FRESH HAM (tipan)
Weddings were a time for feasting in Szechwan. No expense was spared, and the guests were offered the most elegant dishes the kitchen could prepare. In Mrs. Chiang's family it was traditional to serve three special banquet dishes, or dacai, at a wedding-a soup made out of a whole chicken, a whole duck, and a fresh ham, or tipan. Other delicacies could be added, but these three were crucial. All the guests could appreciate the extravagance of using a whole chicken just for a soup, and they knew how much effort went into preparing the duck, with its tender meat and crisp skin.
But it was the fresh ham that dominated the feast. It would appear majestically at the table, a mountainous hunk of meat bathed in a fragrant, mildly anise-flavored sauce and resting on a bed of bright green vegetables. Everybody would tear into the tender flesh with their ivory chopsticks, offering the choicest pieces to the most honored guests. The best part of the tipan was the fat that covered the meat in a thick, translucent layer, so soft and luscious that it literally melted in the mouth. Perhaps the reason why Western gourmets do not prize fat the way Chinese ones do is simply that Western cooking does not produce anything that is as pure, sweet, and fragrant as the succulent layer of fat on a tipan.
For such a spectacular dish, a tipan is sinfully easy to make. There is no chopping or stir-frying involved. All you do is simmer the fresh ham in a large pot for several hours with some ginger, scallions, soy sauce, wine, and spices. Though the actual cooking time is long, the amount of human effort required is not much more than that needed to scramble an egg. Yet you end up with a magnificent Chinese banquet dish, a real dacai. It is also a dacai that, like all long-simmered dishes, can be made way in advance and reheated just before serving. Only the spinach garniture must be freshly prepared. We usually use half of a fresh ham, weighing 6 or 7 pounds, for a tipan. It is a lot of meat, so plan your menu accordingly. We treat it as the equivalent of two or three smaller dishes.
When you serve a tipan, accompany it with a batch of steamed Flower Rolls, or huajuan. You need something starchy to mop up the sauce with, and huajuan are the traditional accessory.
Though the recipe calls for red peppers, this is not a hot dish. The peppers make the tipan lively, not hot.
1/2 fresh ham (about 6 or 7 pounds)
5-inch piece fresh ginger
10 large or 1/2 cup smaller dried mushrooms
4 quarts water, approximately
(scallions, ginger, and mushrooms)
3 whole star anise or the equivalent in pieces
1 tablespoon Szechwan pepper- corns
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 package (10 ounces) fresh spinach
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
Before cooking the ham, tie it in several places with a piece of string so it will not fall apart while it is cooking.
Clean the scallions, then cut them in half, using both green part and white.
Smash the ginger with the side of a cleaver, but don't peel it.
Wash the dried mushrooms carefully. They do not have to be soaked.
Put the ham in a very large pot and cover it with water.
Bring the water to a boil, then add the scallions, ginger, dried mushrooms, star anise, dried red peppers, and Szechwan peppercorns. Let the ham boil about 1 minute, then remove as much as you can of the foam that has risen to the surface of the liquid. Cover the pot and let it boil fairly heavily for anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the liquid in the pot has been reduced to half its original amount.
Turn the ham over once if you think it may not be cooking through evenly,
Add the soy sauce, wine, and sugar, then reduce the heat and let the ham simmer for 1 hour longer.
Add the sesame oil and the salt and continue to cook the ham until the liquid has boiled down to about a quarter of its original amount.
(At this point, the ham is cooked. You can serve it right away or you can let it sit for several hours-or even days-in the refrigerator. Reheating will not hurt it.) Just before you are ready to serve the ham, prepare its garnish of fresh spinach.
Wash the spinach carefully.
Bring the water to a full boil in a regular saucepan. Add the salt and then the spinach. Wait until the water boils again, then let the spinach cook for 2 or 3 minutes; don't overcook it. Drain the spinach, then arrange it decoratively on a large platter. Put the ham in the middle of the platter and remove the strings from it. Spoon the sauce over both the ham and the spinach and serve.
Note: It is a good idea to taste the mushrooms before you serve them with the tipan; they may have absorbed too much salt from the soy sauce during the cooking process. If so, discard them.
Be sure to try some of the layer of fat on the outside of the ham; it will literally melt in your mouth.