Zha Cai, or Sichuan Preserved Vegetable, is a spicy Sichuanese specialty featuring a type of mustard stem pickled by packing it with salt, garlic and chili. It is a very versatile pantry ingredient that packs a powerful flavor punch and can be added to soups and stews, as well as steamed or stir-fried dishes.
A Brief Introduction
The actual pant used for this Sichuanese pickle is a member of the Mustard Family, sometimes called ‘Big-Stem Mustard’, and it is the characteristic swollen, knobby, swollen base of the stem that is used for pickling. Both Chinese and Japanese cuisine pickle different varieties of mustard, both stems and leaves, but this particular pickle type is a specialty of Sichuan Province and is claimed to have originated in Chongqing.
The process for pickling involves packing the vegetable in salt and allowing to undergo lactic acid fermentation, which sours and helps preserve it. It is very much like many varieties of Korean Kimchi in that Chili, usually powdered, is added at the outset and, traditionally, fermentation occurred in earthenware jars.
Buying Sichuan Preserved Vegetable
Sichuan Preserved Vegetable is identified by the Chinese characters 四川榨菜. The first two characters mean ‘Sichuan’ (which appears on the can above using and older spelling variant, ‘Szechuen’), while the second two identify the actual vegetable as ‘pressed vegetable’, pronounced zhà cài, in Mandarin, and ‘Jar Choy’ in Cantonese.
If you look on the can in the above picture, you can see the Chinese characters for Sichuan Preserved Vegetable in the green oval. However, you will also not that the four characters are followed by ‘絲‘, which means that the pickle is shredded. In the picture at the very beginning of this post, the label on a can from the same manufacturer does not have this character, and the knobby stems are pickled and canned whole.
This particular commercially canned product, White Rabbit Brand, has been around for a very long time (I have been using it for almost twenty years), and is fairly common in Asian grocery stores. Amazon quite frequently carries it as well.
It is possible in some Asian market to buy whole Zha Cai in large clear plastic bags holding six or eight large ‘bulbs’, but most home-cooks will find it a little more convenient to purchase small foil packets of shredded pickle like the one shown above.
Another form of Sichuan Preserved Vegetable is Zha Cai packed in Chili Oil. This is available in glass jars, as above, and also in sealed plastic pouches. These are generally identified on the label as ‘紅油榨菜’ which translates as ‘Red Oil’ Zha Cai and the vegetable can be shredded, sliced, or diced.
The Texture and Taste of Sichuan Preserved Vegetable
Here, you can see a Zha Cai stem from the can in the very first picture which has been cut crosswise to show the interior. The flesh is fairly dense, but softened by the fermentation process. To the tooth, the texture is a little like that of chunks of Japanese Takuan pickle, or even that of pickled beets.
As for the taste, some people claim it is ‘like Korean Kimchi’, but I don’t really agree with that comparison, especially when it comes to Cabbage Kimchi. It tends to be quite salty when eaten straight from the container, and it does have the definite sour tang of lactic acid fermentation, but there are so many different products available, and each will taste slightly different from the others.
How salty, or how sour a given brand will be depends on the fermentation process, and the pungency will depend on ho much chili is used. Sugar is often a component, and some varieties will be more sweet than sour, while garlic or other additional flavorings are fairly common as well.
Using Sichuan Preserved Vegetable
Since Sichuan Preserved Vegetable can be very salty, it may need to be rinsed before use, depending on the brand, and if it used as an ingredient in cooked dishes, you always need to make allowances for the salt content when seasoning.
The pickle can be used as is for an appetizer, or side-dish, much the same as bread and butter pickles on a Western table, but mainly it is added to cooked dishes as a complement and counter-point to other ingredients. Below are a few examples of Sichuan Preserved Vegetable being used in other dishes: