (LU WEN / FOR CHINA DAILY)
The last month of the lunar calendar used to be called the Hunting Month in more rustic times.
That was when traps were set in the wild to catch pheasants, rabbits, deer and wild boar in preparation for the rounds of feasting during the Spring Festival, just weeks away.
These days, wild game is not so easily available, and tamer options are preferred, although the meats are still cured and hung up to dry in the chilly winds. Layue has come to represent a time for preparing and curing meats, known as larou.
In spite of the urban spread of China's population, the year-end tradition of preserving meat is still very popular, with a variety of birds, fish and cuts of beef, mutton, and pork strung up in backyards and balconies to catch the winter wind and sun.
Let's start from the southern end of the country where Cantonese cured meats form elaborate displays at Lunar New Year markets.
Sausages are made from hand-cut belly pork and marinated in salt, plenty of sugar and quality Chinese yellow liquor, which tinges the links with that characteristic red.
This is also the time when fresh duck or goose livers are marinated in spices, sugar and liquor, and stuffed into intestines. These, unlike the meat sausages, are seasonal delicacies only available for a limited time.
Cured duck drumsticks are marinated in sweet wine and spices, giving them a cheery cherry hue. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Another uniquely Cantonese cured product is a whole pig liver, which is hollowed out and stuffed with a piece of pork fat.
Surprisingly, this is not hard to eat.
The liver turns firm during the curing process, while the fat turns crisp and transparent. The Cantonese cook steams and then cuts these liver sausages into very thin slivers, serving them on slices of steamed arrowroot or yam.
More familiar are whole ducks that are spatchcocked, spiced and salted. The intensely savory birds will be a highlight on the reunion table on Lunar New Year's Eve. Surprisingly, chicken is cooked fresh and seldom cured in the southern regions.
Duck-thigh fillets are now more popular with the modern generation, as traditions change and the size of families shrink. These deep-maroon nuggets are easily cut up and even easier to steam, and there are no boney bits to contend with.
Further north, in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, various cuts of meat are heavily seasoned and hung up to dry, ending up in stir-fries or simply steamed. Here, the meats are pickled with lots of chillies and Sichuan peppercorns.
Local sausages are also very spicy, and they leach a bright-red oil when fried, sending out a fragrance that is irresistible to the homesick Sichuan native.
Near the central plains and the lake regions just to the south, soy sauce is a major curing ingredient and sauce-cured strips of meat are already hanging up to dry in many backyards.
Poultry, such as ducks, geese or chickens, are also steeped in sauce.
In Zhejiang province's Ningbo, a favorite New Year delicacy is a sort of ham with chopped pork stuffed into a pig's stomach and then cured in brine.
In Hubei, where there are plenty of lakes and ponds, preparation for spring must start with fishing for carp. Whole carp are salted and then hung up to dehydrate, but a good cured carp stays soft and supple for the New Year meals.
With rapid urbanization, the curing of the festive meats is now done in factories. (CHEN DONGDONG / FOR CHINA DAILY)
As we move further north, the nomadic influences come into play and the main ingredients change to beef and mutton, and the style becomes more like jerky.
Whole sheep are cured, and beef is cut and dried in easy-to-transport strips. Beef jerky is still the most popular for horsemen driving the flocks.
These days, however, they have become a favorite of the keyboard generation, who buy these spicy snacks from online supermarkets that deliver to the door.
Strips of cured meats or individually wrapped tiny cubes are bestsellers.
The Hunting Month may have slowly evolved into the curing month, but it is still part of a culinary tradition that's a prelude to the most-important celebration of the entire lunar year.
HONG KONG NEWS