A Match Made in Heaven: Pickled Vegetables and Rice.
Rice is the mainstay of southern China, and Chongqing is no exception. In Chinese, “eat” translates to “eat rice”, so this predilection is built into the language itself and has been so for thousands of years. Most Chongqing people expect that besides several plates of hot and spicy food, there should be a steaming bamboo bucket of rice set on the table – many restaurants have never-ending rice buckets.
As for pickled vegetables, a dish also boasting thousands of years of history, hold a similar status and are considered an essential to scarfing down a bowl of rice. Pickled vegetables in Chongqing (paocai in Chinese) are made by the same process as Korean kimchee and other world famous pickled vegetables, while having its own unique spice and flavor. Traditionally, every house in Chongqing had its own pot of pickled vegetables of varying spiciness and flavor. Thus, to understand the cuisine of Chongqing, it is essential to understand Chongqing’s own unique pickled vegetables. They truly are “the root of culinary life” here in the mountain megacity. Let’s take a closer look into Chongqing’s own pickled vegetable traditions and pickling methods and what makes them so special.
In Chongqing, pickled vegetables are part and parcel of many meals – take hotpot for example. At the end of a fiery hotpot meal, a perfect way to end the feast is with a bowl of freshly steamed rice topped with some fresh, crisp, pickled vegetables. Feeling sick? Chongqing people believe that eating spicy pickled radish will “sweat the sickness out” and bring you back to full health. Not enough time or money to eat a full meal? Rice with pickled vegetables are your friend in need!
How is it Made?
As mentioned before, traditionally speaking, every house in Chongqing used to make its own special blend of pickled vegetables in clay jars. According to tradition, these earthen jars must be porous as to absorb the lactic bacteria that pickles the vegetables. The quality and “flavor” of the jar influences the quality of the pickled vegetables, so a good jar is highly prized.
The second most important thing is the pickling water. Since pickling is so important to Chongqing cuisine, having good pickling water could make or break a reputation with the neighbors and have many people making the rounds to your house to borrow this essential ingredient. Like most traditional cooking in China, making the perfect pickling water has no special recipe – how much spice, what seasonings, how much salt – it all depends on the taste and inspiration of the cook. There are some usual suspects, however; star anise, pepper, dried chili, rice wine, ginger, sugar or sesame, etc. It is said that the quintessential Chongqing spice, the Szechuan Peppercorn, makes the resulting vegetables crispier. The obsession for pickled vegetables leads to many quirks in the pickling process. Visiting neighbors are often forbidden to touch the vegetables or add their own in the jar, due to fears that due to unclean hands will reduce the quality and “whiten” the vegetables (because of skin grease). Jars are often moved around month to month in order for the jar not to be exposed to too much sunlight – that way the salt and bacteria can have their maximum effect. Different seasons call for different vegetables to be pickled. Cowpeas are for summer and ginger, while winter calls for radishes. This has to do with Chinese people’s beliefs on the medicinal properties of different food and what should be eaten during different times of the year. Besides these, you can also soak: bamboo shoots, lotus root slices, carrots, celery, garlic, lettuce, mustard, etc.
Pickled vegetables are also famous in China’s bitter cold northeast. Because of the harsh climate, it is customary to store vegetables by pickling. The pickled vegetables of the northwest aren’t as spicy and sour as those from the Szechuan area, and are slightly sweet. Stewed beef with pickled cabbage, a staple dish from the northwest, is delicious, especially in the long winters.
Many people think making pickled vegetables is time-consuming, but it is not. If you want to salty or sour pickled vegetables, it really takes some time due to the fact that pickled vegetables that are high in sodium content need to be soaked in salt water for a long time. They are not suitable to be eaten directly and are mostly used for cooking. Pickled vegetables that can be eaten directly only need to be pickled for two or three days, of which Chongqing boiled water pickles are typical.
Classic Recipe for Chongqing Style Pickled Vegetables
Main Ingredients: Cabbage, Cowpea, White Radish, Carrot, Celery Ingredients: 4 green pepper, 2 whole ginger, 4 garlic cloves Seasonings: 50g salt, 20g Pickled pepper, 10g Sichuan peppercorn, 5g anise pickling Water: Mineral Water
- Prepare a large transparent glass jar with a sealed capacity of about 2L. Wash the inside and wipe off the moisture.
- Prepare a pair of clean chopsticks. It is recommended to use disposable chopsticks so as to prevent bacteria from entering the pickle jar.
- Cut cabbage into large pieces of vegetable leaves on an oil-free chopping board for later use, peel white radish and carrot and cut into long pieces, remove leaves from celery and cut into segments, wash cowpea and beat it into cowpea knots. These processed vegetables should be dried first.
- Cut the green pepper in half, cut the ginger into large pieces, take four garlic cloves from the garlic, and wash and dry them for later use.
- Put salt, Pickled pepper, prickly ash and star anise into the jar of inside, pour 100ML mineral water and stir well, then pour 500ml mineral water, then add long pepper, ginger and garlic cloves.
- Put the white turnip, carrot, cowpea and cabbage in turn. Put those that need to taste longer on the bottom and the vegetables that are easy to soak on the top. If you have any spare space, you can continue to add mineral water.
- Close the lid, seal and marinate for two days.
Pay attention to the cleanliness of chopsticks when eating. You can also wear disposable gloves to eat. Do not let bacteria in.
- The prepared kimchi is delicious with Rice Congee and Lo mein strips. The house is a bit spicy. If you are not a spicy eater, you can reduce the number of long peppers.
- The amount of salt depends on your taste. It is recommended to use more salt for the first pickling. After the first can is finished, the vegetables will be added with water to dilute the salt. If there is less salt in the beginning, it will be bad to eat.
- If the back of the seal is not good and there is white foam, you can add some white wine to sterilize..
 Pickled vegetables are mentioned in the 3000 year old Book of Songs “中田有庐，疆场有瓜。是剥是菹（zū），献之皇祖”. The 菹 refers to pickling, which today is represented by the characters 腌制 (yan zhi).