CURING fruits and vegetables is part of the culinary tradition in many countries across the world, from the dill gherkins that come with sandwiches and the cured olives in a garden salad, to the chutney that accompanies curries and the kimchi alongside a Korean barbecue.
China is no exception when it comes to distinctive pickles.
In fresh produce markets across the country, you will find vendors selling pickled vegetables arranged in large jars and glass cases.
Though the displays may not look all that appetizing, these pickles are indispensable to Chinese cuisine. “My family always keeps some Chinese pickles, like pickled cucumber, white radish and zhacai to eat with congee, noodles and steamed buns,” said Yilin Wang, who keeps a stock of Chinese pickles in her larder. “They are very flavorful and can lighten up a poor appetite.”
There are three common types of the dark colored Chinese pickles. Jiang cai refers to those pickled in soy and different types of sauces. Xian cai is cured with salt, and pao cai is fermented in peppercorn-infused water without too much seasoning.
Chinese pickles often serve as appetizers. Restaurants sometimes prepare small plates of different pickles for diners to enjoy before main dishes are served.
Today, Chinese pickles are also sold in vacuum packs that make them easier to store or take along on a trip.
Restaurants in Sichuan Province often serve spicy pao cai as appetizer. It is made from fresh cabbage leaves, asparagus lettuce, carrots and soybean sprouts and is akin to Korean kimchi. However, pao cai is more like a salad that preserves the original color, taste and texture of the fresh vegetables.
Ginger is an essential ingredient in authentic pao cai. The white, young ginger root used is not as spicy as matured ginger but it still has crunch. Its flavor is buttressed by adding pepper, salt and sugar. The young ginger is harvested during July and August, when many families buy a few kilos to make sure they have enough to make pao cai for months.
Pao cai is easy to make at home. It requires only seasonal vegetables, salt, ginger, peppercorns, anise, yellow rice wine, chili peppers and sugar. In summer, a batch of pao cai is ready to eat after only three days sealed in a special container called pao cai tan (or pickle jar). In winter, the process takes about a week. The pickle jar can be either glass or earthenware. The top typically has a saucer-shaped plate filled with water to completely seal the mixture from air. When making just a small amount of pao cai, Mason jars work well.
A typical pao cai salt brine is made by adding 80 grams of salt for every one liter of boiled water. It is seasoned with peppercorns, garlic, chili peppers, sugar and ginger. Non-iodized salt works best, but it’s also saltier.
The brine can be used repeatedly. Into it go fresh vegetables that are thoroughly rinsed and dried. The longer the brine is used, the better the flavor.
For those who prefer spicy pao cai, chili pepper oil can be added when serving the vegetables. Pickled chilies can be made in the same way, with some white vinegar added for a sour taste.
When picking out pao cai to eat, be sure to use a special pair of dry chopsticks with no oil and water residue to avoid contaminating the entire jar.
These salt-pickled vegetables have a stronger flavor due to the excessive amount of salt used in the curing process of vegetables like radish, asparagus radish, cucumbers and eggplant.
Zhacai is the most common variety of xian cai. It’s made from the root of the Chinese mustard plant (brassica juncea) and comes mainly from the city of Chongqing and Zhejiang Province. The fresh stems are also used in cooking, but not as often as in pickling with hot red chili paste and salt.
The most famous zhacai is the Fuling zhacai produced in the Fuling region of Chongqing. The technique first reduces the water content in the fresh Chinese mustard stem by pressing and drying the vegetable so it is left with 40 percent of its original weight. Then the stems are rubbed in salt and cured twice to extract more water. Seasonings and spices are added during the second process, and then the jars are sealed and stored in cool, dry place for three to four months. Zhacai is sliced when served with congee or other staple dishes. Chili pepper oil and vinegar can be added for extra flavor.
“The pickle can also used in cooking cook soups, meats and noodles to add an umami taste, like noodles with zhacai and shredded pork,” said Wang.
Xuelihong is a salted vegetable made with a winter variety of mustard green. The leaves are layered in pickle jars and a mixture of peppercorns and salt is added. The pickle is ready to eat after two weeks. The color at first remains bright green, but after a month or so, it turns dark green. Xuelihong is eaten as a side dish or cooked in other dishes. Salt picked vegetables should be avoided by people with high blood pressure because of the high salt content.
Jiang cai is made in a way similar to xian cai, but it uses a large amount of soybean paste and soy sauce to infuse the vegetables with rich flavors.
There is a wide range of jiang cai available on the market, including those made with common white radish, peanuts, Chinese artichoke (crosne) and cucumbers.
“My favorite Chinese pickle is the jianghuanggua (sauce-cured tender cucumber),” Wang said. “The thinner and smaller the cucumber, the sweeter the taste. It’s perfect with congee.”
To make this version, the cucumbers are first cured
with salt before they are added to a sauce made from sugar, soy sauce, soybean paste and white spirits. The pickling process takes 10 days.
The most famous jiang cai brand in China is Liubiju from Beijing. It’s said to have originated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This brand, in distinctive glass jar packaging, can be found in most supermarkets. One special jiang cai is babaocai, which is made by mixing eight kinds of vegetables, with peanuts added for extra crunch.