Sunday, October 28, 2012

Pickled red chilies: a taste of central China

Before I leave Guizhou's remarkable cuisines on my trip around the rest of the country's foods, I want to introduce one condiment that is both beautiful and delicious: south-central China's Pickled Red Chilies.

As with so many easily canned items, this condiment can often be found on a Chinese grocery shelf. And many of them are quite good. But none are as stunning -- or as tasty -- as the ones you can make yourself.

Now is the time when fresh red chilies are at their peak (at least around here), so I've put up a couple of jars which might be able to see me through to next summer. Why make your own if storebought are available? Well, if you have ever tasted homemade pickle chips or chutney, then you know the answer: flavor.

Fresh Thai chilies
When you have a jar of pickled whatever made from truly fresh ingredients, they taste a couple thousand times more wonderful than anything a commercial processor can make. Plus, you can pick exactly the ingredients you like, mix up aromatics that suit your palate, and play with the salt-sugar-vinegar ratios until the wheels come off.

And that's what I did. I was wandering around a really huge Chinese market in San Francisco's new Chinatown in the Richmond district, poking through the veggie displays and feeling very uninspired when I noticed net sacks full of Thai chilies. To call these chilies red is sort of an understatement. These were the true scarlet of fire engines, and I immediately knew what they were destined to become.

One thing that has tended to bother me about many commercial pickled chilies that they are so one-note. There's intense heat, of course, but not a whole lot of flavor other than that. So, what I did was add some Sichuan peppercorns for their fresh piney aroma, some star anise to bring a relatively undefinable spicy note to the brine, and then put some Chinese brown slab sugar in the mix to make this not completely sour, but more pleasant and aromatic.

The results are delicious... and gorgeous.

Chinese brown slab sugar
This is a truly simple recipe, one you can pretty much put together while watching an old movie or a ballgame. If you have sensitive skin, wear disposable gloves and resist the temptation to rub your face, as you will feel the pain for quite some time.

Plain old jars left over from something else can be used here. Just wash the jars and lids carefully, sterilize them in the dishwasher or with boiling water, and let them air dry.

The aromatics in here can be played with to your heart's content. This is just a guideline, and a loose one at that.

Like red fingertips
Pickled red chilies Guizhou style  
Qianshi pao honglajiao 黔式泡紅辣椒  
Makes about 1½ pints

8 to 10 ounces fresh (or frozen) red Thai or Serrano chilies
4 cups filtered water
1 piece slab brown sugar, or 2 ounces piloncillo or other light brown sugar
1½ ounces sea salt (about 7 ½ teaspoons)
2 whole star anise
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1½ tablespoons white liquor (gaoliang, maotai, or any other high proof Chinese white liquor)

1. Clean and sterilize three half-pint jars and lids, or one 1-pint and one half-pint jar. Have 2 or 3 plastic spoons cleaned and ready. If you are sensitive to chilies, prepare a pair of disposable gloves to wear while you are working with the chilies.

2. Wash the chilies and pat dry. Remove the stem ends by pulling them off and trim away any less than perfect parts. Pack the chilies into the prepared jars so that they are vertical, with the cut sides up as much as possible (see Tips).

3. Pour the water into a very clean saucepan and add the sugar, salt, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. Bring the water to a boil, cover, lower the heat, and simmer until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and let the brine come to room temperature.

My humble invention
4. Pour the brine over the chilies, and distribute the whole spices more or less equally among the jars. (If you’re using three jars, do this by pulling some of the petals off of the star anise.) The chilies will float to the top of the jars, so to keep them submerged, hold a plastic spoon up against a bottle where it curves in toward the screws and then break the handle off so that it is a little bit longer than that area. Gently bend the handle and slip it into the jar so that it snaps open just below the curved area and thus holds down the chilies. If the spoon end fits into one of the jars, use that, too.

5. Pour a half tablespoon of the white liquor into each half-pint jar, or 1 tablespoon into the pint jar. Cover the jars loosely so that gases can escape, wipe clean the jars, and label them. Place the jars in a cool, dark place so that they can ferment. They will be ready as early as two weeks later, but they improve with age. Check the jars occasionally to ensure that the chilies remain submerged. If any mold happens to form, remove it, wipe down the inside of the jar with a paper towel dipped in white liquor, and add a bit more of the liquor to the jar.

6. When the chilies are just like you like them, store the jars in the fridge.


Fresh red chilies are best at the beginning of autumn when they have just been harvested, but they often are available at other times of the year. Check with your greengrocer or farmer’s market.

Frozen Thai chilies are often sold in Chinese markets, and can be of very good quality. Just defrost them and use them right away, since they will rot quickly if not processed.

Have a couple of plastic spoons at the ready the first time you try this method of holding down the chilies, as sometimes they break at awkward times. I’ve found that those without ridges along the edges are more flexible. Of course, forks, knives, and sporks can be used, too.

Doesn't get better than this
White liquor helps keep mold from forming and also flavors the chilies.

I have taken a bit of liberty with this recipe, adding Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, and sugar to the recipe, as I like the subtle flavor vibrations these cause. If you want more traditional pickled chilies, leave them out.

Other aromatics can be added, of course, in addition to or instead of what is already here. Ginger, garlic, black peppercorns… they all add nice layers.

Place the chilies with the pointy ends down so that any air or fermentation in the chilies will not be trapped, but will rather rise to the top of the jar.

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