Mrs. Ding’s Pao Cai (Chinese Pickles)
Source: Sandor Katz, Fermentation Journeys
We had not made any plans for our first day in China. As we wandered around the neighborhood where we were staying in Chengdu, to get our bearings, I noticed some sausages hanging to cure outside a street-level apartment window, and I stopped to photograph them. Mrs. Ding saw me photographing her sausages and came out to talk to us. She ended up inviting us for lunch, showing us all her fermentation projects, and teaching us how she makes them.
Pao cai is a Chinese style of fermenting vegetables. Its most distinctive feature is that it involves a perpetual brine. My first exposure to pao cai was in Mrs. Ding’s home. Her pao cai brine was years old. Once the brine is mature, veggies ferment in it very quickly. She told us that the ones she fed us, which were complex and delicious, had been in the brine for only about 12 hours. However, the first batch with a fresh brine takes much longer to develop its flavor – from one to two weeks, depending on the environment. The following recipe is a guideline to get you started. However, every batch we tried was a little different, so feel free to experiment by omitting or adding ingredients. I’ve been adding a little dried licorice root to my brine, which is great and really different.
This recipe was demonstrated at the Foodwise Classroom on June 4, 2022.
Timeframe: 1 to 2 weeks to develop the brine and pickle the first round of vegetables, then ongoing
Vessel: 2-quart jar or another vessel
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar (Mrs. Ding uses malt sugar but granulated cane sugar works fine)
3 slices fresh ginger (to taste)
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns (to taste)
5 dried chilies (to taste)2 black cardamom pods (to taste)
1 teaspoon dried or shredded licorice (optional)
About 1 pound veggies for pickling (one or any combination of the following: radish, cabbage, onion, carrot, green beans, celery, cucumber, or try others), cut into medium-sized chunks (big enough to easily find and remove from the brine, but with enough surface area to allow the brine to quickly penetrate)
Start with about 1.25 quarts of water. Mrs. Ding suggests boiling the water first. I love my spring water, so I ignore that with fine results. I just boil about a cup of the water for ease of dissolving the malt sugar, then dilute with fresh water. Combine the water with the salt and sugar in your vessel.
Once the brine has cooled, add the spices and the vegetables for pickling.
The first batch of vegetables should take 1 to 2 weeks to ferment, at which point they will have a crisp texture and mildly sour and richly spiced flavor. Taste periodically to monitor the evolving flavor.
Once you deem the pickles ready, remove them from the brine whenever you want to eat some. When they are gone, add more vegetables for a shorter fermentation of a day or two. The more seasoned the brine, the faster the pickling time.
Over time, the salt, sugar, and spices in the brine will diminish as they infuse the vegetables that are removed. Evaluate the flavor by tasting, and add more salt, sugar, and spices as needed.
Reprinted with permission from Fermentation Journeys by Sandor Katz, copyright © 2021. Published by Chelsea Green Publishing.