For almost a hundred years, hucksters across Eastern Europe and Asia have promoted their hometowns as a “Paris of the East.” In the shadow of Shanghai, which claims the title “Paris of the East1,” the city of Harbin, provincial capital of Heilongjiang in northeastern China, has been called by its boosters a “little Paris.” Although three degrees south of Paris in terms of latitude, Harbin’s temperature regularly hovers around -20C (-10F) in December and January. Before living there and since, I have never had to wear two pairs of long-underwear to keep warm again. It is also the city where I first ate the Chinese equivalent of sauerkraut, suancai (IPA: sɥɛn.tsʰaɪ; Simplified Chinese: 酸菜 Pinyin: suāncài). Taking the kraut and adding the city’s ample supply of sausage and beer, a more Eastern European aspiration seems appropriate.
Suancai: Both Cabbage And Mustard Greens (Brassica rapa, Brassica juncea)
Across north eastern China, lacto-fermented cabbage is called both suancai (the generic term for pickled leafy greens) and suan baicai (sour napa cabbage). To make it, one requires not just salt, water, and the right vegetable: napa cabbage (Scientific name: Brassica rapa pekinensis; Simplified Chinese: 大白菜; Pinyin: dàbáicài) but correct technique. Though not as involved or diverse as Korean kimchee, suancai is an equally important winter staple. This footage from the documentary “A Bite of China” shows suancai in its native environment, a Heilongjiang village, (skip to the 45m30s mark). In local cuisine, suancai is prepared by stewing with pork or as a filling for dumplings. It is also stir-fried with cellophane noodles. Napa cabbage is also salt-cured.
But suancai is more than just a Chinese sauerkraut. Suancai is a term used to refer to pickled leafy greens in many regions. In southern China, suancai is used to refer to pickled mustard greens (Brassica juncea) across the spectrum of salt-curing and lacto-fermentation. Suancai of the cabbage variety is rare in southern China, but Muslim run beef noodle shops are known to have fermented cabbage as a condiment. When traveling in Guizhou, I found crocks filled to the brim with suancai alongside scallions and cilantro at the condiments station in a Guiyang Halal noodle shop. It was an all-you-can-eat affair.
The two most commercialized pickled mustard greens of southern China are Chaoshan‘s suancai and Sichuan’s suancai. These varieties can be found in grocery stores and specialty shops sold in clear, plastic packets. The local, fresh varieties are only found locally in their region of origin, but even then locals often show preference for their homemade pickles. In both the city of Guiyang and Chongqing, locals who shared pickled mustard green recipies expressed disdain for market pickles and were proud of their home-packed crocks filled with pickled mustard greens.
Varieties of Mustard Greens
Based on my travels, different mustard greens are used in different regions. Roughly, these mustard greens can be divided into the costal varieties, the Yangtze river valley varities, and upland varieties.
The pickled mustard greens of upland provinces like Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan use taller, leafier varieties of mustard greens. In the Dong minority region of mountainous northern Guangxi, their mustard greens are upwards of two feet tall. In Guiyang, their mustard greens were slightly shorter. There are many uses of this type of mustard green, but the most common is soup. Fuchsia Dunlop compiled three recipes that use pickled mustard greens (three soups, one using fish, another chicken, yet another bean thread noodles) in her Sichuanese cookbook “Land of Plenty,” which I highly recommend as an introduction to the cuisine in English. This blog has adapted one of her recipes for the mustard green classic: Sichuanese sour fish soup.
In costal regions, mustard greens are shorter and their stems are both wider and thicker than the inland varieties. People in Fujian and Guangdong pickle this vegetable not only for the salty and sour flavors but for the stem’s prized crunch. The Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora is primarily from Fujian and Guangdong, so in the English blogosphere, you’ll see Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese romanizations of these ingredients. In Hokkien and Teochew, pickled mustard greens are called kiam chai (Simplified Chinese: 咸菜). In Cantonese, its called both ham suen choy (Simplified Chinese: 咸酸菜) and hum choy (Simplified Chinese: 咸菜), the same characters as the Hokkien kiam chai. This all gets terribly confusing when one begins looking at salt-curing vegetables. Salt-cured vegetables are called xiancai in Mandarin (IPA: ɕjɛn.tsʰaɪ) but uses the same characters as kiam chai and hum choy. Thus the characters “咸菜” means salt-cured veg in two dialects and lacto-fermented in standard Chinese. Malaysian, Singaporean, and other overseas Chinese bloggers have used various kiam chais and hum choys to create all sorts of dishes. Here’s a simple Kiam Chai Ark recipe (a duck soup) that looks promising.
Along the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Sichuan, xuecai the crispifolia variety of Brassica juncea (IPA: ɕɥœ.tsʰaɪ; Simplified Chinese: 雪菜 Pinyin: xuěcài). In southern areas, these leafy greens are both pickled into a suancai as well as being further processed into more thoroughly preserved and completely transformed product called meicai or meigancai. In northern areas, Beijing included, this variety is called xuelihong (IPA: ɕɥœ.li.xʊŋ; Simplified Chinese: 雪里蕻; Pinyin: xuělǐhóng), and it is typically salt-cured.
1. Mark Gamsa records the history of “little Paris” and “Paris of the East” as terms in marketing materials of Harbin’s Modern Hotel in this article in East Asian History (“The Many Faces of Hotel Moderne in Harbin”). In promotional materials from 1996, the hotel is called “the little Versailles” built “in the French Renaissance style of Louis XIV.” As Gamsa notes. this is “a contradiction in terms, in its own right.” He goes on to state in a footnote, “Historians and advertisers in Harbin have been similarly ready to adopt alleged descriptions of old Harbin as “little Paris”, or “Paris of the East”, which had not been nearly as frequent in the Russian period as retrospectively claimed.” After reading the LATimes article about the Jews of Harbin, we can add journalists to that list, as it seems they are citing Gamsa’s misguided historians.