In New York and many other big cities in the U.S., there are many Cantonese restaurants selling cured meat. Supermarkets also have plenty of cured pork and fish on the shelves. Still, many Chinese prefer homemade flavors. They like to hang fresh pork, fish and duck meat outside of their windows or in their yards in order to have the meat air-dried to make Chinese-style cured meat by themselves. This often gets their non-Chinese neighbors upset. Sometimes, the seasonings they put on the meat also cause complaints.
All in all, when it comes to food, forgetting “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” may get you in trouble. Experts pointed out that homemade cured meat may not meet hygienic standards. It would be better to buy cured meat from restaurants or supermarkets that are under the watch of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Recently, a netizen in New York posted two pictures online of pork and fish hanging outside apartment windows. Many left comments saying that the photos scared them. They called the food “dead meat.” Some worried whether the person’s pets had been murdered. Others wondered whether these were Halloween decorations that were left there for too long. Still, some had hygienic concerns and encouraged the neighbors to call 311 to complain.
Some comments from Chinese people were also critical. “You are in a different country now, you should be considerate of other people’s values and feelings. In America, people like to keep their own yards tidy and clean and they expect their neighbors to do the same. Chinese immigrants should respect the local customs and help to maintain the neighborhoods.”
A 311 operator said there seemed to be no law or regulation in the system of non-emergency services prohibiting hanging food outside windows. If the food is for sale, the manufacturer has to apply for a license from the DOH and the food has to pass the agency’s inspections. If people are making the meats in their own yards for their own consumption and their behaviors have no public impact, there should not be interference. But if the landlord or the tenant board of the apartment doesn’t allow food to be hanged outside of windows, they have the right to force the tenants to take it down.
Ms. Li, who runs a Sichuan restaurant on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, said restaurants normally purchase cured meats from professionals because it takes a lot of work to make them yourself. The most demanding step is smoking the meat. You need to have the wood smoldering in an iron bucket. For air-drying, you need to do it during windy winter days. If you dry it indoors, the room temperature needs to be kept at under 40 degrees. Otherwise, the meat would spoil. These steps can easily irritate neighbors. Also, there is no guarantee on the hygienic quality of homemade cured meats whereas the meats sold in restaurants and supermarkets have to go through inspections from authorities.
Danielle Wong, a nutritionist at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, said whether cured meat can meet standards of hygiene depends on how the process is laid out. Normally people have no proper equipment to control the temperature and the humidity, nor do they have sterilization equipment at home. So it is hard for homemade cured meat to meet hygienic standards.
Wong said meat is full of protein. Exposing meat to outdoor air for a long period of time, unless in perfect temperature and humidity, would easily turn it into a hotbed for germs and dust. Although many people don’t feel uncomfortable after eating homemade cured meat, Wong said they are just lucky. Some human organs, such as the stomach, have the function of killing germs. But those who have a weaker immune system, such as children and pregnant women, can get sick. As for the winter tradition of having cured meat for Chinese immigrants, Wong said it is better to buy it at shops. This way, the food is safe to eat and it won’t scare the neighbors.
Mr. Zhang, a Flushing resident, shared his special recipe to make homemade cured meat that won’t conflict with American customs: Marinate the meat first. Then hang it in the fridge for two days. Afterwards put the meat in the oven and roast it at 170 degrees for two hours. Leave it. When it has completely cooled down, roast it for two more hours until the surface is completely dry. This way the high temperature in the oven will kill the germs and the flavor is the same as air-dried meat.