Monday, November 19, 2012

Really and truly amazing: traditional Sichuan pickles

I've talked a whole lot about pickles and fermented things on this blog, and as I have delved deeper into the traditional ways of making some of the best that China has to offer, I've discovered some truly delicious things along the way. One is naturally fermented pickles.

Even better, this recipe allows me to finally have the slightly tart and intensely flavored long beans that are featured in the next post. Yes, you can get them sometimes in Chinese markets, but they've invariably been around for a long time, they've been cooked to some extent so that they survive in a vacuum pack, and they have none of the appetizing green color or terrific crunch that I so love.

This is a recipe I have longed for ever since I first ate naturally fermented pickles in Taiwan. There's no vinegar here. Instead, an assortment of veggies is allowed to sit in a crock with nothing but a seasoned brine, and then nature does the rest. It's taken a while for me to work out the bugs and ensure perfection every time, but it's all been worth it.

Bundled fresh long beans
What are the best things about making your own pickled vegetables this way? Oh, let me count the ways.

First of all, if you get a really good crock with a moat around the top, the pickles will let out farts as they cure. I'm not kidding. The crock that is sitting on my kitchen counter cuts the cheese when I come downstairs to start the day, and then I inevitably begin to laugh, and that is a good way to greet the morning. It's a nice, muffled, wet sort of explosion, the kind that sounds like someone is sitting in a bath.

Second, there is no fermenting smell if you use the kind of crocks that the Chinese have for hundreds of years. These have a cup-shaped lid and a moat around the top that ingeniously lets the carbon dioxide out while acting as a barrier to outside air and insects and contamination. And that is why you have those farts.

Farting aside, these pickles are outstandingly good: crisp, crunchy, flavorful, and just bursting with the authentic taste of perfect fermentation.

My late mother-in-law used to make these back in Taiwan (she excelled at the salted and fermented stuff, while my gonggong made the daily meals), and so the sight of a crock full of food slaving away in the dark is one thing that makes my husband very happy, reminding him of his childhood days.

After 3 weeks in the pot
Vegetables that are slowly pickled this way by fermentation have incredible health benefits. They aid in digestion, and are especially recommended for people who are middle aged and older, as the stomach's hydrocloric acid diminishes over time, and that is why so many people eventually suffer from heartburn and indigestion (in addition to overeating and general dissipation at the dining table, of course...). 

Enjoy these pickles uncooked every day and see whether symptoms don't improve; they are healthier and definitely much tastier than antacid tablets. And there's something just terribly comforting about seeing a glazed pot on the counter filled with good things to eat, with its promise of excellent meals in the days ahead.

Traditional fermented Sichuan-style pickles 
Chuántóng Sìchuān pàocài 傳統四川泡菜 
Makes around 4 to 6 cups pickled vegetables, plus 1 bunch pickled long beans, but it all depends upon how much you put in the crock

12 cups water
4 ounces sea salt
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
12 star anise
12 bay leaves
4 tablespoons white liquor (such as gaoliang, maotai, or 60 proof rice liquor, etc.)
Rock sugar to taste (start with about 4 tablespoons)
12 slices fresh ginger
12 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
4 fresh red jalapeno chilies or other fresh chilies to taste, cleaned and halved

I whole head firm, sweet, round cabbage, plus any or all of the following:
1 Chinese or Korean radish, peeled and thinly sliced
2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut thinly on the diagoal
1 bunch long beans, as tender and thin as possible, trimmed and kept whole
1 or 2 kohlrabi, peeled and thinly sliced

1. Boil the water and salt together to dissolve the salt. Let the salt water come to room temperature.

2. While the salt water is cooling, carefully scrub out a crock that holds at least 12 cups (see Tips) and its lid and rinse it thoroughly under running water. Rinse the crock and lid out with boiling water, turn them over on a clean towel, and let them dry. Then, pour the salt water into the crock, cover it and let the salt water sit in the crock by itself for a week; what you end up with is something the Chinese call “old salt water,” or lao yanshui 老鹽水, and it sets the stage for successful fermented pickles.

3. After a week, tie the Sichuan peppercorns in a very clean small cloth bag and add this the salt water. Then, add the star anise, bay leaves, white liquor, and sugar to the salt water along with the ginger, garlic, and chilies.

The real deal
4. Clean the vegetables you wish to use and pat them dry. Let them air dry for a couple hours, if possible, to keep any fresh water from entering the pickling crock. Cut off and reserve 2 large leaves from the outside of the cabbage. Cut the cabbage in half, core, and tear it into pieces about 2 inches square, more or less. Prepare the other vegetables as suggested in the ingredient list. If you are using long beans, use kitchen twine to tie them loosely together around the center into a bunch. Place all of the vegetables in an even layer in the crock.

5. Set the two large leaves of cabbage on top of the vegetables (these will help keep the weights from dropping down to the bottom). Then, carefully lower a very clean weight on top of the vegetables (see Tips). Cover the crock (see Tips), place it in a cool place, and let the vegetables settle for a couple of hours; check the crock, and if the salt water does not cover the vegetables by at least 1 inch, make up some more salt water using the same ratio as before, but remember that the pickles will sink considerably within a day or two. 

6. Check the crock the next day to ensure that no mold has formed; if there has, pour a couple more tablespoons of white liquor into the pickles, gently swish the crock around, and then cover it again. Do note that it is normal for there to be a thin white layer on top of the brine; this will more or less dissolve as the pickles continue to ferment. The pickles should be ready in anywhere from 2 weeks to a month (mine take exactly 3 weeks), depending upon the temperature, vegetables, etc. What to look for: the pickles should taste sour, rather than simply salty, and they should still be crisp and colorful.

7. Use very clean chopsticks or wear plastic disposable gloves to remove the pickles from the brine (see Tips), place them in a clean jar along with a few tablespoons of the brine, and refrigerate. You should then reuse the brine in the crock to pickle more vegetables, as the brine will improve in flavor over time. Add more salt water as needed, and if the flavor needs a little boost, add more spices, aromatics, sugar, white liquor, and so forth.

8. Serve as is, or you can drizzle something like toasted sesame oil or Citrus Chili Oil or whatever else suits your fancy. The flavors in the pickle are sharp, which is why a flavored oil goes so well here. These pickles are also incredibly good in a Sichuan stir-fry with little more than strips of beef as a contrast.


Set two leaves on top
The best sort of crock to use for these traditional pickles is made of thick ceramic and has a moat around the top (see photo at bottom). This is an ingenious device that allows carbon dioxide to escape as scentless farts while not letting any outside air into the jar, thus cutting down on contamination and foreign yeasts. Chinese pickle crocks are hard to find at the time of this writing, but oddly enough, Eastern Europe has crocks with very similar designs, and these are available in such online stores as

I have a 10-liter crock, but use whatever fits your budget and appetite.

Store the crock in a  cool area, like a basement or far away from the kitchen stove, as the pickles need to ferment slowly in order to develop their flavor.

If you are using a crock with a moat, be sure to check the water level daily around the lid, adding more water as needed. 

A plain large glass crock can be used instead, as long as the lid does not have a plastic rim that seals the crock shut, as you want to allow the gases to escape and yet keep the bugs out. With crocks such as these, place a thin layer of cheesecloth over the top before covering with the lid. As with the ceramic crocks, clean and sterilize both the crock and the lid (as well as the cheesecloth) before using.

I use new disposable latex or plastic gloves when removing the weight and the vegetables, as this keeps everything super clean while giving me maximum flexibility while dealing with slippery heavy things.

A weight should be placed on top of the pickles to keep them submerged. Doughnut-shaped discs that are split in the middle (for easy insertion and removal) can be found online, but you can also go the more traditional route and place a very clean plate on top of the pickles and then balance a (very, very clean) rock wrapped securely in clean cheesecloth (to help with stabilization) on top of the plate; if you do that, get a rock that has a flat side so that it doesn't roll around and either break the crock or disappear into the pickles.

When you remove the finished pickles, shove the weight to one side or place it on a very clean towel. Then, when all the veggies have been removed, return the weight to the pot where it can remain submerged and ready for the next batch.

If you add more salt water to the crock, be sure that the water has been boiled first, as fresh water may cause mold.

Polish pickle crock
Use only firm vegetables that are not at all juicy in this pickle. That means things like cucumbers and tomatoes should never be added, as they will spoil.

Sichuan pickles like this recipe traditionally have fresh ginger, garlic, and chilies, as well as Sichuan peppercorns, but add whatever flavors you like.

Keep a clean pair of chopsticks tucked away for testing the pickles, and wrap them up so that they are used for nothing else; this will prevent oil and other contamination from entering the brine.

Long beans (jiangdou) that are pickled this way are used for a Sichuan dish called Pickled Long Beans with Ground Pork (see next blog entry for recipe); while you can sometimes purchase the pickled beans (pao jiangdou 泡豇豆) in some Chinese groceries, they are a pale shadow of homemade ones. When your homemade pickled beans are just the right level of tartness vs. crispness, place them in a clean resealable plastic bag, refrigerate, and use within a couple of days.


  1. Sichuan Pickles are one of my favorite!

  2. Replies
    1. Great! Let us all know how they turned out...

  3. Thank you for sharing this recipe! I fell in love with 四川泡菜 during my last stay in Chengdu and i have been craving for it ever since. I have been looking for a recipe for quite some time on chinese websites, but most of them were not very precise when it came to measurements, so I was was very happy to find your blog!
    I still have one question though: do you leave the condiments (sichuan pepper corns, garlic, etc.) in the brine for further use after taking out the vegetables or do you sieve the brine in some way before using it again?

    Thanks again and greetings from Germany!

    1. Thanks, Marie! Glad to help.

      The spices can be discarded when you use up your pickle, since they will have little flavor left. Add more to the pot later on if you feel it needs it. This recipe is extremely flexible and will take on an individual flavor the more you feed the pot. Enjoy!

  4. Thank you so much. Living in Shanghai means it'll be easy to get all these ingredients and the proper pot. I have been wanting to make these at home for quite a while. Thank you so much for the recipe and tips!

    1. Sounds like a plan! Very jealous you get to live in Shanghai. Just be sure the pot you get doesn't have lead in the glaze; since the brine turns acidic, you need to have a very good quality pot. Consider getting a testing kit for things like this, such as

  5. Have you ever made stinky tofu ? It seems like this fermented pickle recipe is close to the process
    used to make stinky tofu.

    1. Heh. I've considered that, but I'm afraid the husband and pets would move out if the kitchen smelled like nothing but stinky tofu.

      That being said, the curing process is different. Choudoufu is not sour or salty, but rather determinedly funky. It gets its aroma from things like cilantro or amaranth or sometimes even Chinese celery that has first been completely rotted in water. The bacteria that forms is what turns around and cures the fresh bean curd, making its texture so nicely creamy. (You have to wonder at those who looked at a pile of rotting vegetables and thought, "I have a great idea!" And then eating the results with no guarantee that they would not die. What intrepid individuals they must have been!)

      Make this only if you have distant neighbors.

    2. "What intrepid individuals they must have been" Poverty. Traditionally many Chinese were very poor & couldn't afford to
      waste food. If something did rot, there were probably somebody hungry enough to try it. So I can see how stinky tofu came about. What really amazes me is the hand pulled noodle. That's a complex process with many steps that require practice to
      master. How did someone dream up the technique instead of simply slicing the rolled out dough ?

    3. According to folk stories, stinky tofu was invented by a person named Wang Zhi He (王致和) in the Qing dynasty. However the versions of the exact story are quite varied.

      After failing the imperial examination, Wang Zhi He stayed in Beijing and relied on selling tofu to make a living. One day, having a huge quantity of unsold tofu on his hands, he cut the tofu into small cubes and put them into an earthen jar. After several days, he opened up the jar and found out that the tofu had turned greenish and become extremely smelly. He tasted the “stinky greenish tofu” and found that it was surprisingly delicious. So he decided to sell those “stinky greenish tofu” as a commodity in his store.

    4. It's incredible how almost every classic dish has a great story!

  6. Do you know of any ways to make stinky tofu ? I find the stuff at restaurants in the US to be not all that good compared to the few
    Taiwan places that still make it the old way.

    1. Haven't tried it yet. All I know is what I posted up above! Maybe I'll see about making it when the neighbors are all out of town.

  7. If you re-use the brine to make another batch, the existing brine will have taken in some of the water from the vegetables and thus will not be as salty as the original salt water the recipe calls for, right?

    as a result, additional salt must be added...but how to determine how much?

    1. None of the vegetables are particularly juicy, so this will not be a problem. Of course, you should taste the brine before you use it again to ensure that it does not need further seasoning of any kind (sugar, white liquor, spices, etc.), including salt.

  8. How long to pickles keep in refrigerator? Can you can them?

    1. These pickles will last longer in the fridge if they are covered with the brine. If they don't have the brine, they tend to get slimy fast. How long they last depends on how fermented they are and how cold the fridge is: if they are already very sour, the decaying process may have started, and so you have to eat them up fast.

      I don't think you will be able to can them successfully because they are not cooked. And if you did cook them, they would turn soggy. That's why they are almost never available in Chinese markets.

      So, my suggestion--if you like to have a steady supply on hand--is to either refrigerate the pickles covered in brine as soon as they are as tasty as you like, and then immediately start another batch. You could also divide the brine between two smaller pickle jars and have them going in tandem.

  9. Do you know where I should hunt for a fermenting crock? I am going to be in Singapore next month but don't know where I should go to buy one. What is it called in Mandarin?

    1. I got a very nice one on Amazon. These are called pàocàiguàn 泡菜罐.

  10. Carolyn, I finally made these and they are fantastic! Tons of flavor and heat. I chopped up some of the long beans and stir-fried them with ground pork, and put others in my congee. I also diced up some of the kohlrabi, mixed it with garlic, sweet soy, and chilies, and drizzled that over cold slices of braised beef shin. Wonderful stuff--thank you again for a great recipe.

    1. So glad you like them as much as I do, Michael. Thank you for the kind words. You sound like an excellent cook, so this is high praise indeed. Have a wonderful holiday season!

    2. Merry Christmas Carolyn. Your blog is a treasure.

    3. Thanks! And a happy new year to you, Michael.

  11. I came back to this post for the recipe. I noticed that you call your husband's father "gong gong". Is your husband by chance Hakkanese?

  12. I just tried stir frying a batch with pork and jinhua (well actually Virginia Ham). Holy smokes...the flavors come out tenfold when pao cai is cooked.

    1. You just made me smile and feel very hungry at the same time. Thanks!

  13. I was very pleasantly surprised. the baijiu (i used jin sing gold star 104 proof) has such a fragrant aroma. It also did not become unbearably sour when cooked, as I feel kim chi does when cooked. With the addition of the ham, the nitrate levels are through the roof, but it tasted amazing.

    1. Baijiu (white liquor) does have a wonderful fragrance. I am partial to Kinmen Gaoliang, especially when tossed in a sausage stir-fry or sprinkled over sausages in the steamer. So glad that this recipe worked really well for you.

  14. How big are your slices of ginger?

    1. I'd say about an inch wide. The size of the ginger really doesn't matter that much, though, as it all comes down to how much you like the taste of ginger. Please feel free to adjust the spices and vegetables to fit your palate. As always, this recipe is just what makes me happy.

  15. I just bought a Chinese crock, but the lids are not glazed. Is this safe to use or should I return it?

    1. Hi, and sorry for taking so long to respond, as I'm trying to finish up my next (!) book.

      This crock probably will work. Your main problem - if you have one at all - will be that the water might evaporate more quickly. So, keep an eye on the water level in your crock. If it evaporates too fast, try putting a sheet of clean plastic wrap between the lids and the crock. Let me know if this works!

  16. Hey Carolyn! This is amazing. My grandma is from sichuan and I just managed to get a muddled recipe (you know how these things are - not really a recipe but more of a story) and I'm ready to try it. I stumbled upon this post and you describe the process so well. I have a question for you - for the initial salt again, do you need to cover it completely? Airtight? I don't have a traditional crock but a wide mouthed one, relying on a heavy weigh to press the vegetables down. Can I just use a tea towel to cover it?

    1. Hi Betty, and I'm so excited that this recipe might be what you're looking for. The salt water doesn't need to be shut up air tight; few things are going to be interested in it at this point. The main thing to avoid is evaporation, so just keep the lid on and it should be fine. A tea towel might let too much of the moisture go, but you could layer it under the lid, if you like, so that there's a tiny bit of air flow going on. Good luck with this!