By Yang Xiujie and Gong Jingyang Photographs by Liu Jiatong
When invited to visit a Bai family, the best time to show up is in the morning so that you can join the host for lunch. As everyone sits around the table, the Bai host(ess) would announce the ritual modest greeting, warmly, ¡®there¡¯s really no formal dishes, so feel free to help yourself with something casual¡¯. But when you see that plate of Shengpi on the table, you know you¡¯re being treated as a VIP.
The history of Shengpi
By two o¡¯clock in the afternoon, two batches of customers who came for Shengpi had already left ¡®A Blossom in the Windy City¡¯ - a restaurant in the back of the Longshan farmers¡¯ market in Xiaguan City of Dali Prefecture. We arrived at the restaurant - having been attracted by its reputation - when Yang Bingsheng, the owner of the restaurant, was about to eat his lunch of fried noodles. He put down his bowl and chopsticks on the table and greeted us, with recommendation for his Shengpi which had won popularity in the whole Xiaguan City.
The contents in a white china tray were in three colors: orange, white and pink - simple and clean, yet flickered with some sort of animation. The restaurant owner explained: ¡°the brownish orange is pig skin, the white is fat pork and the pink is, of course, lean pork¡±. Yang pointed out that the Shengpi platter is laid out in certain patterns, ¡°the skin is cut in square shape, shredded fat and lean pork are separated evenly and neatly for clear picking with chopsticks¡±. Different cutting methods apply to different parts of the roasted pig skin. ¡°The claret-colored circle of pig liver in the center of the tray was sliced in a slow but forceful way, to make thick and firm strips.¡±
¡°Shengpi of Dali is a famous and unique dish with a long history¡±. Approaching his 60s, Yang is an ethnic Bai-born and raised in Yinqiao Village. He doesn¡¯t know how long the history of Shengpi is. But for as far as he can remember, Shengpi has been served as a food for festivals and special occasions.
Since early times, people living in Dali, Dengchuan and Eryuan by the Erhai Lake have been opened to new cultures and taken the interest in raw meat consumption, and this particular diet has been as diversified and inclusive as in central China and ranges from pork, beef, mutton to chicken and fish. The custom still continues today.
The feast of fire
The taste of Shengpi depends on how the pig is roasted and the dipping sauce is prepared. On the front door¡¯s glass of Yang¡¯s restaurant is a picture showing a pig being roasted. From slaughtering to roasting, the illustrations add to the festivity of a banquet of Bai style.
¡°The color of the picture has faded in the past two and half years. But the brownish roasted pig in it keeps me mouthwatering¡±. Yang was recalling the day depicted in the picture, when they celebrated the name-picking for his grandson. The processing of that pig took collective efforts of four adults, and the roasted pig fed 70 tables of guests.
Every day at five o'clock in the morning, the small butcher house owned by Yang is brightly lit and starts to get busy. Flames brighten up the face of the man tending the fire, and the crackling of burning straw breaks the silence of the morning. Before eight o¡¯clock, processed pork skins will be cleaned and packaged. Traditional Shengpi processing consists of pig slaughtering and roasting.
Every Bai household has an enclosed yard, where pig is slaughtered by a flowing ditch. Yang Shujuan, of Cai Village in Dali, told us that fire flame plays an essential role in pig-slaughtering. The slaughtered pig is flamed and scraped alternately until the pig skin is cleaned thoroughly.
Then it comes to the pig-roasting. ¡°The taste of Shengpi depends largely on the roasting skills¡±. Yang Bingsheng knows his customers¡¯ taste only too well. ¡°The best flavor comes from those pigs of traditional breeds, whose skins yield the best flavor¡±.
Pig-roasting of Bai style consists of two cycles. The first cycle uses mild flaming, and bristles are removed by scraping with knives. The second cycle employs focused flaming. When the straws are burnt to ashes, the pig has turned black, and is plastered with the ash-water mixture. The butcher and his helpers can now wash hands and take a break with cigarette-smoking, awaiting a magic to happen between the ash plaster and pig-skin. After about four or five minutes, the pig skin becomes softened and elastic for further processing.
Brownish color appears with good smell, and roasting is about to finish. The whole process lasts about an hour. ¡°In the old days the pig-roasting was done by a ditch in a spacious yard, and pine-needles were used for robbing and cleaning¡±, said Yang. The aroma of the burnt straws is the trick in making good Shengpi. Between chewing and aftertaste, this aroma sneaks into your throat.
When the fresh roasted pig is ready for serving, the host invites relatives and neighbors to come and enjoy. The best parts for raw-meat consumption are tenderloin and leg. Shengpi and raw-meat feast is really a time-critical sport.
¡°The key to Shengpi tasting lies in its freshness. When it gets stale, even the best pork loses its desired taste¡±. Yang never doubts about the detrimental effect of time on Shengpi. As soon as the pig is processed, the raw meat and skin from the selected parts are removed for quick packaging for preservation, and the freshness and tenderness for the first bite is guaranteed.
¡°In the past, Shengpi was affordable only for festivals. With good luck, you could satisfy your taste-buds if you bump into someone¡¯s banquets. Now that the life is getting better and better, clean Shengpi and raw meat are available on the morning farmers markets. If you so desire, go get it early enough and you won¡¯t miss it¡±, said Yang Shujuan. Unless it¡¯s your own occasion, you don¡¯t want to slaughter a pig just for one meal of Shengpi.
A Bai style banquet with Shengpi follows certain rules. Aside from the parts used for Shengpi, pigtail, hock and snout that contain tendon can be served right away with pepper and salt, and get tastier as you chew it. Ribs, hocks and dewclaws, and pork of other parts are cut in chunks and covered with mixture of grind rice and other seasonings and then steamed, or braised in brown sauce ¨C all contribute to the ¡®Eight Entr¨¦e¡¯ in a bona fide Bai menu.
¡°Shengpi is sold out by lunch time. If one of my two restaurants happens to have surplus it¡¯ll be sent to the other. We need two pigs a day for both sites¡±, said Yang. ¡°Some people from other counties drive here for Shengpi. Long queues are formed early in the morning in front of my restaurants at weekends¡±.
Sauces are also crucial to the taste of Shengpi. There are two kinds of sauces. The ¡°dry sauce¡± is made mainly of spices and salt. A ¡°wet sauce¡±, according to Yang, is usually made of 15 or 16 ingredients, and the main ingredient is plum vinegar or plum juice. ¡°Plum vinegar and plum juice are what create sourness that can enhance the taste of Shengpi ¨C those who like the flavor can add more of these to the sauce¡±, Yang explained. Hot peppers are important too. There are at least three types of pepper: locally made pepper oil, roasted and mashed dry pepper and chopped Xiaomi pepper ¨C a small and exceptionally hot variety indigenous to Yunnan.
Roasted peanuts or walnuts are the highlights of the sauce. After removing the inner skin, peanuts or walnuts are roasted until you can smell them. Then, have them crushed and the nutmeats are ready to be added to the sauce. ¡°In the past when peanuts and walnuts were not readily available, people would use a substitute of perillaseeds,¡± Yang told us. ¡°In addition, Chinese cilantro, green onions, mint and mashed garlic are musts for the sauce.¡±
After passing strict safety inspection, local pork ¨C when roasted with pine-needles and prepared by dexterous chefs, finally show up on dining-tables with colorful decorations. The Shengpi feast is bound to satisfy learned-gourmets.