Here's a sight not familiar to us from our time in Chengdu: slabs of pork belly set to hang for a time outside, in the cool damp chill.
In the mid-eighties flour, cooking oil, and other staples were rationed and meat, though eaten daily in many city households, appeared more often as a flavoring than as a main ingredient. A dish of huanggua rousi (stir-fried cucumbers with pork), for example, might include two cucumbers and at most two tenths of a kilo of pork, sliced thin enough to travel amongst the vegetable pieces. Because Chinese pork had (and has) so much flavor, we never wished for more meat.
Those days are gone, from the looks of apartment balconies all over town. Suspended from railings and clotheslines and strings strung between the backs of two chairs are fatty squared-off planks of pork -- larou, or bacon -- and links of plump, lard-dotted fresh sausages thick as a broomstick. Every Chengdu household, it seems, is taking advantage of the cold weather to cure its own pork.
The larou -- savory, salty, richly larded but not overwhelmingly greasy, deeply porcine -- is my new favorite pork product. Our first morning in town a vendor at an open-air market offered me a slice; it melted on my tongue, leaving a lovely lingering lick of smoke. We've had it as a cold starter -- simply sliced, again -- and several times stir-fried with sweet Sichuan leeks.
It's a dish that conjures the relative abundance of Chengdu's food stocks in the twenty-first century prosperity and its mid-eighties shortages all at once.
Each lusciously wok-crisped, smoky larou slice is luxuriant in its richness, but the meat is used sparingly -- sliced tissue thin, as all meat used to be, and balanced by a profusion of green, garlicky leeks. A palmful of halved dried chili peppers says 'Sichuan'.