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.


One thought on “Suancai: Northeast China’s Sauerkraut

  1. Pingback: Beijingers Prepare for Winter: Chinese Cabbage | Reputable Sources

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