Monday, May 14, 2012

Crispy Taiwanese huagua pickles

Few pickles have the distinctively Taiwanese taste that these little guys do. And I can't think of any other area of China that makes something even remotely similar. 

For the longest time, the only way we could ever enjoy them was the form in which they showed up here on America's shores: in jars or cans direct from Taiwan. Whenever my husband would occasionally get cravings for these pickles with the sweet local name of "flower squash" or huagua, I would find him lingering in front of the pickle shelves at the local Chinese grocery store, trying to decide among the different brands.

I've always liked these pickles to a certain muted degree because they add a lovely piquance to many Taiwanese ground pork dishes, especially the one called guazirou that is seasoned with little more than chopped pickles and their juices. Simple and luscious, it's an inspired combination.
Crunchy fresh cucumbers are key

But I rarely could get too excited about the pickles just by themselves. I think it was because they always tasted too much like the can or the jar from which they had just emerged, and there was always a strong undercurrent of preservatives with names too long to pronounce. The Chinese have a word for this kind of flavor: men, or stale. 

Western pickles can have the same drawback, of course. Supermarket dills often are a genuine letdown, as they taste tired and feel limp. On the other hand, if you've ever had a good deli pickle out of a barrel -- crispy and garlicky and still just a tad raw in the center -- you know what I'm holding up as my personal gold standard.

And when it comes to Taiwanese pickles, this recipe is where I finally found a new contender, so bye-bye canned huagua.

Dried licorice root, or 甘草
These pickles are ridiculously easy. The first secret is to boil them for exactly one minute, no more; this gives them the perfect balance of cooked and crisp. The second secret is a nice mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and rice vinegar that just smells like a Taiwanese grandma's kitchen. And the third secret is a little-known herb called licorice root.

Yes, licorice, as in licorice candy. Called gancao, you can find this in an Asian market, but the best place to buy herbs of any sort is -- you guessed it -- at a Chinese herbalist's. This way, the licorice will not only be super fresh, but you can buy just a tiny pinch of it, and if you are buying it by weight instead of by the package, it will be very inexpensive.

Licorice root is said to have all sorts of medicinal properties, but here it is used in such a small amount that it is just showing up for the flavor, as a simple background note, one that is very subtle yet very authentic. If you can't find it, a pinch of fennel or anise will be a close enough match.

Briefly cook the ingredients
Taiwanese huagua pickles 
Huagua 花瓜
Southern Fujian, Taiwan
Makes about 1 cup pickles

3 Persian cucumbers
4 tablespoons good soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons white rice vinegar
1 piece slice dried licorice root

1. Rinse the cucumbers, pat dry, and trim off the ends. Slice the cucumbers into quarter-inch rounds. Place the rounds in a small saucepan and add the rest of the ingredients.

2. Bring everything to a boil for exactly one minute and then remove from the heat. Allow the cucumbers to cool to room temperature, and then pour the cucumbers and marinade into a clean, covered jar. Cover the jar and chill the pickles overnight. Use within a week or two, and keep refrigerated.


Persian cucumbers: the best
Persian or Japanese cucumbers are the perfect size for these pickles, and they do not have to be peeled. So-called pickling cucumbers are tougher skinned and much thicker, while salad cucumbers are just wrong in every way. Hold out for the Persians.

Poke the pickles down into the jar so that they are covered by the marinade; this will help keep them from turning bad. Use a clean pair of chopsticks or a fork to pluck them out of the jar, as this will cut down on contamination.

These pickles are great with congee (rice porridge), and are traditionally paired with cooked brined eggs, seaweed, and other savory dishes for breakfast or late night snacks.

Season these pickles any way you like. Ginger or garlic can be added to the mix, or chili flakes, or onions, or whatever seizes your fancy. The recipe as written is in the true Taiwanese style, but don't feel constrained!