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Dali: The Trouble With Being a Pig

It’s tough being a pig in China. You have very little chance of a long and happy life because, well, you’re just too edible, every last bit of you. It’s the sad truth. But for a western girl like myself, it’s all too easy to get sqeamish with the non…how to put it….non-pork chop aspects of eating a pig. We westerners get a pretty standard choice of say, pork chops, bacon, pork shoulder and ham, with a few odds and ends like ribs, and everything else thrown together to make sausages. I don’t recall ever going into my butcher back home and ordering up half a kilo of trotters (although they could be bought with difficulty if ordered a day ahead, in fact I often did because they were perfect for the medical students to practice suturing on. But we never, ever, actually ate them.). And I certainly never saw snouts or ears in their clean glass cabinet lined with the plastic grass.

Having travelled over a fair bit of China I can now say that pork chops are probably the least interesting edible parts of a pig. Having tried air-dried salted pig’s cheek in the villages near Huangshan, and seen preserved and deboned pigs’ heads in Shanghai, I was no longer surprised to walk into the open air market in Dali, about three hours south of Lijiang,  to find these scorched and blackened pigs’ heads for sale on a heavy trestle table.

Dali is an old walled city, sitting by the western shore of Lake Erhai below a row of sharply ridged mountains dusted with the last of the winter’s snow. It feels ancient, and cars seem out of place in the cobbled streets where near everyone walks with a wicker basket tied to their back instead of carrying groceries in plastic bags. The fresh food market runs every day, a maze of trestles and stalls set up in the alleys behind Bo’ai Lu, not far from the square turrets of the Eastern gate. You enter the market flanked by rows of berry sellers – mulberries, in season for only a week or two, strawberries, small chinese cherries, and orange loquats. Further in are the vegetables and the noodles, tofu and grain sellers, and further still the butchers.   

The pigs’ heads were being torched at very high heat, while the butcher rested his other hand nonchalantly on a snout. I’m unsure whether the scorching burnt off all the tough bristles, or served another purpose, but once the heads were thoroughly blackened they were passed across to the butcheress, to have their ears sliced off – the white fat underneath a stark contrast to the black skin. 

The ears were being sold by the piece, so all that was left were rows of earless, blackened pigs’ heads. And if you’re wondering, after the bugs and bark I’ve been eating lately, whether I tried the ears? No. I think they needed further preparation of some kind, and further cooking. But I wouldn’t be averse to trying them.

But my favourite way to eat pork by far is in the form of Yunnan ham, and cheek by jowl, so to speak, with the pigs’ heads, was the lady selling Yunnan hams by the jin (500g) or by the leg. Yunnan ham, properly called Xuanwei ham (Xuanwei huo tui), named for the town in northern Yunnan where it is produced, has a delicacy as refined as the best prosciutto, and its flavour once eaten will render all other ham completely second rate.  It can be eaten raw, sliced as finely as jamon iberico, or cooked in stir fries (recipe here), soups, or braises.

Were I not going to be travelling for another week or two, I’d have bought a whole leg, and lugged it back to Shanghai. Where I can probably buy it at the local ham guy on Wulumuqi Lu. Come to think of it, when I get back I will buy a whole leg, and feast on Yunnan ham for the next six months. For now I’ll make do with a smallish travel-sized piece, which can be sliced finely and the unlucky pigs toasted with a glass of rough-as-guts Great Wall red.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

  • Anonymous

    Well I have to admit I ate fried pigs ears here in a bistro, you know what the french say: tout est bon chez le cochon (like: you can eat everything of a pig)…tasted not bad once I didn't think about what I was munching! Michaela

  • Liz Mollica

    I have heard, that regarding the pig, you can eat everything but the squeal! I liked that you refered back to the fact that you ate tree bark and the bugs that crawled on them, it was such an interesting post! I am in awe of you. The ham looks much better. Enjoy!

  • Fiona

    Thanks Liz, that's a great quote! I'm sure if there was some way of rendering the squeal edible, the Chinese would eat that too.

    And michaela – I love the French quote along exactly the same lines. Bravo for trying the ears!

  • Angela

    After 9 months in China I'm gradually getting used to seeing EVERYTHING on sale in food markets, but can I say that pigs' heads don't look exactly appetizing? 😛

  • Fiona

    Angela – I agree. Fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, but appetising – not exactly!

  • Adora’s Box

    There's a lot of Filipino recipes for pig's heads but am still a novice in that area. I don't think I can buy a pig's head and put it in my basket (even if they actually sell it at the local market here in London).

  • Franklin from Dine Delish

    You seem like you are having an amazing time. The pigs heads look delicious! I would be the happiest man. Pigs heads have the best meat!

  • croquecamille

    Oh, the cheek is where it's at. I was at a friend's wedding where they had a whole roasted pig, and I asked for the cheek, which threw the caterers for a loop, but boy was it good.

  • Fiona

    I love the image of you tripping through a London market with a dripping pig's head in your basket…that would sure turn some heads!

    And I would like to try pig's cheek someday – nice and crispy on the outside, tender on the inside – delicious!

  • shaz

    Oh I haven't visited for a while and look at all the fantastic posts I've missed! Hmm…I've eaten a lot of "unusual" pig cuts (trotters, intestines, etc, thanks to chinese mother) but I can't say I've ever eaten the head. Nope. Actually, you're probably braver than me, I'm not so sure I'd give it a go 🙂 Well, if it wasn't looking at me I might.

  • Ruby

    Fascinating post, as usual, and that first photo is gorgeous. NOT something I ever thought I'd be saying about blackened pigs' heads, but there it is. Thanks for a great read!