As we were having lunch at a Chinese restaurant recently, an amazing and unmistakable aroma wafted our way. We took a long, deep breath and enjoyed the free smells from the next table.
Ahhh, lap mei farn! The beguiling fragrance held us ransom, delivered only by the happy thought that the lap mei season is upon us.
The idea of "food for the soul" must have been invented to describe this steaming pot of winter delight - rice and preserved meats cooked in a claypot - a dish so deeply satisfying it's worth risking a facial sauna for.
Making lap mei, or waxed meat, was a way to preserve food in the days before refrigeration. According to a research paper, lap means "ritual" in old Chinese, and refers to when surplus meat after a ritual would be cured for use in the winter months. This happened around December, and there would be lap mei to celebrate the spring festival. But the more common interpretation of lap is "waxed", and mei is "aroma".
This Cantonese specialty is popular in Hong Kong where the best lap mei can be found. Three types of lap mei are available in the market: preserved duck, belly pork strips, and sausages of two kinds - pork (lap cheong) and pork mixed with liver (fahn cheong).
At top restaurants, the quest for making awesome lap mei farn starts with the search for the most premium lap mei each season.
The Shang Palace's Chinese executive chef Tan Kim Weng says he does this every year before the onset of the season.
"The lap mei from the same supplier or factory can taste different from year to year and so we need to sample the new batches from several suppliers each season."
He deems lap mei from Hong Kong to be the best, "especially those from Yung Kee and Lei Garden restaurants". The chef gets his supply of Hong Kong lap mei from local Chinese food distributors and mentions that a good place to start shopping would be Kwang Yeow Heng on Jalan Hang Kasturi, near Central Market.
Tan prefers "leaner sausages with a meat-to-fat ratio of 70:30", which he considers ideal. Lower-priced sausages can have a meat-to-fat ratio of 50:50 or even fatter. He also likes a good whiff and goes for lap mei with a more robust rose wine fragrance.
For Jeannette Han, co-owner of Elegant Inn Hong Kong Cuisine on Jalan P. Ramlee, going right to the source has become an annual ritual. Han is extremely picky about her lap mei.
From the Mid-Autumn Festival (in September) onwards, she is constantly flying off to Hong Kong to pick up samples of lap mei from her regular suppliers and carting them back for her chef to test.
She carries a satay stick around to investigate the waxed duck by poking into the meat and smelling it, much like how the Jinhua ham experts do it, by inserting a needle into the leg of ham.
"I check to make sure that the waxed duck is not rancid and not soaked in too much oil," she says.
"Usually, the duck leg comes with skin and fat wrapped round it; the duck is soaked in oil because its fat has melted during storage. One has to be careful with waxed duck as it loses its freshness fast and starts to develop a rancid taste."
Hence, the waxed duck travels in her hand-carry luggage and she is careful to keep the cold chain all along the journey home.
When it comes to liver sausages - and she prefers goose liver over duck - she insists that they must be from Yung Kee in Hong Kong, and her customers are used to the taste.
A few months prior to the lap mei shopping spree, she has already stocked up on fragrant jasmine rice in order to age it.
"We keep the rice for a couple of months to mature before using so that the grains will be separate and fluffy when you cook them."
Lap mei farn in its purest form is rice cooked with the four varieties of lap mei. In its simplest form, it is a humble, simply prepared meal - rice is washed and placed in a clay pot with the required amount of water and boiled. When the water has almost evaporated, the preserved meats are arranged on top of the rice, the fire is lowered, and the lid goes on once more to finish cooking the rice.
At home, it is considered one of the easiest Chinese meals that you can prepare; in a fine restaurant, the chef deems it a laborious dish that needs constant minding to get good results. Vegetables such as caixin or arrowroot can be added for a more complete meal - an option that most chefs choose not to exercise to keep the flavours pure. Yet others may choose to add non-lap mei ingredients like dried oysters and dried scallops to the pot.
Inside the very hot clay pot - a cooking vessel known for its ability to seal in heat and create a high-temperature, thermal steaming condition - the meats start to sweat and cook in the sauna, releasing volatile oil, juice and aromatics into the rice and whirling vapour. The aroma of aged meat, wine, sugar, salt, spices and that unique rancid fat taste from fermented meat infuse the rice, coating each grain with shiny fragrant oil.
The result is a one-pot, kick-all wonder that provides all the requisites of taste, texture and aroma to make a satisfying and memorable dining experience. Each type of meat offers a different bite and textural sensation, with the fluffy rice providing softness and a round and comforting mouth feel.
The crowning glory of the dish, some would say, resides at the bottom of the pot - the burnt bits of golden brown rice crust that provide perhaps the most aromatic of flavours of the entire pot. A bit crunchy and chewy, the caramelised crust is a delight that cooking in a modern electric rice cooker pot has deprived us of.