Pickled Mustard comes in many different styles in Asia. The sweet pickled sort is most popular in Thailand. Here’s how to use it in recipes.
Mustard pickles are available all across East Asia and, aside from Thailand, is quite common in Chinese cuisine, where it may be identified simply as ‘Suān Cài’ (酸菜), which simply means ‘Sour Vegetable’, or more specifically as Suān Jiècài (酸芥菜), meaning ‘Sour Leaf Mustard’.
Home-made versions are often pickled in brine only, and thus tend to be very sour from the lactic acid alone (as well as very salty), but commercial varieties often include vinegar and sugar and can thus be quite sweet.
Many, although not all, of the Thai-Style Pickled Mustard products available are very much of the sweet-sour type. They are almost ubiquitous in Asian grocery stores and seem largely to have been packaged with the Chinese market in mind. They keep well, and their versatility makes it well worth having a package or two on hand.
Introducing Pickled Mustard
The Mustard used for making these sorts of pickle is variety to the species known by the botanical name Brassica juncea. Specifically, it is the type known colloquially as ‘Head Mustard’, although it sometimes know as ‘Chinese Mustard’ too, and you often hear the wider class being referred to as ‘Leaf Mustard’, or ‘Mustard Greens’, presumably to distinguish the plant from the more ubiquitous mustard seed and its derivative products.
What does Thai-Style Pickled Mustard Taste Like?
Fresh 芥菜, or Mustard Greens, taste a little like Bok Choy, or even White Cabbage, but with much more of a sharp ‘bite’, similar, almost, to that of horseradish. Once pickled, however, the sharpness is not nearly so pronounced and it is pretty much replaced by the sourness of either lactic acid, or acetic acid. In the type of Thai-Style Pickled Mustard feature here, which are also balanced with sweetness, you really mostly just taste the pickling medium and might well be eating almost any sort of sulfurous greens. What distinguishes the Pickled Mustard from other greens of similar types is the pleasing texture, which can remain nice and crisp for a long time.
Purchasing Thai-Style Pickled Mustard
The sweet and sour style of Pickled Mustard available from Thailand are commonly packaged in clear plastic bags like the ‘Little Chicken’ brand version seen above. This one carries the ‘酸芥菜’, or Pickled Mustard characters beneath the English and the French product names. The French version, interestingly enough, specifies that the package contains ‘Feuilles de Moutarde Vinaigree’, or ‘Vinegared Mustard Leaves’, and the ingredients list on the back identifies the major components as Mustard, Sugar and Acetic Acid (Vinegar).
The Lotus Brand Pickled is widely available and is probably the type I have purchased most often. Indeed, the very first picture shows the Lotus Brand product after being removed from the package.
This particular brand is actually a bit more sour than sweet, which makes it a bit more versatile as you can use it in cases where you really want the sour taste to dominate, or add sugar if you want sweetness as well.
Lotus Brand, as is the case with others, is also quite salty, and you may wish to rinse it briefly and then squeeze out the water before using. Some recipes suggest soaking in ice-cold water as this also helps return some of the crispiness of the fresh vegetable but I wouldn’t do this for more than five minutes or so as you don’t want to lose to much of the lovely pickle flavor. In any event, just be mindful of the salt level and make allowances for this in your recipe.
Storing and Using Thai-Style Pickled Mustard
As noted at the beginning of this article, the commercially available Thai-Style Pickled Mustard products keep very well even without refrigeration (indeed, you will often see them displayed with other unrefrigerated packaged items in grocery stores). Once opened, I keep mine in the fridge, but otherwise you can store them in your pantry for long time. Eventually, however, after about a year or so, you will see that the color will begin to fade and, after that point the taste will degrade and become stale.
As a cooking ingredient, Thai-Style Pickled Mustard can be used in almost any recipe calling for a pickle vegetable to be used. It may slightly alter the final flavor when being used as a substitute for, say, Sichuan Zha Cai, but any differences can easily be either ignored, or adjusted for with other ingredients.
You can, however, also use the product as a stand-alone pickle or condiment, and serve it right out of the package alongside other dishes. There is one caveat, however, the Lotus brand variety mentioned above as a caution on the package directing you to cook the contents before serving. I am not entirely sure why this is so as I have tried it uncooked and it is perfectly tender and tasty, so I can only speculate that there might be a hygiene concern, possibly due to human waste being used a fertilizer. I have not seen this on other packages (it does not appear on the Little Chicken brand, for instance), but you ought to at least keep the warning in mind and act accordingly.
Thai-Style Pickled Mustard in Recipes
Pickled Mustard is a nice addition to rice or noodles, great in all sorts of stir-fried dishes, and works well in soups or stews. The soup pictured above is just a few lightly browned pork ribs simmered in water along with a dash of soy sauce, rice wine and some Lotus Brand Pickle, I have also added a little chopped, salted chili for garnish and a little flavor fillip.
Beef Stir-fried Thai-Style Pickled Mustard
Leftover slices of Roast Pork Belly steamed with Pickled Mustard
Pork Belly slices stir-fried with Thai-Style Pickled Mustard and Chili