What Sybaritica’s Blog & Katz’s China Trip Embed and Embody

For readers of this blog who are not aware, Sybaritica’s blog is a wonderful resource for those of you who are living in North America and are interested in adding Chinese fermented and preserved ingredients to your cooking. He is makes posts about his newest restaurant explorations, his newest experiments with preserved ingredients, and the recipes that these projects inspire.

The day before yesterday, I returned to China for the first time in three years. Having experimented with fermentation and preservation both in China for 5-6 years and from afar for 3+, I was excited to be back on the mainland where I could visit old friends, explore grocery stores, and try new restaurants. But as I was deplaning, I saw an alert in my inbox about Sybaritica’s latest post, and I think its subject line exemplifies what makes his blog so useful for people living in North America.

Pork with Salted Radish and Black Bean

He’s making food with the ingredients he has at his disposal, and sharing that process with his readers. I find the hybrid and transnational character of this moment in food history particularly exciting. So, its with great respect I’d like to thank Sybaritics for consistently documenting his practice. Perhaps more people in North America will become familiar with ingredients like salted radish (菜脯 cài​pú) and fermented soybeans beans (豆豉 douchi).

This reminds me of an important issue that is raised by Sandor Katz in a series of videos he made about his recent trip to China. In this series, The People’s Republic of Fermentation, the fifth installment focuses on how knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the next. The episode, Mijiu Alcohol, Distilled Knowledge, is divided into three segments. The first segment discusses the establishment of modern education in the Dong villages of Guizhou. The second segment shifts the focus from the children in their schools to the children in their homes, making fermented taro cakes with the visiting foreigners and their own mothers. The third segment focuses on distilled rice wines, where Katz emphasizes how knowledge– in this case the fermentation of foods– is embedded in social networks and embodied through practice. In Katz words, these wines are “far more than just a drink” but “an important social coagulent.”  The very fact we can enjoy these foods today reflect how much these production techniques are “essential cultural information.”  The transmission of culture is embedded and embodied in the Dong social world and the bodies of those who make and ingest these foods.

This blog is embedded in the social world of letters and is indebted to consistent writers like Sandor Katz and Sybaritica and the many others who have shared my interest in the diverse traditions of Chinese fermented and preserved foods. Much thanks!





Recipe Translations: Yunnan Mustard Greens from Kunming

When I start fermenting a batch of mustard greens, I use a simple backslopping method. I scoop out a cup of “old crock water” (laotanshui), which I wrote about previously. These method is considered a wet fermentation (shiyan) since we’re using old crock water and brine.

Today, I want to talk about a dry sour fermented mustard green, a dry fermentation (ganyan).

I been thinking about how to ferment mustard greens for over 6 years now. Today, my curiosity got the best of me. I searched Chinese-language blogs and bulletin boards to see what others have written about how they start their mustard green suancai ferments. There wasn’t a shortage of recipes out there. If you look to Chinese language sources, there are many many people writing about their own personal and regional variations of this delicious fermented ingredient. Each time I go looking for recipes, I can’t but help but be reminded how common it is to pickle in China but also how these techniques are specific to their regional traditions and food systems.

I found one post on a Tianya BBS thread (Chinese) that describes a more obscure technique from Kunming. I’ve posted my translation and the original text below.



Yunnan suancai is extremely distinctive. It only is pickled using the 2-foot-tall kucai (苦菜 bitter vegetable) that grows so abundantly on the outskirts of Kunming. It’s sour and spicy, and you can store it for a long time without it going bad.

Recipe for Yunnan Suancai:
Big mustard greens (xuelihong is an acceptable substitute, if unavailable)
After purchasing the greens and washing them wel, let them dry. Previously, I would dry greens in the sun for a day in order to make them wilt. Nowadays, I think its okay to just let them dry for a day indoors. Put some fresh hot chilis together with the mustard greens as they dry. After drying, finely chop the ingredients. Then, take some salt (kosher salt or course salt) and forcefully massage it into the ingredients. If you draw out water, discard it. Next, you add Sichuan peppercorns (huajiao 花椒), dry chili flakes, star anise, slices of licorice root (optional), brown sugar,  slices of young ginger root, some higher proof baijiu, salt (adjust according to your own preferences, but know that it will only get sour if you use more salt than you would when cooking). Knead all the ingredients together and pack them in a jar, sealing it for a month. Once you see the suancai turn yellow, you’ll know its ready. A yellowish green is the best.


Original text:


大芥菜(MUSTARD GREEN),实在没有雪里荭也行.
买回来洗干净后晾干,以前是拿出去晒一天,把它晒蔫.现在就放室内晾一天就行.新鲜辣的红辣椒一起晒了以后切碎,先用Kosher Salt或粗盐使劲揉!如果揉出水了把水倒掉.然后加花椒,干辣椒碎,八角,甘草片(可选),红糖粉,生酱片,度数高点的白酒,盐(自己调味道,比平时吃菜稍微咸一点腌菜才会酸),揉匀了装罐密封一个月,等看到酸菜颜色变成黄色的就好了.黄绿黄绿的颜色最好.


This recipe is fascinating because it is incomplete as a “how-to” document. The person who wrote this recipe has all sorts of knowledge that hasn’t been written down. The author clearly understands a lot more about Yunnan suancai than what has been put down in ink. Just imagine what it would be like to follow this recipe.

It raises a lot of questions doesn’t it? Here’s an incomplete list of the questions that might be asked that would have made the recipe more of a “how-to” document.

  • What makes a good quality kucai or dajiecai?
  • Is there a difference between spring and fall crops?
  • Are these greens the same as the big-leaf qingcai (大叶青菜) in Guizhou and Sichuan?
  • What kind of chilis do they use in Kunming?
  • What is the ratio (by weight) of salt to the mustard greens and chilis?
  • How could I substitute regular ginger for young ginger?
  • Do I need to grind the licorice root?
  • How much baijiu can I add?
  • How much should I add?
  • What kind of vessels do you use?
  • How do I know my “yellow” or “yellow green” is the same as your “yellow” and “yellowish green”?
  • Will there be CO2 build up in my canister that I need to release?

When we write recipes, so much is left unsaid. We don’t talk about where our ingredients comes from. We don’t talk about the markets and gardens. We don’t talk about how it was grown or processed. So much of this is a given.

In this case, if you live in Kunming, these ingredients are part of the food system. This author can rely on his food system to provide these ingredients in way that allows this pickling culture to continue. As a document, this recipe sparks the imagination. Just think: having read this recipe, if you walked through a wet market or made a trip to Kunming’s wholesale vegetable market (王旗营蔬菜批发市场), how differently would you look at the goods for sale?

Summertime Larou 腊肉? (Part 1)

Larou (腊肉), better known in the west by its Cantonese pronunciation lap yuk, is made from inch-thick strips of pork belly. These bacon-look-a-likes are brined and marinated in a pot or crock in the cool late-fall temperatures of southern China. After the salt and spices are properly absorbed, the meat is air-cured and sometimes smoked. Unlike air-dried lachang (腊肠; Cantonese lapcheong) which use curing salts, larou is made with only salt.

In an era before climate control, the most critical ingredient was the season itself. Like the regions in Europe and America known for of pork preservation, late fall and winter is when nature provides the ideal temperatures for processing. Slaughtering and processing become safer. Once temperatures drop below 50, brining is possible: cool enough to prevent spoilage but warm enough to absorb salt quickly. Too close to freezing (like the refridgerator) and brining takes much more time. Before central heating, ambient temperatures in the home would be in 50s and humidity would be high enough to produce a decent product.

Larou has a different flavor profile in different provinces. Homemade larou can be found in a belt stretching across southern and southwestern China, primarily through the provinces of Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangdong, but also in Yunnan, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Hubei. People in the countryside do more household preserving than city dwellers, but larou production can be found everywhere south of the Yangtze. A few places to the north as well. The basic processing steps are largely the same, much like the continuum between salt pork and hams.

There are many good recipes for larou on the internet. At From Belly to Bacon, Mark shares his experience making lap yuk in his suburban Chicago garage. He air-dried his meat for 2-3 weeks in a “cool, dry place.” Takes great photos too. Over at EdiblyAsian, Kroocrew hung his meat in the sun for 3-4 days. Back in 2011, the then New Zealand based Malaysian expat Yin experimented with making lap yuk in the summer time. John of Sybaritica fame is probably the first person to make Chinese-style larou so far north. He lives in Iqaluit. Its great to see the English language internet sharing experiments with Chinese preserved meat.

While most larou is made in the winter, smoke opens up four seasons of possibility. There aren’t any English language recipes that explain how to incorporate smoke in this process. For that matter, I didn’t find anything in Chinese. So I did an experiment, and though there were many moldy, dried sticks of meat:

Cured with pink salts, but 70 degrees was just too hot to keep the mold off.

All methods that omit cold-smoking grew white and off-color patches

But one method incorporating smoke produced this result:


This method resembles techniques used by people in Sichuan and western Hunan. But these were made in the Atlanta suburbs. More about the failures and this ultimate success to come!


Lost in Translation: “Old sour water makes the best pickled mustard greens”

One of the most elegant recipes for lacto-fermenting mustard greens, requires an ingredient you probably don’t have. Old sour water.

Sounds disgusting right? It’s not. Old sour water (老酸水), also known as old crock water (老坛水), is the highly acidic liquid saved from previous ferments.

In early 2013, a women in a Guiyang market taught me to how to lacto-ferment mustard greens. In Sichuan and Guizhou, mustard greens are not called jiecai (芥菜) or xuelihong (雪里蕻)Instead, they are known as qingcai (青菜). Auntie Zhang has been using qingcai to make “suancai” (酸菜) for over 30 years, and she swears, “old sour water makes the best pickled mustard greens.” This is her recipe.

You will need your very own “old sour water”. When Auntie Zhang first taught me this recipe, she gifted me a plastic coke bottle filled with her own mustard green ferment juice for my Beijing-based pickle experiments. Here in the states, I’ve found sauerkraut juice (the kind teeming with lactic-acid bacteria) works as a good substitute for your first batch of pickled mustard greens. My first batch tasted a bit like baijiu and Sichuanese peppercorn, but by the second or third ferment, it smelled and tasted like Guiyang Auntie’s pickled mustard greens. I used my kraut juice from the North China sauerkraut, refrigerating it in glass jars these past 4-5 months. If you have a cup of sauerkraut juice in your fridge, you’re ready for this recipe.

If you don’t have old crock water, check out Taiwan Duck’s method to start from scratch.

Length of ferment:
1 day to months

Large sink or basin for washing greens
Kitchen scale
1-liter canning jar (I use Le Parfait style flip-top jars)
Small glass bowl or porcelain tea cup

Step 1: Sun-dry the mustard greens until limp

1kg Chinese mustard greens (typical varieties available in Atlanta’s Asian groceries include large leaf, small leaf, and xuelihong)

1. Wash the greens. Use clean water to wash your mustard greens of dirt and debris. Remove any damaged leaves.
2. Dry the greens until limp. Hang the mustard greens on a clothes line in full-sun from morning to night. If not limp by evening, leave out over night and through to the second day. I’ve found they become limp and lose 50-60% of their weight with only one day in intense sunlight.
3. Inspect the greens. Remove any yellow or dehydrated leaves.

Step 2: Make taomishui 淘米水 (water from rinsing rice)

4 cups water1/4-1/2 jasmine rice

1. Place rice in a bowl.
2. Pour in water, stir. Use your hand to cloud the water, moving the rice about until the water is a milky white. Remove the rice and set aside the now cloudy water for the next step.

Step 3: Pack the canning jar

limp mustard greens
1 cup old crock water
3-4 cups taomishui
2 tablespoons salt

1. Pack the jar with mustard greens.
2. Pour the old crock water into the jar.
3. Pour the taomishui into the jar. Stop pouring, approximately 1 inch from the jar’s lip.
4. Add the salt. Close the jar, sealing it and shake to mix the ingredients. Reopen the jar.
5. Submerge the greens. Place the small bowl or tea cup on top of the mustard greens to keep submerged.
6. Close and seal the jar.

Step 4: Ferment!
1. Place in a cool dark place.
2. After 1-2 days, taste the greens for level of sourness. I’ve left them on the counter up to a week before moving the jar to the refrigerator for storage



Lacto-fermented mustard greens are used in soups and stir-fries. A quick search of the English language internet came up with these results:

For those of you with Fuchsia Dunlop’s books, don’t forget about her chicken soup and fish soup in “Land of Plenty” and her fava bean recipe in “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.” All three recipes use lacto-fermented mustard greens. When you’re improving a fried rice or a noodle soup, this version of suancai makes a great addition. Auntie Zhang is partial to suancai in fish soups.

And don’t forget to save your old sour water!

Salt-Cured Eggs: Chicken, Duck or Goose

The first time I ate salt-cured eggs, (xiandan, 咸蛋) was at a hotel breakfast in Jiangsu. The eggs were served sliced into wedges as a side dish for rice porridge. I was expecting a boiled egg, so their texture was uncanny. Salt-cured duck eggs are the most common, but both chicken and goose eggs are also seen.

My salt-cured egg recipes come from two Sichuanese people, one from Chongqing, the other from Zigong. Their methods for wet-curing (brining in a crock) and dry-curing are both acceptable ways to make a good xiandan. Dry-curing is simple; the eggs are alcohol-soaked and salt-encrusted, left to cure in the osmotic magic of a sealed plastic bag). The brining method requires a 20% salt brine and has been written about in English on both Madame Huang’s blog and The Waitakere Redneck’s Kitchen blog, both which match up with my Sichuanese friends’ recipes. Compared with dry-curing, this method promises endless customization and experimentation with Sichuanese peppercorns, star anise, cassia bark or other spice combinations.

Today, I want to share their lesser-known method for dry-curing.

Duck eggs and goose eggs are likely not in your neighborhood grocery store. Even Chinese or Pan-Asian grocers rarely carry fresh eggs other than those of chickens. But duck eggs are getting easier to find through local farms. Using the internet, I connected with Scott at 180 Degree Farm south of Atlanta, who pastures geese and ducks for egg production. There are likely farmers near you doing the same thing.

Dry-Brined Duck Eggs – 干腌咸鸭蛋

Length of cure:
10-25 days depending on temperature

Two bowls
Small plastic bag with seal

12 duck eggs
A small bowl of high-alcohol baijiu, gaoliangjiu, laobaigan. (Kinmen Gaoliang or Beijing Erguotuo are common, but even vodka can be used as a substitute)
A small bowl of salt

1)Clean the eggs of any debris
2) Roll your first egg in a small bowl of baijiu to coat the shell
3) Take the alcohol-moistened egg and roll it in the salt. Roll until the entire shell is covered in salt.
4) Gingerly lower the salt-encrusted egg into a plastic bag and seal it ensuring all air is removed. Pack this bagged egg in yet another sealable bag.
5) Place in refridgerator for 25-30 days, or room temperature for 10-15.
6) Once cured, boil for 5 minutes to prepare for eating.

70-80g duck eggs required 7-8g salt to coat.
140g goose eggs needed only 10-11g for a full coating.


Beijingers Prepare for Winter: Chinese Cabbage

Why do Beijingers stockpile vegetables?

Chinese cabbage piled high in October

Winter is over. A couple weeks ago, I used the last of our dongbei suancai (Northeast China’s sauerkraut). My father and I used the suancai to stir-fry pork and cellophane noodles (suancai fensi, 酸菜粉丝), a “dongbei” (Northeast China) staple. My wife’s cousin from Taiwan inspired a suancai hotpot meal. We emptied our crock, and with these two meals, the suancai season came to close.

In Northeast China, suancai is a product of the seasons, starting in October with the harvest and ending with an exhausted crock. Chinese cabbages are harvested in the late fall, just as the temperatures start pushing towards freezing. After harvest, the cabbages are stored in root cellars, apartment hallways or  balconies. Many are processed and placed in crocks, left to ferment at low temperatures through the winter months and require little salt. Some people ferment a few cabbages, others a whole crop. Heilongjiang University is host to a large-scale fermentation operation, and in the winter of 2007, students lined up to buy hermetically sealed bags of Heida suancai.

Georgia is warmer, and our winter is shorter. I have been fermenting in our North Georgia garage, and the crocks are no longer hovering in the 40s and 50s like they did in the winter months. By early April we were well into the 60s. Today, the last day of April 2014, I checked one of my bamboo ferments and the water temperature registered in the low 70s. There are ways to ferment Chinese cabbage in the warmer months, and I’ll be experimenting with warm-weather ferments over the next 5 to 6 months. But spring is here, and this round of fall and winter ferments is coming to a close. Now we can wait until next fall’s harvest and the return of the cold.

In Beijing, this harvest transforms the city. Seth Coleman, a former colleague at Caixin Magazine, made this video about the autumn vegetable sales in Beijing. In mid to late October, minivans begin to populate Beijing neighborhoods and the ruckus begins. Mounds of cabbage pile high, and winter vegetables are sold by the cart load. Bicycles are loaded with leeks and baby carrages are filed with cabbage. America’s current interest in “seasonal foods” is put to shame by these Beijinger’s gusto as they stock up on their winter veg.

Video Description:
The Beijing winter is long and cold. In the late autumn many of the older generation follow old tradition by stocking up on Chinese cabbage and leeks. It’s not strictly necessary in the modern era, but for older folk it’s a combination of nostalgia and good value.

More of Seth’s videos:

A Bite of China Returns To CCTV For Second Season

Last night, the hit Chinese documentary “A Bite of China” returned to CCTV for a second season. If you are in China, you can catch it Friday night at 9pm on CCTV-1 and CCTV-9 from now through June. It is available streaming on the CNTV website.  There is not yet an English translation or English subtitles, but until then, enjoy reruns of the first:

A Bite of China (subtitles)
A Bite of China (English dubbing)

Be sure to catch episode 4 of season 1, The Taste of Time. Lots of curing, drying, and fermentation!

It’s Moso Season

The first moso shoots started pushing through the earth here north of Atlanta this past week. We’ll be eating plenty of fresh steamed bamboo shoots over the coming weeks, but what we can’t we’ll dry or ferment. Exciting times for seasonal ingredients!

A grove of Moso Bamboo (Maozhu 毛竹) mid-April in Cobb County, GA.

A grove of Moso bamboo (maozhu 毛竹) mid-April in Cobb County, GA


Suancai: Northeast China’s Sauerkraut

In Northeast China, lacto-fermented Chinese cabbage is called suancai (酸菜 “sour-vegetable”). The species used are varieties of brassica rapa, subspecies pekinensis. In America’s Chinese groceries, Northeast China’s suancai is sold as “Chinese sauerkraut.” As I discussed in a previous post on the various types of suancai, this word indicates different foods in different regions. For this reason, people outside Northeast China call this suancai, dongbei suancai (东北酸菜, “Northeastern sour-vegetable). Dongbei suancai is commonly braised to make a stew, stuffed in dumplings, and stir-fried with vermicelli noodles. In all three dishes, pork compliments it beautifully.

Much thanks to Feng Yao and my friend Huan Shuai’s father who first showed me how to make their versions of suancai. All three are people I consider reputable sources.

Below are the notes I compiled from their advice and my experience. If you’ve never fermented before, I highly recommend Sandor Katz’s book “The Art of Fermentation.” It might even available at your community library; it is at mine.

This method is best suited for wintertime fermentation, ideally when indoor temperatures hover between 32 and 50°F (0 and 10°C). From Harbin in the north to Beijing in the south, the regional varieties of pekinensis are harvested throughout October. The beauty of suancai is its seasonality. The harvest comes just as temperatures dip low enough to ferment indoors (away from heat sources) for months on end. Other methods have been devised to adapt to faster ferments, but this method.

Where should you place your crock? Find a place where the floor is cool (below 50 degrees) and the air stays above freezing. Unheated rooms and garages both work nicely. In Beijing, I used my apartments “sun-porch,” which stayed very cold (but not freezing) 5 months of the year. Here in the more temperate American South, my garage has proven a good home. 

I used a 10 liter (~2.6 gallon) ceramic crock for this recipe, but any crock will do, so long as you scale accordingly.

Length of ferment:
3 weeks to 4 months

Large sink or basin for washing
Kitchen scale
A 10 liter crock (I used this crock from TSM)

Step 1: Dry the cabbage

6 Chinese cabbages (approximately 25 pounds or 12 kilos)

1. Wash the cabbages. Use clean water to wash your cabbage of dirt and debris. Remove any damaged or yellowed leaves.
2. Dry the cabbages. Shake them dry, or let them sit in the sun to let the water evaporate.
3. Let the cabbages slowly dehydrate. Move the cabbages to a cool, dry place and let them sit for 3 or 4 days to lose some of their water content. To maintain form, it is best to sit them upright. This can be done lining them up along a wall. This will allow you to pack the crock more neatly

Step 2:  Prepare for fermentation

6 Chinese cabbages, recently made lighter through drying (approximately 10-15 pounds or 5-7 kilos)
5-7 liters boiled water (set too cool)
~300-400g salt (3% salt as a ratio of the combined weight of the cabbage and the water)
1/4 to 1/2 cup Sichuanese peppercorns
1-3 shots baijiu (when else would you use that little green bottle of Erguotou?)

1. Boil water. The day before processing the cabbage, boil water, approximately 50-75% the volume of your crock. For each liter of water you boil, set aside 30g of salt. Let it cool overnight.
2. Prepare the cabbage. Remove any outer leaves that have wilted or show signs of damage. Slice off the fibrous stub from the base of each cabbage.
3. Slice the cabbages in half. From top to bottom, make one cut, dividing the cabbages vertically into two even halves.
4. Weigh your cabbages. How much do your cabbages weigh? Measure 3% of this weight in salt and set aside. This can be combined with the salt set aside the night prior.
5. Set out your ingredients: cabbage, water (with measuring cups), salt (with your scale), and a bottle of baijiu.

Step 3: Pack the crock
1. Make layers of salt, cabbage and spices. Pour a layer of salt over the bottom of your crock. Stack a layer of cabbage halves, then pour more salt, this time adding some Sichuanese numbing peppercorns. Repeat until you have filled your crock. To be scientific and precise, you can set aside 30-90g of salt to ensure a 3% brine. This is not necessary, as most people eyeball the salt, which certainly has lead to wild variation in salt content (probably in the 2-7% range).
2. Pour in the water. If you have been measuring how much salt you have added with each layer, you can now use elementary school math skills to ensure your ratio of salt to cabbage + water is 3g to 100g. Each liter of water is 1000g. Isn’t metric amazing?
3. Weigh down the cabbage. Place a weight on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged. I used one of my grandmother’s kraut rocks, but a plate and gallon jug or a plastic bag filled with water will work just fine.

Step 4:  Ferment!
1. Cover the crock and maybe seal it. Depending on the type of vessel you are using, what you do next will vary. If you have used an open crock, you will need to wrap some cloth over its opening and secure it with string or a large rubber band. Using this method, molds might form on the surface of the water. No cause for concern. Just check the suancai every few days and use a ladle to remove these floaters. My crock has a water seal, and I enjoy the pack-and-forget mindset this ferment allows. At low temperatures and 3% brine, this ferments rather slowly. My friends who ferment suancai in China think it tastes best the further in the season you wait.

Notes for people in Atlanta:

In an ideal world, you’d grow it yourself or buy from a grower you know. If you can’t, I can personally vouch for the quality of Chinese cabbage available at Buford Highway Farmer’s Market, but the produce at Super H-Mart looked good as well. In January 2014, the cabbages at Hong Kong Supermarket were yellow, but still made for good sauerkraut. Dinghao Supermarket in Chamblee also carries Chinese cabbage, but I didn’t note their quality. The Kitazawa Seed company carries many varieties of barrel-head Chinese cabbage. Whether or not you are from Atlanta, I’d be interested to hear where you source your cabbage and any stories people want to share about growing their own Chinese cabbage.

Chinese Preserved Pork Belly and Daikon Soup

Happy to discover the blogger Sybaritica makes Chinese recipes with homemade preserved ingredients! Just yesterday, he put up this recipe, which uses two ingredients commonly found in Sichuan and other parts of Southern and Southwestern China. His preserved pork belly (làròu 腊肉) and brine-pickled daikon (suān luóbo 酸萝卜) are both homemade. Can’t wait to try his recipe with some of my own homemade larou and suan luobo. 


Preserved Pork and Daikon Soup 1

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