Sour-Pickled Mustard Green Stems: Touched by Time

I’ve met picklers and preservers in some strange places. A water pump station in the middle of the Takalamakan Desert still tops the list. But yesterday, sitting in a coffee shop in an Yunnan tourist town, I was introduced to a Heshun pickler through a Chongqing barista. I’m now her student.

Heshun is a Han Chinese town in a frontier area with many minorities. Established at the beginning of the Ming dynasty (c. 1350-1360) and first populated by families of soldiers given titles by the Hong Wu Emperor, the townspeople and farmers today are still predominantly Han. The buildings, alleys and surrounding countryside are all very picturesque. Like Lijiang and other “ancient towns,” it has become the recipient of tourist investment and promotion.

Since 2003, government and businesses have actively cooperated on projects to redevelope the town and build an economy around tourism. In Summer 2009, a subsidiary of the Yunnan-based Brilliant Group received a credit line of 3.9 billion RMB from the Chengdu branch of Export-Import Bank of China to “transform Heshun into an international tourist destination” in 6 years time. Less than 2 months later, the New York Times featured the “rural charms and ancient arcitecture” in a slideshow on its travel blog.

In many ways, Heshun is a Lijiang-lite, retaining that essence that attracted investment in the first place without reaching Lijiang’s extreme of commercialization. In Heshun, many townspeople still live in the town. In the surrounding fields, there are still peasants harvesting rice. People ride in and out of the area on motorcycles to tend their fields. Many important Qing and Republican era buildings are open to the public (with a 80RMB ticket), including the old clan halls and the town’s library. Older residences are quite common in back alleys. Nevertheless, some newly renovated buildings now line these streets, and an overwhelming number of jade sellers have rented many of these spaces. Skirting the ancient town is a long line of bars in old looking buildings. Overall, it seems to be a few steps behind the Lijiang path of ancient town development

Being a good tourist, I found my place to park disposable income, skipping the beer and the precious stones for a coffee at the YLK Coffee Shop (云南小粒咖啡). YLK is run by two cousins from Chongqing, both in their late-twenties and serious about developing their business. Yang Chen, the owner, moved to Heshun to open her first shop in 2010. She then brought her cousin, Luo Wenjing, into the business with plans to open a second location. It opened in 2011. They grow their own supply of beans on nearby farms, roasting 4 different blends. I really enjoyed both cups of Typica, one a flatbean, the other round.

When the YLK cousins relocated to Yunnan, they soon met Heshun native, Auntie Zhang. Auntie Zhang, affectionately known as “Daniang,” is a go-to cook for weddings, funerals, and other community affairs. When they first arrived, Daniang arrived at their shop with a gift of pickles to welcome them. So when I mentioned to Yang Chen that I am learning to pickle and preserve foods like Chinese people, her eyes lit up immediately. She said, “You have to meet this lady, she makes great pickles.”

Thirty minutes later, I’m sitting in their other shop with Luo Wenjing, sharing a pot of Typica flatbeans with Daniang and talking pickles. We chatted about mustard green varieties, pickling techniques and local history. Daniang makes really tasty pickled mustard greens. Here’s the plate she brought us to try, which she calls these sour pickled greens (酸腌菜) or salty greens (咸菜):

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Daniang’s sour pickled mustard greens are similar to those in Yunnan’s markets but taste immeasurably better. Her main ingredients are carrots and long, thick stemmed mustard greens, which people in Yunnan typically call qingcai (青菜). She uses ground red pepper and fennel seed to impart flavor. The greens are sun-dried for a day or two after which the leaves are removed. The stems are washed and then chopped into short strips. The stems are then mixed with rice and salt placed in a crock or piece of pottery then sealed. No water is used. She typically makes 50 pounds per batch, purchased fresh from a nearby village in the 11th and 12th months of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Making these in America will not be easy. In Yunnan, I have encountered an extraordinary diversity of mustard greens. Some are used in cooking, typically boiled or stirfried. Only some are for suitable for making Auntie Zhang’s pickles. Those plants unfit for preservation, she called “fruit mustard greens” (水果青菜). The characteristics of these greens are highly variable, depending on variety. Some are harvested mature, others are harvested only a week or two after sprouting. Some grow tall, others bunch lower to the ground. Whether tall or short, their stems can be thick or thin. Leaf margins can be soft and undulating. Other varities have jagged and incised edges. Getting the right variety is extremely important.

It was sad parting, as I only met her in the last hours before my departure. I have a general understanding and decent notes about how to make sour-pickled-greens, but I’m sure I’ll have more questions. Before parting ways, I asked her if she’d be my “master,” I her student, which after a good laugh she promptly accepted. Come December, I’m sure I’ll have more than a few pickle failures. For now however, thanks to Auntie Zhang’s generosity, I can enjoy the real thing:

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