Why Sichuan pickles are a class apart (and how to make them)

Jan 17, 2020

The preserved vegetables balance out Sichuan cuisine’s famously spicy flavors. They’re also good for your gut.

Pickles from Sichuan are divine. If done right, they’re a balanced blend of acidic and fragrant flavors, with quite a bit of crunch.

Most importantly, they’re a necessary mellowing agent for Sichuan’s otherwise spicy and oily food.

The key to making a good Sichuan pickle is a process called lacto-fermentation, which basically involves submerging vegetables in a solution of salt and water.

The salt kills off harmful bacteria, and what’s left is a group of bacteria called lactobacillus, which converts sugars into lactic acid.

(Read more: Why is Sichuan food so spicy? A primer on the world’s most mouth-numbing cuisine)

Lactic acid is the preservative that gives the pickles their distinctive tangy flavor—and also makes them great for digestion.

This makes them different from regular pickles you might find in a grocery store, which are usually preserved in vinegar and sealed in high heat. The heat ensures a stable shelf life but also kills off the beneficial bacteria.

Sichuan pickles often include carrots, garlic, and cabbage.
Sichuan pickles often include carrots, garlic, and cabbage. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

Xiong Ying, owner of Ying Yuan, a quaint bed-and-breakfast on the outskirts of Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, has been making her own pickles for over 20 years. 

Many families in Sichuan keep pickle jars in their kitchen, and Xiong tends to hers like plants, nurturing them with constant attention and care.

Xiong tends to her pickle jars like plants, giving them attention and care.
Xiong tends to her pickle jars like plants, giving them attention and care. / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

She shows me a pickle jar that she calls the “mother jar,” with brine that she started three years ago.

“For me, it’s a bit too new,” she says. “I used to have a 20-year-old pickle brine.

“But this is still pretty good,” she concedes. “Usually after six months, it becomes really fragrant.”

Xiong often tops off her new pickle jars with the three-year-old brine. It adds complexity to the new brew and makes every batch unique.

Xiong often tops off new pickle jars with three-year-old brine from her “mother jar.”
Xiong often tops off new pickle jars with three-year-old brine from her “mother jar.” / Photo: Nathaniel Brown

The joy of making pickles is that there’s a lot of room for experimentation. Xiong adds chili peppers, star anise, galangal, fennel, and a Chinese spirit called baijiu to her brine.

(Read more: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about China’s most potent liquor, baijiu)

But whatever you add, there are still some key basics: pick crisp vegetables, keep your equipment clean, and add enough salt.

This is Xiong’s recipe for Sichuan pickles.

Recipe

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  • 1-quart pickle jar
  • 3 cups of water
  • 3 teaspoons of Sichuan peppercorn
  • 5 dried chili peppers
  • 5 pieces of dried star anise
  • 2 tablespoons of galangal
  • 2 tablespoons of fennel
  • 5 tablespoons of coarse sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon of rock sugar
  • 12 ounces of pickling vegetables, cut into thick match-stick pieces (suggestions: cabbage celtuce, carrots, bamboo shoots, garlic)
  • 2 tablespoons of Chinese baiju or vodka

 

  1. Disinfect the jar and all utensils (i.e. chopsticks or spoons) with hot water or rubbing alcohol.
  2. Add water to a medium-sized pot and add salt, peppercorns, chili peppers, star anise, galangal, fennel, and rock sugar. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, stir, and let the brine cool down.
  3. Wash the vegetables, peel, and cut into bite-size pieces. Arrange them in the jar.
  4. Once the brine is completely cooled down, fill the jar up to the top. Weigh down the vegetables with a pickling stone. Add the baijiu on top. Loosely seal the jar and let sit. The pickles can be eaten as early as five days.
Sichuan cuisineRecipesEat China

Credit

Host and Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Nathaniel Brown

Editors: Caron Che and Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Victor Peña