During the tomboy phase of my youth, I consumed a lot of gas station-purchased Slim Jims. To the bewilderment of my parents, I savored the snap and subsequent squish of each bite. Back in the ’80s, there was no extreme sports connotation (i.e. “Snap into a Slim Jim! Roar!”) attached to the humble meat stick (truly more sausage than jerky). Times have certainly changed, and it seems I have too—Slim Jims seem weird and gross now.
There is hardly anything cooler in the culinary world than the preservation of scarce or seasonal foods—pickling, salting, canning, etc. Drying meat and fish keeps microbes (which need water to flourish) from ruining precious nourishment. Drying is one of the oldest and most common food preservation methods—dating back to the Middle East in 12,000 BC, it was a logical practice that has developed in almost every part of the world. The word “jerky” comes from the Spanish word “charqui,” cowboys carried it in their saddlebags, and the Nepalese traded their version (Sukuti) with Tibetans.
No matter where or when, the process was basically the same—what we know as jerky was created by exposure to sun and wind. As long as the fat (which doesn’t dry and will go bad) is trimmed, jerky could be stored without refrigeration for weeks at a time. Like so many culinary inventions that emerged out of necessity, jerky has blossomed in its own right, as a portable snack with extreme taste. The flavor of the meat is concentrated in the drying process, and now it’s enhanced by marinating, salting, and smoking.
There are plenty of connoisseurs in New York for whom nothing will do but their favorite Mesquite-smoked top-round jerky, vacuum-sealed and shipped overnight from Texas. But locals searching for something homegrown don’t have to leave the island or settle for increasingly far-flung supermarket varieties (“tofurky jerky” anyone?). The best I’ve had is the Hong Kong style jerky made at Jung’s Dried Beef in Chinatown. Four flavors—sweet beef, spicy beef, sweet pork, and spicy pork—are housed in large glass jars in the front of the store ($17 per pound for any variety). Behind the cash register at this random-looking store, the large room extends considerably, but nothing else is for sale.
Despite the titles, all four flavors are sweet, and equally so—the spicy ones have a little heat in addition (chili oil in the marinade?). Almost all jerky is somewhat sweet, but when it’s bad, as a lot of commercial stuff is, a syrup-y glaze is all one can taste, with a hint of meaty flavor best fit for man’s best friend. This is far from the case with Jung’s. The charred earthiness of beef is distinct from the first bite, although the slabs are a little gooey with marinade.
That brings us to the second major triumph of Jung’s: the texture. Homemade jerky, in particular, can be tough enough to cause headaches, and when one finally gnaws off a bite, it tears lengthwise with the grain of the meat, a sure sign of laborious chewing to come. Jung’s is not only wetter on the outside, but tender, easy to bite off—not unlike the outside of a barbecued spare rib.
On a recent visit, it was even better than I remembered. Due to language barriers, I was unable to get a recipe, or even some secret ingredients, but as I left with my half-pound mix, the owner, whose granddaughter had translated as best she could, said “If you like it, tell your friends.”