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  1. abcdefg

    Crazy for pickles 泡黄瓜

    Before moving here a decade ago I hugely underestimated Chinese love of pickles 泡菜。Fortunately, it was not a fatal mistake. Pickled vegetables of some sort are served with nearly every meal, including a nice salty-spicy dish of them with your porridge 粥 for breakfast. It's always risky to generalize, but this holds pretty much true from the frosty northeast 东北 to the humid sub-tropics of Canton 广州。 It's definitely true in Yunnan, where the predominant style of pickling is the one developed in neighboring Sichuan: namely long, slow fermentation in special crockery and glass jars with a water-seal lip that allows gas to escape while denying entry to stray unwanted bacteria. Not only are a wide assortment of vegetables transformed in this way, but the process is applied to such diverse ingredients as lake crabs and chicken feet. Some Chinese pickles are closer to being a relish or a chutney than they are to my usual mental image of a pickle: a big Kosher Dill carefully fished out of a wooden barrel at the old corner Deli, one block over from P.S. 106, Bronx, New York, circa 1950. Yunnan also has a truly perverse love affair with pickled fruit. One frequently sees street vendors selling small pickled pears and plums. They taste of anise, cinnamon and clove; right beside strong notes of chili, garlic and ginger. Some pickles are eaten raw, others are used as ingredients in cooking. Pickled greens 泡菜/酸菜 are often combined with fish and meat. (Recipe for pickled greens with fish slices here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51433-yunnan-spicy-fish-酸菜鱼片/) (And here's one for pickled greens with pork loin: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/47975-suancai-chao-rou-酸菜炒肉/) In the warmer months of the year, we are fortunate to have several varieties of cucumber here in Kunming, all of which invite pickling. I've been turning out at least one batch a week for the last few months. Thought I would show you how to make them yourself in case you have a "pickle tooth" too. Sometimes I use carrots, radish, bell peppers and even cauliflower, but today we will be sticking to cucumbers. (The method adapts easily to other vegetables if you prefer them.) This morning at the local wet market I found two of the three main kinds of local cucumbers: the long thin ones with bumpy skin (sometimes called "Japanese cucumbers," and the shorter stout ones with smoother light skin (sometimes called "English cucumbers.") A third kind that is smaller than either of these, with dark smooth skin, might have been present somewhere, but I didn't run across them and had no particular reason to seek them out. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The kind on the right in this photo are the ones that work best for "smashed cucumber salad" 拍黄瓜。(Recipe for that here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53783-another-simple-classic-smashed-cucumber-拍黄瓜/?tab=comments#comment-412400) The big ones on the left are the kind I bought this morning to turn into pickles. These two varieties cost approximately the same. The smaller, "gherkin-sized" ones, cost a little more. In selecting a fresh cucumber, regardless of size, nothing works as well as a gentle squeeze test. It should feel firm, without much give. If it's soft, that means it's old. These local cucumbers don't need to be peeled. The surface isn't bitter and they haven't been sprayed with wax or oils like they are in some US supermarkets. The recipe I'm using for these today is one that originated in Fujian and is popular in Taiwan as well. It made its way to Guangdong and Hong Kong, but isn't terribly popular here in Kunming. It's a "Quick Pickle" that doesn't require much time. It's also not terribly salty or sour: very well balanced, at least for my palate. Scrub the cucumbers and slice them into rounds about a half an inch thick (2 cm or so.) Don't peel them and don't remove the seeds. Notice that these have nice looking centers; if they were past their prime, the centers would have larger seeds and a network of large empty spaces. Peel the garlic 独蒜 and smash it into chunks, scrub the ginger 老姜 and slice it thickly, unpeeled. Cut the hot pepper 小米辣 into thirds and remove some of the seeds if you want to decrease the heat. The dry orange peel 橙皮 is optional, but the dried licorice root 甘草 is very strongly suggested. It adds a distinctive note and the resulting taste would definitely be less interesting without it. You can buy it in Chinese herbal pharmacies if your grocery store doesn't stock it. For each large pickle combine 2 tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of aged vinegar 老陈醋, and two tablespoons of white rice vinegar白醋. Add one tablespoon of sugar 白砂糖 and one teaspoon of salt 食盐。Do not add water. As the pickles marinate, they will release some of their own flavor-laden moisture. Put everything in a saucepan and boil it for one only one minute over low to medium heat. Remove it from the flame and let the pickles cool in this liquid. You can cool it in bowls if you want it to go a bit faster. When it is cool enough to handle easily, put everything into the jar and screw on the lid. Let it stand out on a shelf or counter top overnight, then refrigerate it in the morning. The pickles are ready to eat in 24 hours and will keep ten days or two weeks, though I confess I've never made a batch yet that possessed that degree of longevity. Let me be clear: the pickles didn't go bad; I just ate them all up. They improve with every passing day. On occasion I've made a half batch to replenish the jar, adding the new ones to the bottom. These pickles really do have a way of disappearing. I like that they have plenty of crunch, aren't too sweet, aren't too sour, aren't too hot, but still definitely are not too bland. They make a great mid-afternoon snack, along with a hard-boiled egg. You won't be struck by lightning, however, if you want to vary your own batch of pickles to taste. What I've hoped to provide for you here is a safe and sensible starting place so you can avert disaster while carrying out your own personal fine-tuning. I often eat them along with a sandwich, or better yet, alongside a fresh steamed bun spread with spicy fermented tofu. I was introduced to this sterling combination several years ago when climbing Mt. Emei 峨眉山 (in Sichuan, south of Chengdu) very early one morning trying to get to the top by sunrise. I stopped for a break beside the steep trail and two middle-aged ladies sat down beside me. They were friendly and shared their snacks, which were, you guessed it, mantou, lufu, and pickles. Plus a big thermos of green tea. As an impressionable youth, I was hooked for life. Three rounds of rehab have not put a dent in my shameful cravings or my ruinous pickle addiction. This morning I bought a folded steamed bun with sesame seeds (huajuan 花卷) instead of plain mantou 馒头。Ate the last few remaining pickles from my jar before starting a new batch. These had been marinating about one week and were bursting with flavor. A fine compliment to the spicy fermented tofu (lufu 卤腐) which is one of the odd-ball darlings of Yunnan cuisine. Life is too short not to eat plenty of pickles; especially home-made Chinese pickles. Give these a try and see what you think!
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