Monday, October 7, 2013

A signature Shanghainese flavor made at home

One of the classic flavors of the lower Yangtze River area is fresh salted mustard greens. 

Often available in Chinese supermarkets nowadays, you will find it either in refrigerated plastic bags or canned. However, you can make this at home with minimal effort, ensuring that it truly is fresh and tasty.
I have always loved the subtle spicy hint in these greens that is courtesy of their mustardy volatile oils. 

This characteristic is most obvious when you take a nibble of the fresh darker leaves, and it becomes mellower as the vegetable is cooked, as can be enjoyed in a Hunanese recipe for mustard stems cooked with schmaltz and ginger (jīyóu jiècài  雞油芥菜).

Baby radish (L) & xuelihong greens
With salting, though, this nose-tickling tendency gets tamped down even more, providing a really delicious hit of flavor that turns almost buttery when it is chopped and fried. In next week’s post, I will show you how to use it in a classic dish from the coastal town of Ningbo in Zhejiang province: sliced rice cakes with bamboo shoots and fresh soybeans, with the xuelihong adding just the right amount of salt and seasoning. (Fun fact: I could go through bowls of that without breaking a sweat.)
Summer and autumn are the times when true xuelihong mustard greens appear in Chinese markets, their long stems and wrinkled leaves offering the perfect counterpoint of crunchiness and softness when they are salted. Just about any variety of mustard will do, though, and I have even made it from Chinese radish greens numerous times when I could not find any mustard that grabbed my fancy. (Korean markets are excellent sources for the baby radish greens as pictured above on the left.)
Wilted greens
The only caveat is that all of these greens—and especially radish greens—can be terribly gritty, and just a single microscopic grain will ruin your enjoyment of these sensuously salted greens, so wash and wash and wash them until every speck is gone. I usually soak the fresh greens in a big basin of warm water, which softens the dirt and makes it easy to dislodge. Soak the greens at least three times this way (use the water on your plants if you don’t like wasting it), swishing the greens around vigorously after their soak. When the water at the bottom of the basin is absolutely grit free, then you can proceed.
Salting them is an easy affair. Shake the greens dry and then either towel-dry them or whirl them in a salad spinner to remove the surface water. Then, place them in a large, clean bowl and massage them with the salt. That is pretty much it. Use the salted greens within a week for optimum flavor and texture.

Salted Shanghainese greens
Xuělĭhóng 雪裏紅 or xuělĭhóng 雪裏蕻
Jiangsu, Zhejiang
Makes about 2 cups chopped greens

2 pounds (more or less) xuelihong mustard greens, other mustard greens, or fresh Chinese radish greens
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt

1. Rinse the greens thoroughly and shake dry. Tear the greens in half or thirds and dry them either in a salad spinner or wrapping in a dry tea towel. Cut the thick stems in half.

Spin off the water
2. Place the greens in a large work bowl and sprinkle them with the salt. Then, lightly rub the salt into the greens for a few minutes. Let the greens sit in the bowl, tossing them every 5 minutes or so, for about 20 minutes, and then let them rest in the bowl for another 40 minutes until the leaves and stems are limp.

3. Use your hands to squeeze out the liquid from the greens, handfuls at a time, and place the greens in a resealable plastic bag. Close the bag and refrigerate the greens for a day or two. Chop the leaves and stems into approximately ¼-inch pieces. Return the greens to the bag and keep them refrigerated, and use them within a week. Rinse the greens under cool tap water and squeeze dry before using.


  1. Im not sure what sort of mustard greens are currently taking over my garden, but this recipe was a perfect solution.

    Have you tried freezing these salted greens?

    1. That is a brilliant idea. No, I haven't tried it, and I have never seen frozen salted greens in a Chinese market, so I'm wondering whether that would work. They do come canned, though, which might be an option for preserving them. If you do freeze these greens, please let me know what you think. Thanks, Polly!

  2. They freeze beautifully. Because the salt has drawn the moisture from the cells, they don't expand and rupture, like they do when watery fresh vegetables are frozen. Possibly marginally softer (no bad thing), but definitely not mushy.

    1. That is a brilliant discovery, Polly. I'm going to try that myself!