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 
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.