24 Hours in Nuodeng, Yunnan (Ham Paradise)

After reading Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham, I knew that it would be impossible to go back home without a trip to Nuodeng, the village in Yunlong county that specializes in the famous Yunnan ham.

How famous is “famous?” Yunnan ham has been shipped around the globe since 1912, and became an international sensation when it won a gold medal at the Panama International Fair in 1915.

It seems that most villages or towns in China have a specialty food that becomes forever and only associated with them. You would never see a baba shop that wasn’t called “Xizhou baba,” or an ham restaurant not boasting “Nuodeng ham.”

Every October and November, all Nuodeng locals make their own ham. They rub fresh pig legs with almost a 1/2 inch of salt, have it sit in a cool dark place for about a week, then let it air dry for at least one year. The longer the ham cures, the better and more expensive it gets. The best ham has cured for 2-3 years.

We visited a local’s home to see the back room where they were storing their family’s ham. Opening the room brought an overpowering (but delicious) wave of the ham’s salty fragrance. The room was dark with two small electric fans on the ground to circle the air.

Nuodeng is small enough that there aren’t many restaurants, so we ended up finding a local woman’s home to try some ham. We tried ham slices plain, which made it taste particularly special; there was nothing to get in the way of the delicious, salty, smokey flavor. In a country where almost all food is stir-fried and rich with oil and spices, this was a real treat. Yunnan ham tastes like very thick prosciutto, deliciously fatty and flavorful.

Pre-sliced

Nuodeng is also famous for their salt. Their salt wells is actually what put them on the map during the days of the Tea-Horse Road, when salt was incredibly valuable. We visited the ancient salt office that was built in 1383, as well as a home where the family still makes salt the old-fashioned way (albeit probably just for tourists now).

The gate of the historic salt office

Growing salt crystals

Blocks of salt

Before we left, we tried to research Nuodeng. What sites should we see? What should we try besides ham? Besides Travel Cathay, a blog run by a foreigner who strives to feature “alternative travel destinations” in China, there were pretty much no English language resources. We were on our own; foreigners just don’t go to Nuodeng.

On the bus ride back, it rained so hard that one of the roads was flooded, so with the extra 3 hours, I struck up a conversation with a Yunlong local heading to Dali for the weekend. She asked if I had been to any other places in Yunlong besides Nuodeng, rattling off a list of villages that were smaller and “more beautiful.” I’m not sure how much I was able to get across with my Chinese ability, but I tried to explain that I would love to have gone to more places, but unfortunately I am just unaware of what’s out there!

Travel Tips
– We stayed at the Nuodeng International Youth Hostel, which was very nice and clean. 35 RMB (~5 USD)
– Ask your hostel if they can recommend a good restaurant. Chances are, they’ll bring you to a house that they have guanxi (relationships) with, so you’ll get cheap, delicious homestyle food!
– One day is good enough to see everything in Nuodeng. The town closes quite early and there are few lights, so it is nice to find a good cafe or bar and hang out there after dinner.

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