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.
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?