Larou (腊肉), better known in the west by its Cantonese pronunciation lap yuk, is made from inch-thick strips of pork belly. These bacon-look-a-likes are brined and marinated in a pot or crock in the cool late-fall temperatures of southern China. After the salt and spices are properly absorbed, the meat is air-cured and sometimes smoked. Unlike air-dried lachang (腊肠; Cantonese lapcheong) which use curing salts, larou is made with only salt.
In an era before climate control, the most critical ingredient was the season itself. Like the regions in Europe and America known for of pork preservation, late fall and winter is when nature provides the ideal temperatures for processing. Slaughtering and processing become safer. Once temperatures drop below 50, brining is possible: cool enough to prevent spoilage but warm enough to absorb salt quickly. Too close to freezing (like the refridgerator) and brining takes much more time. Before central heating, ambient temperatures in the home would be in 50s and humidity would be high enough to produce a decent product.
Larou has a different flavor profile in different provinces. Homemade larou can be found in a belt stretching across southern and southwestern China, primarily through the provinces of Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangdong, but also in Yunnan, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hubei. People in the countryside do more household preserving than city dwellers, but larou production can be found everywhere south of the Yangtze. A few places to the north as well. The basic processing steps are largely the same, much like the continuum between salt pork and hams.
There are many good recipes for larou on the internet. At From Belly to Bacon, Mark shares his experience making lap yuk in his suburban Chicago garage. He air-dried his meat for 2-3 weeks in a “cool, dry place.” Takes great photos too. Over at EdiblyAsian, Kroocrew hung his meat in the sun for 3-4 days. Back in 2011, the then New Zealand based Malaysian expat Yin experimented with making lap yuk in the summer time. John of Sybaritica fame is probably the first person to make Chinese-style larou so far north. He lives in Iqaluit. Its great to see the English language internet sharing experiments with Chinese preserved meat.
While most larou is made in the winter, smoke opens up four seasons of possibility. There aren’t any English language recipes that explain how to incorporate smoke in this process. For that matter, I didn’t find anything in Chinese. So I did an experiment, and though there were many moldy, dried sticks of meat:
But one method incorporating smoke produced this result:
This method resembles techniques used by people in Sichuan and western Hunan. But these were made in the Atlanta suburbs. More about the failures and this ultimate success to come!