In my Chinese Pantry post, I introduced a few kinds of the many types of preserved/pickled vegetables in China. Even in Sichuan, there are so many, including pao cai (sour pickled vegetables such as daikon, carrot, chilies, and napa cabbage), suan cai (pickled mustard greens), ya cai (chopped preserved mustard greens), mei cai (another type of preserved mustard green), and of course zha cai (preserved mustard tubers). Zha cai (榨菜 – pronounced “djah tsai” rhyming with “eye”) is made from the tuber of a cultivar of mustard green. This tuber is called 大头菜 (da tou cai – pronounced “dah toh tsai”, literally “big head vegetable”) and is commonly used as a vegetable in Sichuan. It looks a lot like kohlrabi. One year, there were a lot of surplus da tou cai grown in Sichuan, so a farmer invented a way of preserving the vegetable into zha cai. The vegetable is first sun-dried, then salted and then pressed to release the liquid (“zha” means “press” in Chinese), then preserved in a earthenware pot with a mixture of seasonings including chili (although the end result is not spicy). The preserved vegetable is salty and crunchy, and has a unique tasty flavor in dishes. Although it was invented and is still made in Sichuan, it is now a popular ingredient in both Sichuanese and Cantonese cooking because of its umami flavor. You can buy zha cai in red and yellow cans labeled “Sichuen Preserved Vegetable”. Make sure you always use the correct type of preserved vegetables – I have seen many, many cooking blogs try to cook Chinese cuisine and use the totally wrong kind of preserved vegetable. This is due to the fact that just almost EVERY type of preserved vegetable in the Asian grocery store is just labeled “Preserved Vegetable” in English, without specifying anything else except Chinese, which most non-Chinese can’t read. I strongly recommend keeping the Chinese name on your phone. Don’t worry though, the “Sichuen Preserved Vegetable” is hard to miss, in the red and white can.
Anyways, to introduce you to this tasty vegetable, I have a delicious and very easy recipe for a very home-style Chinese stir fry. Serve this dish with a stir-fried vegetable dish and cooked white or brown rice. This recipe is adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop, my favorite cookbook and a must-have for people who love Chinese food!
2/3 to 3/4 lb pork loin, cut into julienne strips (called 丝 in Chinese) (Sometimes, Costco sells a GIANT package of very good quality pork loins for a much cheaper price per lb than most grocery stores. I split the pork and freeze them, then defrost when I want to make a stir-fried pork dish. It’s very convenient and cost effective. :))
1/2 to 2/3 cup julienned zha cai, rinsed (the more you rinse, the less salty, so rinse more for a lower sodium dish)
2 to 3 tbsp cooking oil
1 tsp Shaoxing wine
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp water
ground white pepper or black pepper (optional)
2 to 3 tbsp Chinese stock (or chicken stock)
1/2 to 1 tsp soy sauce
3/4 tsp cornstarch
1. Mix pork and marinade. Mix sauce.
2. Heat a wok or skillet. Add 2 tsp of the oil to the pork and mix. Add the rest to the wok. Add the pork and spread in an even layer. Sear for a minute, then flip and stir.
3. Add zha cai and continue to stir-fry until surface of pork is not pink at all. (about another minute)
4. Stir the sauce to mix the starch (which settles to the bottom of the bowl) and add it to the wok.
5. Stir-fry, thickening the sauce. When sauce is thick, check the largest piece of pork to see if it is cooked. Stir-frying pork slivers is a very fast process, and it does not take long to fully cook the pork.
6. Transfer to a plate and serve with cooked rice and a stir-fried vegetable dish. Enjoy!