Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

Gifts of Umami

This past Thanksgiving, my mother came to visit. It isn’t normally a big day for either of us, but this year it happened to coincide with her birthday. When she got in from JFK, she told me about the Chinese man on her flight who had had an entire suitcase full of preserved vegetables taken from him at customs.

“My own wife made them,” he had pleaded, but the officer was unmoved. My mother was secretly grateful for the showdown, since the odiferous cache made her own contraband–three hunks of Yunnan ham and a few sacks of dried shiitakes–look benign by comparison. She passed through without incident.

That wife’s impulse to weigh her man down with smelly greens of her own pickling is the same one that drives my mother, year after year, by mail or in person, to smuggle me these items: Chinese people express love through umami. It’s got to be some inherited memory of peasant life, this enshrining of umami–the instinctive understanding, even among prosperous city-dwellers who’ve never wanted for food, that to eat rice is to subsist, but to eat rice with a smear or morsel of something richly salty is to dine. Sugary indulgences are all right for children, but they’re forgotten the instant they’re metabolized. Only a shelf-stable gift of umami can enliven meals for months to come.

Yunnan ham, if you haven’t tried it (and you probably haven’t, since it’s illegal to import into the U.S.), is a cured pork product that’s a bit like prosciutto, and even more like a Smithfield ham. Dried shiitakes are, well, dried shiitakes, but the ones my mother brings me are several cuts above what’s commonly available in this country. Both ingredients are serious flavor bombs. A slice of Yunnan ham the size of a cheese single can completely transform the character of a pot of stock. As for the mushrooms, when you’re done rehydrating them in hot water, you’ll find that the water itself has become stock.

Since my mother left, I’ve been using these ingredients in just about everything. I don’t really distinguish between Asian and non-Asian applications. Just last night a few slivers of the ham went into a pot of otherwise rather southwestern chili; they’ve also made their way into dishes like steak-and-ale pie. I badly want to recreate my grandfather’s delicious and, as far as I can tell, entirely sui generis take on Yunnan ham sandwiches, which he makes by marinating slabs of it in honey and then piling the salty, gooey stuff between gummy white slices of Life Bread, Hong Kong’s answer to Wonderbread. But I’m about to open the third of my three packets of it, and it seems like a relatively inefficient use of the product. Better to ration it out in soups and braises than to eat half the block in one sitting; I’m less likely to bring on kidney failure that way, too. (Yunnan ham is salty.)

(The holy trinity of sandwich ingredients, à la my grandfather.)

The dried mushrooms have a more identifiably “Asian” taste than the ham. Or the caps do, at any rate; the stalks, which are too tough to eat, add an all-purpose flavor jolt to any brothy preparation. One of my favorite ways to use them is in a casserole I reverse-engineered from a seasonal special at Hon Café. It starts with boneless chicken thighs in bite-sized pieces, which are first flash-seared with scallion tops and then braised with peeled chestnuts* and the rehydrated shiitakes in a mixture of soy and oyster sauces, Shaoxing wine, chicken stock, sugar, and ginger, with a touch of cornstarch for body–all the usual Cantonese suspects, in other words. At the restaurant, they serve it on a sizzling cast-iron platter so that it stays warm and keeps caramelizing, but I’m not that fancy. Here is a not-great photo of my take on the dish, which I served with some dry-fried string beans jazzed up with crispy shreds of that Yunnan ham.

The crumbly sweetness of the chestnuts, the silkiness of the chicken, and the glorious meatiness of those shiitakes, all plump with the braising juices…I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. It happens that I’ve been soaking some mushrooms all day, so I think I’ll make a version tonight that incorporates the red miso I picked up last week at Sunrise Mart. And that concludes this year’s volume of my annual What I Did With My Umami Gifts report. (Last year’s, you might remember, featured a Yunnan ham and shiitake hot pot.) I write them for my mother, to reassure her that I have indeed been dining, not subsisting.

A note on peeled chestnuts: I have boiled and peeled them from scratch, and I have bought them ready-to-use. Let me tell you right now that there is absolutely no benefit to doing it yourself. It’s time-consuming, kind of painful (the tough inner skins can get trapped under your fingernails, in some cases forcing the tip from the nail bed–ouch!), and I’m pretty sure it’s actually cheaper to buy them pre-treated. I don’t really understand the economics of it, but there it is. If you are in New York, you can stock up on $1 vacuum-packs of them at Pearl River Mart