Chinese sausage links humble past to present

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Walk into any Chinatown butcher shop and there they are: deep red–coloured pairs of Chinese sausage, hung along the wall with twine. Lap cheung, literally “preserved sausage”, hails from southern China, where resourceful villagers would stuff lamb and sheep stomach casings with pork before leaving them outside to dry. In the summertime, they would sometimes use hot coals to warm and partially cook the sausage, but for the most part, lap cheung was made during the winter, when it was less humid.

What was once a food of necessity has evolved into a mass-produced product that retains its distinctive Chinese character. The sausages are about 15 centimetres long, sweetly spiced, dried until partially dehydrated, and, most of all, marbled with guilty pork-fat indulgence.

One maker of this treat is Wing Wing (460 East Hastings Street), a company that was started in the early 1900s when Rod Fong’s grandfather came to Vancouver from Canton (now Guangzhou) with a family recipe and dreams of opening a butcher shop. During a tour of the plant, Fong stresses that Wing Wing has come a long way since its founder “didn’t waste any meat” by making sausage out of meat scraps.

Fong emphasizes that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency–approved company now only sources “high-quality meat”—pork picnic, loin, and back fat—from a federally approved plant. Premium cooking wine, soy sauce, sugar, and salt are added to ground pork and stuffed into casings for drying. As Fong explains, “We mimic the process of [traditional] drying in a sanitary process in which we filter the air and control the temperature. Then, we’ll vacuum-package the sausage right away so you have a high-quality, clean product.”

But despite its modernized production, lap cheung remains a down-to-earth ingredient for more humble occasions. In a telephone interview, Allan Yung, manager at Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant at 3888 Main Street, says that lap cheung is largely absent from banquet menus. “It is more for family consumption. If you invite guests for a big banquet, we don’t use it,” he says.

However, one particular restaurant dim sum favourite is lap mai fan, which according to Yung consists of “Chinese sausage, preserved duck [lap up], preserved pork [lap yuk], and rice. We put them together and steam the dish for 20 minutes.” Yung adds that lap cheung also appears in dim sum selections like steamed sticky rice in a bowl (nor mai fan), steamed Chinese sausage rolls (lap cheung guen), chicken and glutinous rice in lotus-leaf wrap (lo mai gai), and pan-fried turnip cakes (lo bok gow).

But mainly lap cheung stays true to its village beginnings with home cooks who use the sausage to add salty-yet-sweet zing to otherwise-bland dishes. At the Keefer Street T & T Supermarket, shoppers young and old mill around the lap cheung selections, choosing from brands like Vancouver-based Dollar Meat and Seattle giant Kam Yen Jan, along with sausage varieties made of pork and liver (guan cheung).

Employee Chu Mei Ng stands by, eagerly giving advice on cooking with lap cheung: “I steam it to get all the fat out and eat it with rice,” she says. “I also cut it into small pieces and make fried rice [chow fan].” Customer Felie Dimalanga, who hails from the Philippines, says she makes chow mein by slicing the sausage thinly and stir-frying it with noodles, onion, garlic, meat, and vegetables.

Everyone has their own way of cooking lap cheung, and their own story to tell. Rod Fong fondly recalls barbecuing it while drinking beer with friends. In a phone interview, author Fred Wah, who writes about family bonding over food in his book Diamond Grill, drifts into lap cheung memories. “It was special in several ways. It was pretty tasty and everyone wanted more Chinese sausage, but it was also expensive, so we didn’t have it all the time. I remember my grandmother put an extra sausage under my rice, hidden from everyone else.”

However, like all great loves, when it comes to Chinese sausage, moderation is key. Wing Wing is in the process of developing a lower-fat, lower-sodium version of lap cheung to appease more health-conscious consumers. Until then, Chinese-sausage enthusiasts must curb their cravings if they don’t want to end up like Wah’s brother. “I remember coming home and my brother Donny had eaten all the Chinese sausage,” he says with a laugh. “He was under the kitchen table, and he was sicker than hell.” -