I have always really liked beef jerky. The cheap stuff you can buy in convenience stores is not so delicious, but handmade, dried beef that is seasoned to perfection can be a real treat, not to mention a very concentrated source of vitamins and minerals. And speaking of concentration, dried beef is one of the most concentrated sources of beef flavor that you will ever enjoy. Well move over, Slim Jim, because I think I have found the most delicious, most perfect, most heavenly beef jerky on the face of the planet.
I spent a weekend in Yuxi, Yunnan Province, China. It is a town of half a million people, which is very small by Chinese standards, but is actually about the size of Cincinnati. It is a beautiful city, with spacious parks, lovely, tree-lined streets, and very friendly people. Of course, being almost the only foreigner there, everyone stared at me, but I have become used to that since living in China — people are simply curious.
One of my favorite things about China, and Asia in general, is the copious, delicious street food. Sure, New York has its hot dog carts and Miami has its food trucks, but in my mind, nothing compares to the range of exotic, varied, delicious choices you get in China. On almost every street, you can find vendors cooking food fresh-to-order, and it is all really, really good.
I stumbled upon such a food stall in Yuxi. The vendor was grilling beef steaks, which you very rarely see in China. I stopped and asked, and it turns out that he was a member of the Dai ethnic minority, one of the many such minorities in Yunnan Province (which has the most ethnic minorities of any province in China). With more ethnicities, comes more great food. The steaks he was selling were really thick cuts of dried, highly-seasoned beef, a specialty of the Dai people.
I could not pass it up: I had to try such a unique and intriguing food. And even better, he also sold dried beef liver, another of their specialties! I love liver, and I am not ashamed to say it. So I bought some of each. I later learned, much to my chagrin, that the Dai people usually pair this dried beef and liver with a dipping sauce made from a cow’s chewed cud! Unfortunately, I did not know that, but the next time I go to Yuxi, I will be sure to try that sauce. After all, how many opportunities does a Westerner have to eat Dai minority cow’s cud sauce?
The flavor of both the dried beef and the dried liver was magnificent. It was deep, rich, profound, it was concentrated and overwhelming, it was as if an entire cow had been boiled for days, and reduced to one clarified thimbleful of pure beef essence. It was spicy, and salty, and herbal. It had strong flavors of minerals, iron, and blood. It was a spiritual experience: I had become one with the cow.