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Chinese and Other Asian Pickles

by Lillian Chou

Salads, Pickles, and Other Cold Foods

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 19, 20, 37, and 38

Universally, every culture pickles some things as their means of preserving them. While most of the Western world sees vegetables soured or preserved in vinegar as pickles, the Chinese and other Asians tend to go sweet, salty (the west also pickles with salt), and/or spicy. With such a prolific assortment of virtually any ingredient, pickles are definitively foods preserved in seasoned brine or vinegar. However in Asia, there are pickles preserved in sweetened solutions or those put up in oil, as well as those that are fermented in a variety of spice pastes. These variations greatly extend and broaden the classic repertoire of what is seen as typical Western pickles.

Simple enough or not, all pickled foods take time to prepare. Some take weeks or longer to pickle while others are done in days. Pickles that require the fermentation process can take months to mature. Often when it comes to pickling, old techniques are constantly rediscovered, revived, and reinvented. However, the definition can vary and often slip towards the process of preserving. While the two are related, not all things preserved are considered pickled, but pickles are positively preserved.

In all of Asia, there are hundreds of preserved food items-—mostly pickles. Pickling was a practical means of survival. It was a way to preserve foods during harvests or times of abundance. It extended food supplies through harsh winters and lean droughts. While many Asian variations abound, most originate from China and from there, spread throughout neighboring countries. However, when they did, all made adaptations to local tastes and locally available ingredients. Today, Asian markets are growing in number and they offer a greater variety of pickled foods, more than ever before.

CHINESE PICKLES: Most common meals are garnished with the addition of at least one pickled condiment, perhaps sour mustard cabbage chopped into some noodle soup or salty lettuce hearts to add some crunch to a bowl of steamed juk, also known as congee or rice porridge. Like many other Asian cultures, in China, a simple bowl of rice and a variety of pickles easily comprise a simple meal; and simple pickled vegetables are called yanlu or yanzhi; pickled cabbage is most often called paozi .

Other popular, yet unusual examples of Chinese pickling are variations of prepared eggs. The salted egg or xian dan, are usually duck eggs but they can also come from hens. They are preserved in a mixture of salt, earth, hay, and other ingredients and sealed to mature for one month. These eggs are popularly eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival in Cantonese versions of sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves called zhong zhi and during the Autumn Moon Festival in the centers of Moon Cakes. Irving Beilin Chang wrote an article in Flavor and Fortune about duck eggs and their preservation; it is in Volume 9(1) on pages 9 and 10.

Popular choices of what the Chinese pickle include lettuce hearts, yellow tea melon, or flower cucumber brined in a sweet and salty solution based with soy sauce. These vegetable pickles are known as jiang cai where the vegetable is slightly dried and then pickled in a solution of fermented soy sauce. Popular simple cabbage pickles are quickly made fresh pickles with a light-colored pickling solution, often a combination of water and vinegar that can be enhanced with anything from chilies to ginger or Szechuan peppercorn to give a characteristic flavor. These fresher varieties can be eaten in greater quantity than the saltier condiments mentioned earlier. Pao cai as it is commonly known, is often served as a palate freshener in many restaurants. These fresher versions of pickles are reminiscent of Western pickles.

Preserved pickles called zha cai are unattractive knobby or gnarly looking vegetables that have been brined or salted. Usually a mustard green or root is used; and the salty-spicy flavors are wonderful garnishes to enliven a simple noodle dish. Vegetables are often sun-dried and pickled in brine. Excess water is then removed and flavors including chili are added. The vegetables are then sealed in vessels to mature in flavor. The salty flavor is so strong that some opt to rinse these pickles before using them. Perhaps the best example of fermented pickling is called 'stinky tofu' (fermented bean curd) or dofu nai. Bean curd is laid on straw mats to ferment for about one week where a mold develops. The moldy bean curd is then dried in the sun and later cured with salt, sorghum spirits, and spices. The bean curd is then soaked in brine and sealed for six months. The resulting stinky tofu gets its name from the strong smelling attributes that develop with the flavor. This particular product is able to last for years if properly stored.

Tasty golden bamboo shoots are slick when pickled in oil with chili to counteract the slight bitterness. And while it would take pages to list the many varieties of pickles, it is worth noting that anything from goat meat to hazelnuts is pickled, and anything from salt to peaches or even grape juice can be used as a pickling medium. China holds no barriers to the world of pickles-—if it is edible in China, it is probably pickled, too.

KOREAN PICKLES: While kimchi is commonly referred to as a fermented or pickled spicy cabbage served with most Korean meals, it is actually synonymous in referring to the innumerable varieties of any preserved or pickled table condiment. It is already established that kimchi has an earlier root than in Korea. See Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 10(1) on pages 29 and 35. There you will find a discussion detailing that it is actually of Chinese origin; although some argue that point. Despite that, it remains the national food of Korea today.

Anything from pickled oysters to dried fish and even sweet soybeans can be found pickled and on the Korean table. They are all called kimchi and although there are hundreds of varieties, these condiments often appear in large enough numbers to comprise a meal. Korean culture has spawned variations of kimchi, great leaps beyond traditional pickled cabbages found in China through basic techniques changing with the addition of more typical localized ingredients such as hot red chili peppers that were actually introduced towards the end of the Chosun Dynasty (1392 - 1910CE), and of course, great amounts of garlic. Kimchi plays such a vital role within the Korean lifestyle that typically, a good housewife is considered to have the ability to produce a dozen or more varieties of kimchi.

In general, there are two types of pickles in Korea, those that are fermented, most usually involving spicy chili pastes and the milder varieties pickled in water. Fermented kimchi is salted for a long period; this removes excess water from the vegetable. The spicy pastes give the final flavor that can comprise any variety of ingredient from fish roe to sweet pears. These are combined with the famed red pepper that eventually burns an addiction into most palates. Vegetables are coated with the paste and placed in a clay vessel, then usually buried underground to ferment over the winter. They are then consumed throughout the year. Korean families have marked days to prepare kimchi for the entire season. They adore doing so.

Water-based kimchi varieties are often salty and reticent of garlic or accented with rice vinegar producing a similar quenching bite related to the Western cucumber pickle. Like its fermented counterparts, a variety of ingredients from seaweed to ginger and all types of alliums (the garlic and onion family of foods) are used for flavor. Both methods take roughly two days to initially develop the flavors, but the fermented variety matures over time, usually weeks and sometime months. The longer the fermented pickle has to mature, the stronger it becomes in both smell and taste. If stored incorrectly or for too long, the result can be a tingling flavor and texture, which in most cases indicates spoilage, but is actually often favored and desired. Most Korean families have a special recipe or preference for at least one type of kimchi and the prized result is often incorporated into classic dishes as well as basic condiments.

JAPANESE PICKLES: can be the gari or pickled ginger that accompanies your sushi or all things tsukemono that whet the appetite. These brightly colored packages of vegetables wrapped up neatly with leeks or scallions are palatable gifts-—typical in Japan. Japan has some of the most vividly colored pickles. Commercially available gingko nuts are a brighter form of neon than nature might have conceived whereas slender, bright orange carrots thinner than a pencil might make one wonder about the amount of time it takes to peel each one. Bright ginger shoots are impressive both for their flavor and magnificent, yet natural fuchsia shade at their base. The same goes for eggplant or nasubi. Often the natural pigments of various fruits and vegetables bleed or leach out during the pickling process, leaving an unusual, suspect hue as evidence. But most often, it is nature herself that causes this color shift thanks to a light reaction of the vegetable pigment to the acid or saline in the solution.

With regard to the natural attributes of some pickles, others are completely fabricated, at least in appearance. Pickled cucumbers are popular for their salty taste and firm crunch, despite being sliced thin, but question where the green cucumber gets its final magenta shade from and the mind starts to wonder. Yellow moon slices of takuwan or pickled daikon radish are common in Japan (and Korea) with any given order of gyoza (fried dumplings), but where the yellow is coming from is highly suspect. Perhaps the most popular pickle in Japan is the umeboshi which refers to the pickled plum (ume). Although this sour plum also has original roots from China, it is actually a hard green apricot that is harvested early and pickled in salt and naturally sour. Red shiso leaves added to the mixture result in tingeing the apricots (or plums) into their characteristic pale red shade naturally. A single umeboshi is the traditional garnish to white rice in any given bento-box meal (Japanese lunch boxes hosting a variety of items). In fact, it is sacrilege to serve a meal in Japan without pickles.

The most popular variety is the salted pickle known as shiozuke. But more interesting and particular are nukazuke—pickles made with rice bran as a medium for fermenting. This is a particularly healthy method thanks to the involvement of the bran itself, but these pickles are sharp in pungency and volatile once removed from their pickle 'bed' lasting only a few days. Also popular is misozuke, pickles made using miso or fermented soybean paste and often involve parboiled vegetables. The pickles are slimy, wet, and coated with a sludge-like paste but the flavors are intensely fragrant. However, the Japanese do not seem bothered by this description given the staggering amounts of pickled vegetables consumed.

INDIAN PICKLES can be lesser known varieties of other Asian pickles. While pickling is a tradition often passed from Indian mother to her daughter(s), the art of making pickles is often a family event since large batches are procured at a time. The Indians often refer to their pickles as condiments, but the British colonization is guilty in adding Major Grey’s popular variety to their list of chutneys. Mango chutney is a popular sweet, spiced relish pickled primarily with sugar and chili, but spicy lime and green mango pickles laden with greater amounts of chili are served with almost every meal. These pickles use oil as a means of preserving with plenty of chili and ajwain seeds which are a medicinal spice that have no true popular English name. When eaten raw, they are strong and pungent but after cooking, the result is a thyme-like fragrance. The result is a fiery-hot but well-balanced flavor thanks to the sourness of the fruit to offset the heat. Achar translates as pickles in Indian and is also a known tasty vegetable pickle dish not that can be considered a wonderful side dish to accompany any meal. Traditionally it is made with yellow vegetables colored and flavored with turmeric. Achar served on Indian tables mimics how coleslaw might accompany many things on American plates.

OTHER PICKLES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA: lend themselves, throughout different regions, to using indigenous ingredients. In Malaysia and Indonesia, salak or snakeskin fruit is called salak pedas; they are pickled in sweet syrup and seasoned with chili powder

Grapes, pale guava, green mango, and yam beans are all popular as well but interestingly, most Southeast Asian pickles are chili-laden or sweetened. To illustrate the influence of Chinese pickling in this region, sayur asin sawi is the local equivalent to the Chinese salted mustard green (zha cai), but used differently in vegetable salads.

THAILAND PICKLES are called pat gat dong. They are strikingly similar to the Chinese version of pickled cabbage in vinegar, salt, and sugar. Pickled garlic or kratium dong is usually purchased as whole cloves pickled in rice vinegar and sugar. The pungent garlic overtones disappear and only the subtle sweet taste remains without odor. Like the Chinese, preserved radishes and cabbages abound and are used similarly as a condiment.

The local cuisines of the nations that comprise this region are often closely related sharing many of the same ingredients while maintaining their own characteristics both gastronomically and culturally alike.

A PREPARATION WHEN SALTING TO TASTE is a method where salting or brining draws out water from the items being pickled, allowing them to later soak up the pickling solution and evolve into new flavors. The recommended salts are pickling salt, Kosher salt, or canning salt. Free-flow and low sodium salts should be avoided as they may cloud or discolor the solution whereas flake salts vary in density. Proper salting also keeps the crunch in vegetables.

In some older pickle recipes, grape leaves or grapes may be required. The tannins naturally occurring in the leaf produce enzymes that inhibit bacteria. This measure is often replaced with the addition of alums or pickling lime. Neither is necessary, and the use of alums should be carefully measured or toxic results can occur. Although most Asian pickles involve a quick method, most other preserved methods require the vegetable first be slightly dehydrated and then salted to remove much water. This vital step is what maintains crispness. Traditionally speaking, quickly made pickled vegetables should be pickled within twenty-four hours of harvest to ensure crispness. Pristine vegetables result in pristine pickles. No one likes a soggy pickle!

Brined pickles are fermented and generally have enough salt to be considered safe. Quick pickles are just as they sound, quickly made and ready in days with the use of vinegar or other acid. However, flavors will intensify over time.

DRIZZLING OIL is another technique; it is less common in the West and is often called pantry pickles. This technique is more prominent in Asia. The most popular oil-cured items are probably the myriads of pickled bamboo shoots in China. Most of the pickles in India are comprised of watery ingredients such as limes and mangoes, and for them, the possibility of spoilage increases. Often cured in salt to reduce water content, a paste of chili and other ingredients is often used to coat them. The heat-causing capsaicin in the pepper is usually strong enough to ward off unsuspecting unhealthy bacteria. However, just because they are highly spiced and laden with chili is not enough to totally avoid spoilage. Therefore a slick of oil on the top of a bottle or jar can provide an airtight seal.

FERMENTATION is known to pickle connoisseurs; and they know all good things take time. Fermented pickles such as kimchi or Chinese versions of sauerkraut take weeks or months at a time to finish. Lactic acid is often a by-product of the gases emitted from the process which actually preserve the vegetable. For newcomers, strong kimchi or Chinese 'stinky tofu' is not always appreciated, but they do offer complex and wonderful dimensions to the palate throughout the meal.

SIMPLE SOURING is used in traditional Beijing cabbage pickles. They are just as popular today as ever—often a garnish or starter in Chinese restaurants, where many re called pao cai. Often served with a shaving of carrot for extra sweetness they can also come salted with Szechuan peppercorns. The long thin Japanese cucumber is easier to find and can be used in making ma la style pickles, usually with a hint of charred pepper or deep fried pepprcorns to give the pickle a subtle smoky taste from the wok. Often, these pickles require refrigeration and incorporate the use of vinegar (usually distilled white, rice, or cider). Homemade vinegar should be avoided unless the percentage of acidity can be determined. Commercially made vinegars often have five percent acidity (50 grain) whereas older recipes were determined with vinegars at seven percent (70 grain). Why the fuss? If there is insufficient acidity, harmful pathogens could develop. If the solution is too sour, increase the sugar rather than dilute with water unless a recipe calls for it.

The existing risk factor of bacteria in the form of mold growths could eventually reduce acid levels. Over time, this low acid level could dramatically introduce the wicked spores of botulism at worse case scenario. But often enough, sufficient acid exists to avoid any potential hazards.

A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR is common in Asia in the form of palm, rock, granulated, or brown sugars as well those that are unrefined. his is completely different than those sugars traditionally found in the West for pickling. Natural sugars from fruits such as plums or mangos are also contributors of sweetness.

The use of brown sugar will affect the flavor and color of a lighter product as well. Sugar substitutes should be avoided. Some pickles such as those found in Southeast Asia are similar to American gherkins, pickled with a high-sugar solution producing a syrupy result that is so sweet, it is almost candied.

PICKLE PURITY PRECAUTIONS are important. Water has a lasting effect, so make sure the water being used is clean and pure. Although many pickles are canned in Asia, the traditional pickle pot is most commonly an earthenware vessel with a heavy lid. Despite that, the boiling-canning method is often used in commercial production and strongly advised at all times. Pasteurization is always a safer bet, eliminating unwanted would-be spoilers in the forms of yeasts, molds, and bacteria. As an added bonus, a vacuum seal is created allowing for long term storage. And don’t forget to sterilize the jars; a very basic, yet important step—boil them clean. Modern hygienic sanitation methods should be observed.

AN IMPORTANT ADVISORY: According to the USDA, recipes with equal parts of vinegar to water are generally considered safe. Avoid using copper, zinc, iron, brass, or galvanized metal utensils to avoid contamination of the solution. For a list of USDA Federal Safety Guidelines on pickling, go to: http://eesc. orst. edu/agcomwebfile/edmat/PNW355.pdf (Acrobat reader required).
Lillian Chou is a Chinese-American whose passions for food drive her occupational hazards. After working for years in restaurants she evolved from the kitchen towards editorial work involving food to include food styling, writing, and photography. After living in Asia for eight years she returned to the U.S. to present the series: 'Chefs in the City (UK Living)' and she has written for 'New Asia Cuisine,' 'Wine Scene,' and 'Art Culinaire.'
Bao Cai
1/2 head of cabbage, trimmed and cut into two-inch squares
1/2 large daikon, peeled and sliced
1/4 large carrot, peeled and sliced
3 Tablespoons sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup rice-wine vinegar
2 slices fresh peeled ginger
Preparation for the simplified method:
1. Mix all three vegetables and sprinkle them with one tablespoon of salt. Stir well and allow to rest for half an hour, then squeeze the vegetables to remove any excess water. 2. Add the rest of the ingredients and a cup of cold boiled water, then refrigerate for one or two days, drain and serve.
Preparation when reusing the liquid one or two more times:
1. Follow step one above.
2. Boil one cup of water, remove from heat and stir in remaining sugar and salt. Allow to cool and add rice vinegar
3. Put prepared vegetables in a two-quart jar, Pour liquid over them and cover. Set aside in a cool dark place overnight. Refrigerate the next day; where it can stay for up to two or three days.
4. When reusing the liquid for a new batch of prepared vegetables, pour reserved liquid over them and keep the pickles refrigerated at all times.
Sichuan Pickled Cucumbers
6 cucumbers, kirby or another pickling variety works best
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
2 Tablespoons corn or peanut oil
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper, roasted and cooled
1 teaspoon chili-bean paste
1 Tablespoon black vinegar
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1. Cut cucumbers in quarters the log way and the cut each of these into one to two-inch pieces.
2. Mix cucumbers with salt and set aside for two hours. Then rinse and dry them with paper towels.
3. Heat corn oil in a wok or fry pan and fry the Sichuan pepper for one minute, turn off the heat and allow to cool for ten minutes. Discard the peppers, add all the other ingredients to the oil, mix well, and cover and refrigerate for two to four days, then serve.
Chinese-style Kimchi
1 pound napa cabbage, cut into half-inch slices
1 Tablespoon salt
1 scallion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Mix cabbage and salt and set aside overnight. Then rinse and squeeze dry.
2. Mix all the other ingredients and put into a glass jar or covered bowl and refrigerate for two days before using.
Pickled Cabbage, Sichuan-style
1/2 head Napa or Savoy Cabbage, trimmed and cut into two-inch squares
3 Tablespoons Kosher or sea salt
1 Tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns, roasted and cooled
2 Tablespooons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
3 dried red chili pappers
2 slices fresh ginger, peeled
1. Put cabbage in a large bowl and srinkle with one tablespoon salt. Mix well and allow to rest for one hour. Squeeze cabbage to remove any excess water.
2. Boil two quasrts of water, remove from the heat and dissolve remaining salt and sugar in this water. Then add Sichuan peppercorns and allow to cool. Then add rice wine, chilies, and ginger.
3. Put cabbage in a two-quart jar and pour liquid over it and cover. Set aside in a cool dark place overnight. The refrigerate and serve in a day or two.
Note: For those who want to reuse the liquid, bring it to the boil, add two teaspoons salt, and cool. Then add two teaspoons rice wine. Put new batch of vegetables in a cleaned two-quart jar and continue to follow Step 3, above.

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