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Fellow Pickle People: Zha Cai is your new favorite spice

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fellow pickle people: zha cai is your new favorite spice

This is a highly recommended column that explores what people in the food industry are obsessed with eating, drinking, and buying right now.

In Beijing, my grandparents kept an enormous glass in the fridge. It was filled with gummy greenish vegetables, soaked in brine. They took the lid off and a wild, chaotic aroma filled the air: Zha Cai, long-fermented Zha Cai. It is one my all-time favorite Chinese fragrances.

Zha cai is the pickled stem from mustard plants. It was born in Chongqing (a Sichuan community). You shouldn’t let its humble appearance fool you. One small bite of this canned veggie contains a strong combination of umami and seasoning. It is crisp yet tender and tastes a lot like a cucumber. The amount of red chili paste used in preparation will affect the level of spice. The flavor comes from seasoning, drying, and seasoning the mustard stalks, as well as preparing them for fermentation. This is the pickle that will make all pickles.

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It is very rare outside China. I was always surprised by how common the dish is. However, I was able to find packets of Zha Cai pre-shredded Yuquan brand Chongqing in small Asian supermarkets. I recognize it by its spring green foil packaging, which is decorated with Chinese characters (鱼 泉 榨菜 or “yuquan zhacai”) and English text (the much more vague “PRESERVED VEGETABLE” in capital letters). A sketch of a Chinese city is included, which I believe to be Yuquan. Although it doesn’t have instant Zha Cai from a jar of the stuff, the small size of the pouch makes it convenient to carry on picnics, train rides, or camping trips. You can instantly make any meal more aromatic with Yuquan Zha Cai.

Yuquan Zha Ci can be added to almost any food for a slight salty-sour kick, but I find it especially useful in flavoring carbs. I made a batch of noodles, mixed it with chilli oil and Sichuan peppercorn. Then I topped plain old rice bowls with it. It is great for freshening up meat and vegetable pans, and adding elegant flavor to silken tfu. It’s my only starter. I am obsessed by sodium so I sometimes grab it out of the bag and eat it like a bag full of chips. You shouldn’t be afraid to try it.

In Chinese, Zha Cai literally means “pressed vegetables”. There are over 100 types of Chinese cucumbers. Its popularity in China should speak volumes about how widespread it is. International fermentation enthusiasts should agree.

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