Probiotic Pickles of China

Sichuan Pickles on a Plate

Probiotic food is all the rage at the moment. In food and health magazines, blogs and newspapers, everywhere you turn there are articles singing the praises of tempeh, or extolling the benefit of kombucha in keeping our digestive systems healthy. Television commercials advertise the miraculous power of yogurt whose live cultures keep us all regular. Even sauerkraut and kimchi have been enlisted to manage the balance of bio functions in our gastrointestinal tracts. So are there probiotic foods in Chinese cooking?

As it turns out there are plenty of them and the Chinese have known about these beneficial effect for millenniums. Probiotic foods are products of natural processes that result from beneficial yeast and bacteria breaking down our foods. These organisms are believed to be valuable in human digestive systems. I recently chatted with my friend Peter D’Aquino, an acupuncturist and Asian herbal medicine specialist, about the Chinese philosophy of food therapy. Something Peter said piqued my interest. He said, “The Chinese rarely if ever consume foods that have not been cooked or naturally processed.” It was something I never paid much attention to but it’s true, I did not grow up eating lots of salad or raw foods. Peter went on to illustrate how soy fermentation, meat curing and vegetable pickling really are just a few ways of naturally preprocessing foods before consuming them. He likened the pickling jar to our stomachs and the pickling process to the beginning of the digestive process. What a revelation that was.

Sichuan pickles ready to eat

Pickling is one of the most common and practical ways of making probiotic foods at home. Like the kimchi-loving Koreans, some Chinese families in Asia still make a variety of pickles at home. One type of pickle is made by a process of fermentation that is similar to Korean kimchi or European sauerkraut. Vegetables are submerged in brine and allowed to ferment for a period of time. Known as lacto-fermentation, the process creates acid and lowers the pH level making it possible to store the pickles for an extended period of time.

Making Sichuan pickles in a jar

A special Chinese pickling jar is available for this purpose and I bought one last year to start making pickles. The traditional jar is made from glazed earthenware and has a trough at the top around the opening. (There are modern versions of these jars in clear glass available in the U.S.) The cover sits in the trough, which is filled with water during fermentation. Gases produced by the fermentation escape from the jar and make a gurgling sound as they pass through the water. Because the water does not allow outside air to return to the jar, this acts as an ingenious way of reducing the possibility of contamination during fermentation.

All kinds of vegetables are regularly used for pickling in this way. Napa cabbage is common in the North (just like kimchi in Korea), and in the South regular cabbage is used along with many different root vegetables. For this post I am including a Sichuan version of pickles that include cabbage, daikon radish, green radish, carrots and chilies. Green radish is often available in Chinatown, but it can be omitted or substituted with other root vegetables. Kohlrabi is excellent for this recipe and so is turnip. So just get enough vegetables to fill the jar.

Filling up a Chinese pickle jar

Sichuan pickles from a jar

Absent the Chinese pickling jar, a large plastic container with lid works just as well. The only difference is that the lid has to be opened slightly every day to allow the pickle gas to escape. If the gas is bled properly the result should be the same. After a seven to ten-day period of fermentation the pickles can be removed from the jar, transferred to a clean container with tight lid, and stored in the refrigerator. The pickles will last a few months stored in this manner.

Pickling at home is a dying art in modern Chinese family, but it doesn’t have to be. It is a very simple method and can produce some of the most delicious and healthiest probiotic foods. I make them at home and I encourage you to take a serious look at making them.

  • Sichuan Fermented Pickles (四川泡菜)

    • Active time: 30 minutes
    • 1 pound cabbage, cut into large pieces of about 2-inch squares
    • 8 ounces daikon radish, cut into strips of about ½-inch thick
    • 8 ounces green radish, cut into strips of about ½-inch thick
    • 8 ounces carrots, cut into strips of about ½-inch thick
    • 3 ounces ginger, cut into ¼-inch thick slices
    • 2 red longhorn chili peppers
    • 2 green longhorn chili peppers
    • Pickling Spice
    • 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
    • 6 star anise
    • 10 dried red chilies
    • 4 bay leaves
    • Pickling Brine
    • 1 cup white rice wine
    • ¼ cup salt
    • 2 quarts water, boiled and cooled to room temperature
    1. Thoroughly clean a one-gallon Chinese pickle jar. To sterilize the pickle jar pour hot boiling water into the jar, swirl the hot water around then discard.
    2. Combine the brine ingredients together and mix well, then add all the spice ingredients to the brine.
    3. Put all the vegetables inside of the jar pushing them down tightly.
    4. Pour the brine and spice mixture into the jar and make sure that the brine completely covers all the vegetables.
    5. Pour water in the trough of the pickling jar to about half full. Cover the jar and let stand in a cool location of the kitchen for seven to ten days. The longer the vegetables are fermented the sourer they become.
    6. Beginning on the seventh day, periodically remove the cover and sample the vegetables. When the sourness of the vegetables is to your liking then remove them from the jar and store refrigerated in a clean container with lid.
    7. Cut the vegetables into small pieces of about ¼-inch thick before serving.
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12 Comments

  1. jjmarcian@gmail.com
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    First. . Thank you for so generously sharing your time, knowledge, and recipes. And, for creating this very practical and accessible site!

    Is there a Chinese (in English) equivalent to the “Larousse Gastronomique”?

    • Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your kind words about Red Cook. The closest I can think of as classic Chinese gastronomic work would be Yuan Mei’s “Suiyuan Shidan.” (隨園食單) Loosely translated the title means “Culinary Record of Suiyuan.” The work was written at the height of the Qing Dynasty in 1792 by a retired Qing era poet and gourmet Yuan Mei. Suiyuan is the name of the Yuan family compound. The book contains detail information about food preparation, processing and preservation as well as more than 300 recipes. I am not aware of a complete translation of the work. However there are pieces of translation on sections of the book on the Internet.

  2. Posted November 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    In 1987 we arrived in the northern Chinese town of Changchun at night. It was October, the harvest season for napa cabbage, and on every street we saw trucks filled with cabbages on their way to be turned into pickled cabbage. There were also big piles of cabbages under the street lights on many corners and cabbages on some of the balconies of apartment buildings.
    Thank you for an excellent post.

    • Posted November 11, 2013 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

      Yes, napa cabbage is a major crop in Northern China. The same pickling technique can be used for pickling napa cabbage, just like kimchi in Korea. I’m glad you enjoy the post.

  3. anthony drexel
    Posted March 12, 2014 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    thank you for sharing your knowledge of pickling. i have two questions. is there a more common name for green radish? and where can i buy an earthenware jar.

    • Posted March 22, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Hi Anthony,

      I am not familiar with other names for green radish. It is only one of many possible ingredients for pickling. You can use kohlrabi or turnip as well. Enjoy the recipe.

      Kian

    • Pam Batchelor
      Posted April 14, 2014 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      I just bought a 5liter fermenting pot in beautiful Polish pottery from Amazon. I am ready to buy a second one now. These Polish pots are the water seal models like the Chinese pots, but I was not able to find a sturdy Chinese pot. I am very happy with my Polish pots but I am making Chinese pickled vegetable recipes.

      • Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Congratulations on your new purchase! There is no reason why you cannot make the same Chinese pickles in this Polish pot. The science and technique behind making these pickles are the same. So enjoy making the pickles. Chinese or otherwise.

  4. M Gao
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recipe! What kind of “white rice wine” do you use? What are alternatives if I can’t find that type of rice wine?

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      Hi M Gao,

      Thanks for visiting Red Cook. I’m glad you are interested in making this recipe. You can substitute “white rice wine” with vodka. But dilute the vodka with equal amount of water before using in the recipe. Have fun cooking!

      Kian

  5. M Gao
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the vodka tip. But what style of rice wine do you recommend…shaoxing, mirin, baijiu, mijiu, saki? And within that style, any specific brands you’d suggest? Some common brands of shaoxing sold in the U.S. are horrible.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      For the kitchen I would use “cooking” wine found in grocery stores. They usually have less alcohol content compared to the regular Chinese wine found in liquor stores. The “white rice wine” is a cooking wine you can find in Chinese grocery stores. It is a diluted and less expensive version of “baijiu.” Another “baijiu” for cooking is known as “san cheng chew” and commonly used by Southern Chinese chefs. Any of the “baijiu” cooking wine would work well with this recipe. Shaoxing is a version of “yellow rice wine,” which does not work well here.

      Just for your information… Chinese wine is a misnomer. They are really distilled spirit. Most of them have alcohol content closer to vodka, although “yellow wine” usually has lower alcohol content. You’re also right that there are very few good quality Chinese wine available in the U.S. I can’t seem to find the artisan brands here. The “cooking” wine available in grocery stores are not meant for direct consumption so don’t even try to drink them.

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