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!


Suancai on the Market: Instant Noodle Makers Fight With Ferments

Over the past few weeks, Master Kong’s instant noodle advertisements began appearing across Beijing. The ads prominently feature the new addition of shelf-stable sausages.

First they added suancai. Now this? I was suspicious.

Make your crazy face.
Make your crazy face

A few years back, I began noticing suancai making its way into junk food (in these noodles, the suancai is a variety of fermented mustard greens, see post on suancai here). First, there was a commercial featuring the Chinese actress Yao Chen eating suancai noodles on an airplane. Sometime the same year, either in anticipation or response, their competitor Tong Yi came out with their own ad.  This ad included a celebrity endorsement by Wang Han: “There are people who try to look like me and people who even try to copy my noodles! No matter how much they try, its not Tong Yi Old Crock Suancai Beef Noodles!” Wang Han is clearly angry. “Somebody” is copying his noodles.

But the suancai ad war predates celebrity endorsements. Tong Yi is the major instant noodle company in Taiwan, they entered the mainland market after Master Kong. At present, Master Kong’s share of the mainland market remains substantially larger than Tongyi’s. Master Kong made profits of 24.592 billion CNY in 2012, whereas Tong Yi’s were 7.269 billion. In 2008, Tong Yi began a nationwide campaign featuring suancai noodles. In the intervening years, Tong Yi’s noodle sales grew from 150 million units to 3.5 billion, much of the growth attributed to adding fermented mustard greens to instant noodles and marketing it well. As of 2012, 60% of all suancai noodles in the PRC are Tong Yi brand and 55% of Tong Yi’s profits come from these noodles.

I do not know how much the ads swayed me, if at all. Early on, the ads were not high budget (Tong Yi in 2009Master Kong in ’09 and ’10), and I have no memory of seeing them. The Yao Chen and Wang Yong ads were clearly the most heavily invested and left an impression. As I alluded to above, I think the current ad campaign is ridiculous and desperate, both on its own and in comparison with the older ads. So what captured my imagination?

I think the story of suancai propelling a company from latecomer to contender is compelling.

So, after five years of ads and developing a full time interest in fermentation, I finally caved. Looking for a quick, hot meal the other day, I walked into a 7-11 planning to buy a bowl of suancai instant noodles. I asked a person in the store, “What’s better, Tong Yi or Master Kong?” She responded, “Instant noodles are bad for you, you shouldn’t eat them.” Good advice.

The bowl of noodles, not as pictured in advertisements:

Pickle, paste and powder
Pickle, paste and powder. (Meat chunks not included).
Shuanghui's "Instant Noodle Ham Sausage"
Shuanghui’s “Instant Noodle Ham Sausage”
Fermented mustard greens packet
An Old Crock Suancai Pack

Instant noodles are embedded in the rhythm of modern Chinese life. There is free boiled water in airports, train stations, and even the national library bag check room. People are highly mobile and a 5 CNY meal is rare thing. TThis all makes a market for a quick, cheap hot meal— that at least smells and tastes like meat and vegetables were used its production— possible. Had I not developed a pounding headache and unquenchable thirst, I would eat the suancai noodles again.

But back to the original question. Why the eye-catching ads and meat sticks? Identical sausages– Shuanghui brand– are found in both Master Kong and Tong Yi suancai noodle packets, so neither has any competitive advantage in terms of product. Shuanghui is getting more exposurein this deal, but the instant noodle companies? According to this CBN article, this market has entered a period of  restricted growth, leading to a zero-sum game for producers. This could explain the continued focus on ads and the recent spat of sausage promotions. There’s no new noodle turf; competition for existing market share is fierce.

These instant noodle makers have made a fortune off of a 10 gram packet of pickles, but market saturation is bringing that era to a close. Unable to endorse suancai noodles from either company, check out this quick homemade noodle recipe from the Teczcape’s blog. This dish uses preserved xuelihong to make a tasty  noodle soup, meat sticks optional. 15 minutes of labor and a small amount of money can get you a lot further than a trademarked bowl of Old Crock Suancai Beef Noodles. If you don’t salt-cure or ferment your own leafy greens, a packet of xuelihong or suancai will make excellent substitutes.

“Yes to the appeal of speed and flavors.”

But not to instant noodles.

Advice for those in Beijing:
There is a Chaozhou Speciality Store  just south of the Zhichunli Primary School that sells southern Chinese fermented mustard greens. Most Beijing wet markets carry  salt-cured xuelihong and suan baicai.