Suan cai (also called suan tsai and Chinese sauerkraut; literally “sour vegetable”) is a traditional Chinese pickled Chinese cabbage, used for a variety of purposes. Suan cai is a unique form of pao cai, due to the ingredients used and the method of production.
An alternative name for suan cai is xian cai (hsien tsai; literally “salted vegetable”). Suan cai is similar to a fermented-cabbage dish, sauerkraut, which is common in the cuisines of Central and Eastern Europe.
Traditionally, Northern China has used Napa cabbage as the vegetable of choice while Southern China uses the Chinese mustard (Chinese: 芥菜; pinyin: jìe cai) variety to make suan cai (known as suen choy in Cantonese Chinese). Production of suan cai differs from other pao cai in that the vegetable is compressed. This is accomplished by placing a heavy weight such as a large rock on top of the cover of the container so that the Chinese cabbage inside the container is slowly pressed and fermented. The processing of the vegetable helps to create a distinct flavour.
Generally, the cabbage is dipped into boiling water, then put in a container with cold water with salt. Suan cai is often used in cooking with meat, especially pork. It is said to neutralise the grease of meat.
Muslim Regions in China
In Chinese Islamic cuisine, suan cai can top off noodle soups, especially beef noodle soup.
In Hunan, suan cai is frequently made with ginger and chillies (typical of Hunan cuisine).
Guangdong and Hong Kong
In Cantonese cuisine, it is served in a small dish, often as an appetiser, and usually free. Sometimes it can be available in mini-containers on the dining table. There are also Cantonese variations such as salted suan cai (鹹酸菜).
In Northeastern Chinese cuisine, suan cai is made from napa cabbage or head cabbage and has a taste similar to sauerkraut. As part of the cuisine in Manchuria, it is used with dumplings and boiled, or stir fried. More frequently, saun cai is used to make suan cai and pork stew.
Hot Pot Cooking
It is often one of the ingredients in East Asian Hot Pot cooking.
Suan chai has also been incorporated into Thai cuisine, where it is known as phak kat dong when only the upper stem and leaf are used’. Most often used in Thai-Chinese dishes, it can also be served as an ingredient in a Thai salad, or as a condiment such as with khao soi, a northern Thai curry-noodle soup. The chopped sour leaf and upper stem is combined with scrambled egg in the dish pak khat dong pat kai. When the dish includes only the main stem and tuber of the cabbage (in the style of zha cai), it is called chee chuan chai in Thai.
Suan Cai Recipe
- 4 bunches bok choy or mustard greens (or ½ Chinese Napa cabbage)
- salt, as required, for rubbing
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper seeds (optional) per 1 litre glass jar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt per 1 litre glass jar
- boiled water, cooled, as needed
- 1 large airtight glass jars, for storage (The rims needs to be wide enough to fit a weight into the jar)
- Separate the leaves and cut stems into large chunks and rinse thoroughly under running water. Discard any blemished leaves.
- Lay the washed greens onto a clean towel or paper towels drain and dry. Turn over several times and make sure that there is no water on the surface. (It is best to air-dry for around 12 hours until the leaves begin to wither)
- Prepare the glass jars by washing and sterilising with boiling water. Set aside to drain.
- Transfer the withered greens into a large colander bowl.
- Rub the leaves with salt until they are totally withered and begin to ooze water. Squeeze out as much of the water as possible.
- Place the greens into the glass jars. Press each layer down firmly as you go.
- Add around 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper seeds to each 1 litre jar.
- Pour enough cooled boiled water to soak and cover all the leaves. Use a sterilised weight to ensure the leaves remain submerged in the water.
- Cover the jar completely with an airtight lid.
- Store in a cool and dry area, out of the sunlight, for 7 - 10 days until the water turns a bright yellowish-green.
Use clean, dry, oil-free tools when removing any of the pickled mustard greens from the jar.