How to pickle vegetables the Chinese way

Pickler Evan Randall on how to pickle vegetables the Chinese way

Evan Randall has travelled extensively through China researching minority fermentation techniques. As a bit of a pickle fanatic, Randall relishes making his own at home -- he shares one of his simplest recipes.

The English word 'pickle' refers to foods preserved in vinegar or brine, as this type of pickling -- lacto-fermentation -- has always been most common in Britain and the US. But the English language doesn't have a word for all the other forms of pickling, mostly found in Asia, such as pickling through a process of fermentation, salting and moulding. Sandor Katz -- an expert in the field and author of The Arts of Fermentation -- suggests a hybrid of the German word sauerkraut and the Korean kimchi (both fermented vegetables) to form 'kraut-chi'.

Unlike the English word, the Chinese term yanzhipin is broader, including not only vinegar and salt brined foods but also low-salt lacto-ferments, mould-ferments, high-salt pickles, soy sauce brines, and bean paste marinades -- among other, lesser known techniques.

For expatriates, these foods all often some of the most overlooked yet essential ingredients in Chinese cooking. China's most common 'kraut-chi', or yanzhipin, are made from varieties of mustard greens, cabbage, and pole beans, but products vary from region to region.

To ferment one of these leafy greens yourself, you must acquire a small 'crock' or ceramic jar. Glass jars can be used, but excess gases from the fermentation require you to 'burp' glass jars on a daily basis. Smaller crocks are available via the Chinese online marketplace, Taobao, from 20RMB.

Making simple fermented pickles is even easier than getting the crock. Chop off the roots, stems and leaves of some Chinese cabbage (or choi sum) and bring a litre or two of water to boil. After the water has simmered for a while, add the vegetable to the pot, just the stem for the first 30 seconds, then the whole thing for anther 30 seconds to a minute. Finally, put it in your crock and leave it overnight. The morning after, chop the now-fermented greens into bite-size pieces, stir-fry with a pinch of salt, and enjoy!

Evan Randall writes about Chinese pickling and fermentation at