Yi people's “Tuotuo” Meat
Yi people’s “Tuotuo” Meat
By Gong Jingyang Photographys by Publicity Department of Ninglang County
Qiesa Buha, 48, from Lijiang City of Ninglang Yi Autonomous County, has been making Tuotuo Meat for 30 years. He can tell if it’s good or not with the first bite: “Fat mutton makes perfect Tuotuo meat, but fat pork tastes too greasy. If you want to make Tuotuo from chicken, the meat must be flaky and dense.” In the Xiaoliang, Wumeng and Daxue Mountains, Tuotuo meat made mainly from pork, chicken and mutton—is a major food for the Yi People, and a daily delicacy for Qiesa Buha’s family.
Big meaty chunks
Tuotuo meat has been one of Qiesa Buha’s favorite foods for decades: “I eat it every day. Even the left-overs taste good, after grilling and it’s better with a pot of tea.”
Tuotuo meat, a dish rural Yi families often cook at home, although made from several different kinds of meat, always comes in large chunks, and serves as the main course for Yi families to treat friends and guests on New Year’s Eve and other festivals.
“Each chunk is fist-sized—a “Tuozi” is what a fist is called in local dialect. That’s why it’s called ‘Tuotuo meat’,” he old us. Mutton Tuotuo tastes rich without being greasy, piglet Tuotuo is tasty and tender, and chicken Tuotuo flaky and refreshing.
Qiesa told us the preparation of Tuotuo Meat starts from careful selection of animals. Mutton Tuotuo, requires meat from rams raised in free range and neutered at the age of two to three years. The longer they lived in free range the better. Pork Tuotuo, is best made from three to four month-old piglets, whose meat remains tender. For chicken Tuotuo, 7 to 8 months-old castrated roosters are ideal. And the meat can’t come from just anywhere: “rural Ninglang livestocks is mostly raised at high-altitude, and this is also essential for their fine taste.”
Qiesa started learning how to cook Tuotuo meat from his grandfather when he was 17 years old. Each time the villagers slaughtered a pig or goat, his grandfather would be asked to cook the dish, and Qiesa would help out. And now his family has made their living by selling Tuotuo meat for nearly a century. “The most traditional way to make Tuotuo is simply to boil the meat with a bit of salt,” Qiesa said, but over the last decades, his restaurant made some changes to cater for its customers’ changing tastes, adding spices like ginger, pepper and Chinese red pepper. “Han people also like Tuotuo meat but prefer stronger tastes. So I make a dipping sauce for them, from local hot pepper and Chinese red pepper.” But Qiesa Buha himself prefers the original taste of this dish and has no need for the sauce.
With its weather-worn signboard in fading color, Qiesa Buha’s restaurant never lacks loyal customers who have been coming for 10 or 20 years. How does this seemingly ordinary dish inspire such an loyalty? Qiesa remembers what his grandfather told him when he began to learn the trade — “Be diligent, not greedy. Don’t expect to make a fortune as a cook.”
Qiesa remembers the Tuotuo preferences of almost every single loyal customer and relative: “My uncle likes leg meat. So that’s what I serve him with”. Preferential service is most obvious at all-Tuotuo banquets, where different parts of meat go to different people. In fact, most Yi People remember their families’ Tuotuo tastes!
Making true Tuotuo Meat
In Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, most people use piglets to make Tuotuo. “They weigh 5 kg to 20 kg, depending on the number of diners. But piglets over about 20kg don’t taste good”, said Mr. Zhang from Chuxiong Prefecture’s Public Relations Department. He too believes that material selection is crucial to making a good Tuotuo. The mountain pigs bred by the Yi People roam freely on mountains and in forests, eat medicinal herbs as they go, and drink clear mountain spring water. Their meat, tender and dense, tastes natural and mild, but “Young boars have a bit of urine taste, so sows are better.”
So making good Tuotuo—whether in Chuxiong Prefecture or Ninglang County—is tricky, demanding special care over selection of materials, method of slaughtering and cooking temperature.
Every day, Qiesa cooks Tuotuo in advance. “Many customers order this dish, and it takes roughly two hours to prepare. I can’t keep them waiting that long.” Qiesa explains how mutton Tuotuo is made: first cut the mutton into chunks to be boiled in a pot with ginger and salt. But he stressed, “It tastes better if mutton is boiled with some intestines, but not for boiling pork.” Next, you control the heat and cooking time based on the age of the goat and size of the chunks: “scoop them out after one or two hours. We like to eat Tuotuo meat with soup; very tasty!” Mr. Zhang provided a tip on heat control: “wait until the foam on the soup is gone, and it’s done!”
In the past, Qiesa’s ancestors enjoyed local fame for their Tuotuo meat cooking skills: “My grandfather would always warn me not to overcook Tuotuo meat. That’s quite crucial. Overcooked Tuotuo loses its springiness and elasticity—no good at all.”
In addition to proper cooking, Mr. Zhang believes that water quality is equally important for good Tuotuo. “After you cleansed and prepared a piglet, you cut it into chunks and put in cold water and begin to boil. Natural clean spring water is vital for this; cooking in tap water makes different flavor... and that’s why hardly any urban restaurants offer this dish!”
In certain parts of Yunnan, the Yi People have a unique way of preparing piglets, soaking their newly-slaughtered piglets in water and cover it with weeds, straw and pine needles, under light kindling, and simple burning off the bristles. After scraping off the ashes and dirt - with a stick, scraper or a knife, a specific mountain grass is piled on and lit, turning the young pig’s skin golden-brown. After another scraping, and the sweet-scented meat is ready for use in the Tuotuo cooking process. “That’s another reason Yi Tuotuo meat is so special: traditional ‘burning pig’ preparation—in addition to hot-water scraping method, before the Tuotuo even begins to be cooked”.
“Chop a whole pig into several chunks, and cut these into flat square chunks—large pigs into bigger chunks than piglets, maybe 100g to 350g each. “The bigger ones are reserved to entertain guests, as a token of respect; the smaller ones are fine for families and relatives,” Zhang explained with specific instructions.
Once cooked, Tuotuo goes into a bowl or pan for a little further preparation. Yi people in Chuxiong can apply up to three further treatments. Before serving, they’ll rock and stir the meat in salt or spiced salt. The diners may then stir their portions in powdered spices—ginger, pepper, prickly ash, and parsley—using chopsticks, and perhaps dip it into a similar spicy sauce, before it finally tucking in. “You have to eat Tuotuo while it’s still hot. It’s the only way to experience the special Tuotuo taste.”
Ma Jinghua, an Yi from Daliang Mountain, told us that attempts to cook Tuotuo using commonplace methods are doomed to fail due to over-processing. He said, “Once after spending Yi New Year at home, I brought back a nice piece of genuine Yi meat. My friends wanted to try to make Tuotuo meat. But they just cooked it their way. First they removed what they considered as unclean pigskin; and they wanted to cook it thoroughly so they overcooked it. And they added a lot of other ingredients as they would ordinarily do; The result just wasn’t Tuotuo meat at all.”
An essentital dish for entertaining guests
When did Yunnan’s Yi People start to eat Tuotuo meat? There’s no convincing answer, but our interviewees all pointed out the same thing: “Tuotuo is as old as Yi culture itself”.
So it seems that Yi people have maintained the custom of slaughtering pigs and goats for guests from time immemorial. And Tuotuo meat is an essential dish. “If a guest is visiting, a Yi family will slaughter pigs and goats that day, to make Tuotuo meat for entertaining the guests that evening. The dish is more indispensable for wedding parties.” Qiesa always take the custom for granted and barely asks the queston as to why Tuotuo plays such an important role in Yi’s life.
In some Liang mountain areas where Yi and Han people live together, on the Yi New Year, Yi families often invite friends of other ethnic groups over for the festival feast, serving up Tuotuo meat. “I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to Yi people’s homes for the New Year quite a few times,” said Zhao Zehua of Ninglang County’s Public Relations Department .
“The Yi believe their New Year celebrations bring longevity and prosperity and view the various delicacies of the feast as a just reward for a hard year’s work.”
Mr. Zhang believes that the Yi’s Tuotuo tradition stems from their customary way of life. “In the past, Yi people mostly lived in mountain highlands and desolate regions. Life was tough, and their diets were simple. When they got hold of some meat—a rare treat back then—they’d chop it into big chunks and boil it. It’s quick and convenient.” But whatever its humble origins, Tuotuo meat is now a delicacy in its own right, and well worth trying if you happen to be in Chuxiong or Ninglang, where lucky diners are elevating the Tuotuo meat to increasingly higher status .