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January 12, 2012

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Sausage links families on New Years

AS a red-blooded Chinese-American the coming of Chinese New Year plays just as large a role in my calendar as Christmas or Thanksgiving. Like them, Chinese New Year is a time of family and friends, all coming together in a few clamoring nights of food and booze, with perhaps a few fireworks and some gambling thrown into the mix.

I'm always excited for the New Year but this year I have one thing in particular on my mind. Sausages. Not only will my relatives from Hong Kong and Taiwan be bringing in the best representatives of their individual styles but my kitchen staff also took it upon themselves to cure a batch of fiery Sichuan sausage for our own little nod to the upcoming Year of the Dragon.

Currently hanging in a sheltered nook near our fire escape, they're not quite ready at the time of this writing, but come the January 21, they will be utter perfection. Just in time to be cooked up and shared among my restaurant family before we head home for the holidays. For me the simple sausage is one of the last great ties to the old world food traditions. Steeped in tradition and more than its fair share of dirty jokes, sausage making remains a communal affair and one of the beautiful slow processes where the end product is so much more than the sum of its parts.

I know how this sounds but I will say it regardless; sausages are one of the world's great unifiers. Insert off-color references here, laugh all you want, I implore you. Because I will be talking about stuffing sausages, massaging meat, and differences in size all column long and I'd much rather you get the giggling down now before we settle down into the meat of the matter.

You may think I'm exaggerating but the truth of the matter is that every single culture I have ever experienced, heard, or read about utilizes sausages in some form or the other. From the humble Italian sweet sausage laced with fennel seed to the savory salinity of a perfectly cured saucisson or the aggressive but balanced spices of a beautiful lamb merguez, the flavors, techniques and textures may change but the concept remains the same.

In its simplest definition a sausage is merely a mixture of ground meat and spices. And it is this simplicity that allows the sausage to be so expressive of individual tastes and practices; the mixture itself can be of nearly any meat and any number of spices and herbs can be incorporated for flavor.

In some cultures grains, nuts, fruit and even blood are mixed into the meat for an added layer of complexity. The size of the meat can also be altered, from the coarse ground, like a rustic salami with its visible pieces of fat to a grind so fine that the meat and fat are actually emulsified into a single block, more akin to the hot dog that so many of us are familiar with.

After all this there is also the decision on how one would like the sausage to take shape. In casings? If so, what type of casing? Do you want to cure it and let it hang out in a cool dark place for a few months? And do you want to smoke it for a little extra oopmh? Maybe you just wanted to sautee it up on the spot and have it for dinner, anything is possible.

In the days of yore sausage making was primarily a means of preservation and utilization but a recent renaissance has seen a resurgence in artisanal sausage production, not so much to preserve the meat that we can now buy fresh every day but as a means of appreciating the breadth of what our forefathers used to do with a little know-how and guidance from their elders. And while Germany is generally considered to have the strongest sausage culture in the world, China certainly has a few of their own to bring to the table.

The most well-known of the Chinese sausage armada is lachang, most famously from Hong Kong and other southern provinces. You will have seen them in numerous stores dotting the city streets, generally hanging out next to massive slabs of salt pork and cured Jinhua hams. They are primarily pork and pork fat and are generally sweeter than their Western counterparts, flavored lightly with a bit of soy and sugar you will often taste them in fried rice or steamed with rice in clay pots.

Sichuan, as one would imagine, incorporates peppercorns and chillies into their mix, producing a sausage that is both numbing and has a lingering heat. When sliced thinly they are the perfect foil for an otherwise rather mundane dish of sauteed cabbage.

Up in the northeast they produce a few different types of sausage similar to the German catalogue, an obvious by-product of their occupation nearly 100 years ago. Call me biased but when my friends from northeastern China bring down their namesake sausages I am hard pressed to think of anything better that I have tasted, especially when paired with a cold beer and a few pickled vegetables.

The fresh sausage you see at convenience stores on the little rollers are known simply as xiangchang. Particularly popular in Taiwan these little weiners impaled on bamboo skewers brings joy to school children across the nation. With its sweetness and porky goodness, the xiangchang is emphatically delicious and unmistakably Chinese.

The influence of the sausage is far-reaching indeed. While I know most people would never think of making their own sausage at home there remain a few recipes that are surprisingly easy to master. A little time and love and you too will discover the glory that is homemade sausage; Western or Chinese, sausages will forever be welcome at my house for Chinese New Year.


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