榨菜: What is it and how do you make it?

榨菜 (zha cai) literally means “pressed vegetable” in Chinese. Along with the mustard greens, this was the other pickled vegetable that the woman at the market gave to me yesterday. After doing a bit of research, I found that zha cai is actually part of the same brassica juncea species as the mustard greens that I blogged about yesterday! To make zha cai, however, only the knobby stem of the plant is used.

zha cai at the market
zha cai at the market

While this pickled food originates from the Sichuan province (as most spicy Chinese foods usually do!), I was reading today on Fuschia Dunlop’s blog that zha cai is such a staple throughout much of China that the Chinese government uses its sales to measure fluctuations in the urban population, because it is a food that people generally eat regardless of their income level. Whoa!

That night, the grandmother I am staying with chopped up the zha cai into small pieces and cooked it up with some Chinese zucchini, using the slightest bit of olive oil to cook them until the zucchini was soft. Even the smallest chunks of the zha cai packed a huge punch of flavor! Zha cai can be eaten in a variety of dishes– today the graduate student I am working with told me that he usually would eat zha cai for breakfast as a condiment for either rice or porridge.

While the grandmother I’m staying with said that everyone in the city buys zha cai, she also said that almost everyone in the countryside knows how to make it on their own.

So, how do you make it? First, wash the knobby stem of the mustard green and cut away any rough patches of skin. Next, roll the stem in salt until it begins to expel water and is soaked in its own juices. After salting for a few days , the stem is rinsed and packed tightly into jars or pots (hence the name, pressed vegetable!). At this point, I believe that the vendor told me she added spices after fermenting, but every other source I’ve read says that the spicy hot chili powder used to flavor them is added before putting them in the jars to ferment, which makes more sense to me. In any case, the stems will stay in the jars for a few months fermenting, and can be kept fermenting for up to a year, which is how long the vendor I talked to said that she fermented hers for. After that, the stems can be chopped up and eaten! Apparently they can stay outside of the refrigerator for around two weeks, but after that, it’s best to put them in a cold place.

It’s amazing how much flavor only a tiny bite of zha cai has– imagine the pickle-y-est pickle you’ve ever eaten, and multiply that by ten. It seems as though most of the Chinese pickles I’ve come across are like this– because they are so imbued with salt and spice, they are eaten more as a condiment or relish. For example, my breakfast this morning consisted of rice porridge, soy sauce-fermented black cucumber, and spicy pickled green beans, which seems to be quite a typical breakfast (at least here in Hangzhou.)

While brassica juncea may not be on sale at your local farmer’s market or Stop and Shop, I encourage you to try the methods I’ve described in the last two posts to make your own pickled vegetables! For more information on how to make vegetables, I thought that this  was a great step-by-step guide (this particular recipe is for sauerkraut), as well as a good explanation of some of the health benefits of eating lacto-fermented vegetables.

As always, email me at lillian.g.childress@yale.edu with any further questions, concerns, etcetera!

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