Times of scarcity gave rise to preservation society
March 08, 2019
Everlasting Flavors is a series profiling the condiments, sauces and spices that define Chinese cooking.
The recent hit TV series “Memories of Peking” centered on one of the humblest traditional Chinese delicacies, jiangcai, or vegetables pickled in sauce.
From sweet tender cucumbers to flavorful radish shreds, these pickles with an unimpressive appearance are indispensable to Chinese cuisine.
Paired with plain congee, they make simple Chinese comfort meals that can warm the stomach and heart at any time. The extra flavorful pickles can also cheer the appetite especially in the warmer months. Small plates of different pickles are often served as starters before main dishes in restaurants.
And while traveling away from home, bringing small vacuum packs of pickles can make one feel better instantly because the strong flavor gives the palate a much-needed boost.
One should note that vegetables pickled with large quantities of salt are to be avoided by people with high blood pressure or other health conditions that need a limit on sodium intake.
Jiangcai, or any other kind of Chinese pickles, was created as a means to preserve vegetables during a time of food scarcity, such as the lack of fresh produce in wintertime.
The basic process of making jiangcai is to cure the vegetables with lots of salt, then soak and rinse with water to remove excess salt before pickling them in soy bean sauce or soy sauce.
While salt extends the life of fresh produce, the foundation of jiangcai is the jiang, or sauce.
In the first few episodes of “Memories of Peking,” the making of soy bean paste sauce was demonstrated in great detail.
The first step is shangti, which is steaming the soy beans in giant bamboo steamers until they are fully cooked. Then, the soy beans are mixed with flour. The third step is called caihuangzi, that is to step on the beans to crush and blend them.
After the beans are prepped, it’s time to let the fermentation do its magic. In an environment of 25 to 30 degrees Celsius, the beans are turned daily to allow even fermentation and they’ll be covered in greenish yellow mould. These beans are called quzi. The beans are sun-dried until fully dried.
Next, the beans are mixed with seasoned salt water and placed in large jars which are turned regularly to ensure an even flavor.
The best season to make soy bean paste sauce is summer because of the high temperatures and strong sunlight.
When pickling vegetables in the sauce, a crucial step is called daba (打耙), a physically challenging task that brings the vegetables in the bottom to the top using a rake-like tool to ensure every bite has an even flavor.
The traditional Beijing lifestyle emphasizes going to the right place for the best quality products, hence there’s the saying of “stir-fry of Feng Ze Yuan, jiangcai of Liubiju, roast duck of Quanjude and medicines from Tong Ren Tang.”
The craftsmanship of making pickled vegetables from Liubiju, the renowned and oldest Beijing jiangcai and sauce brand, was recognized as national intangible cultural heritage in 2008. It’s said to have originated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
As a time-honored brand, Liubiju sources all ingredients from fixed production areas and controls every step of the process to ensure consistent qualities.
Jiangcai can be made with almost any vegetable — radishes, lotus roots, garlic sprouts, asparagus lettuce and so on.
In northern China, the Beijing-style jiangcai dominates, while in the south the representative variety is the Yangzhou style. The flavors of the two styles vary — the jiangcai is saltier in Beijing and sweeter in Yangzhou.
Jiangrugua, or pickled tender cucumber, is an iconic jiangcai dish from Beijing. It is similar to the pickle or gherkin in Western cuisine but has a different flavor — sweet, crunchy with a unique fragrance of fermented soy bean.
Jiangbabaocai, the eight-treasure pickle, is another signature jiangcai made of eight main ingredients: cucumber, kohlrabi, lotus root, cowpea, ganlu (tubers of Stachys affinis, also known as baotacai, pagoda vegetable, for its shape), disun (Lycopus lucidus Turcz), walnuts, almonds, peanuts and ginger shreds.
While Liubiju is the star in the north, Sanhe Simei (three harmonies and four beauties) is the prominent time-honored pickle brand of the south.
Yangzhou-style jiangcai also has dishes such as tender cucumber, ganlu and radish. The signatures of this style are the rich flavor of the sauce and balance of sweetness and saltiness. The pickles must also be crunchy and tender.
Not all jiangcai require the use of soy bean paste sauce or soy sauce.
Leek flower sauce is another unique Chinese jiangcai. The green sauce is made of the leek flowers in the fall season, which are finely chopped to release all the flavors and then seasoned with salt and liquor. The flowers are left in the jar to ferment.
Fresh leeks are known for their fragrant and chive-like flavor, while leek flower sauce is extra intense and quite garlicky.
Traditionally, leek flower sauce is paired with mutton. It’s a must-have condiment when enjoying Beijing-style mutton hot pot, and a great companion to noodles, buns and pancakes.
The sauce can also last a long time when sealed in jars and stored in the fridge. You can drizzle a little bit of sesame oil when serving the condiment as a flavorful side.
Tangsuan is a sweet garlic pickle made of newly harvested garlic. After soaking the garlic in water, they are cured in brine with lots of sugar, some salt and little bit of vinegar. Then, you need to be patient and wait for at least a month — stirring in the first few days so the garlic is evenly pickled.
The pickled garlic is served with congee, soups and noodle, including mutton and flour pancake pieces soup from Shaanxi cuisine.
Other Chinese pickles
Zhacai is a variety of vegetable pickle made from the root of the Chinese mustard plant (brassica juncea). It’s more popular in southern provinces and cities such as Zhejiang and Chongqing, and the most famous kind is the Fuling zhacai from the Fuling region of Chongqing.
The technique used to make zhacai is to reduce the water content in the fresh vegetable by pressing and drying until it’s less than half of its original weight. Then it’s rubbed in salt and cured to remove more water. Seasoning and spices are added before the vegetables are sealed and stored in cool, dry places for several months.
Zhacai can be eaten as a flavorful side dish, or be used in cooking soups and noodles as it can intensify the umami taste, such as the very classic recipe of zhacai and pork soup noodles.
Paocai, on the other hand, is a fresher variety. It’s made by simply pickling seasonal vegetables in a simple brine of salt, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, yellow rice wine, chili peppers and sugar. It takes a week to make paocai, as the vegetables only need to soak up the flavors of the brine. No fermentation is needed.
The paocai brine can be used repeatedly to make batches of vegetables. The longer it’s used, the better the flavor.