In the past, pots and pans were quite common in many Chinese houses. Now there are much fewer, especially in dual-earner families in cities without seniors. Pickling is a common household way to preserve vegetables in harsh time when there was fewer dishes to eat. In the northeast and north part of China, at least many people can pickle Chinese cabbages. In the north, when the Chinese cabbages come into season, almost all the family members flock to the line for buying the vegetables. After the vegetables are transported home, the whole procedure begins: sorting out the withered leaves, washing, cutting open, heating in hot water, drying in the air, putting in the jar, spilling the salt, pouring cool plain boiled water, covering the lid, and pressing a heavy stone. About half a month later, the sugar inside the Chinese cabbages is transformed into lactic acid under the influence of lactobacillus inside the jar, and alcohol is produced at the same time. Lactic acid and alcohol is combined into ester with special fragrance. So the sour taste of pickled vegetables sets our teeth on edge, and they also give out mellow scent not belonging to the Chinese cabbages. The pickled cabbages can be fried with meat or vermicelli; or be cooked in soup with frozen bean curd, vermicelli, plain boiled pork or bone. The concentrated fragrance of northeastern flavor gives us the feeling that we have been to Ivory Mountain in the northeast of China. Even many upstarts in the northeast today with thick necklaces and gold rings can`t conceal their love for this local dish. In fact, not only the northeastern people can`t do without pickled cabbages in winter, so do some families in the north and northwest.
Though not rivalling northeastern pickled cabbages, the Sichuan pickled vegetables fly their own color. The two kinds of pickled vegetables exhibit remarkable differences in the category of vegetables, cooking methods and flavors. The material of Sichuan pickled vegetables is jia vegetable, a special native vegetable in Sichuan, not Chinese cabbages. The jia vegetable is a little bit bitter, which can be tasted from the dish “boiled fish with pickled cabbage and chili”. The cooking method is also different from that of the Northeastern pickled cabbages. The parents of one of my primary school classmates are from Sichuan. They almost never cook or eat Northeastern pickled cabbages, but often eat the Sichuan pickled vegetables brought by friends from their hometown in Sichuan. The pickled vegetables were either fried with hot pepper and wild pepper, or stewed with bean curd, or roasted with meat or fish but never boiled with fish and chili. The hospitable Sichuan couple would like to win more allied forces and supporters for Sichuan dish. So every time I went to their house at the time close to dinner time, and when their family was cooking with Sichuan pickled vegetables, they would keep me to taste the dish, sour, smelly and blended with spicy flavor. Yes. Sichuan pickled vegetables give out smelly flavor, but not too thick, which is quite common in southwest, especially in Sichuan and Guizhou districts. The damp and relatively hot climate contributes a lot to this kind of dish, while the dry weather in the north can`t.
Though not frequently seen, Sichuan pickled vegetables are already common in the north. People clean a porcelain altar or glass jar, dry it, and then pour wild pepper, old ginger, die peperoli, salt,radish, carrot, sweet pink-fleshed radish, Chinese cabbage, and cabbage, etc. After pouring some cold water or cold plain boiled water into the jar, put in some salt and cover the lid. People should also irrigate some water along the jar eave, and often change the water there. Five or six days later, the dish is ready. Moreover, some things like Jerusalem artichoke, garlic sprout, cowpea, tender leaf mustard tubers, pepper and fresh garlic have more delicacy after being pickled. Sichuan pickled vegetables can be eaten directly, better with oil made from wild pepper and hot pepper. A more delicate cooking method is to saute dried pepper, fry it with minced pickled vegetables, and then put some sugar to remove the sour flavor. If the pickled vegetables are cooked with fish or meat, then it is first-rate dish at that time.
Kimchi can be rated as another excellent pickled dish. I once get acquainted with some people of Korean nationality and knew their dependence and love for kimchi, in the same way as people of Han nationality in northeast for northeastern pickled cabbages. We have known the cooking method roughly from the internet and Korean plays. There should be fruits, much garlic and pepper. There are also many ways to eat kimchi. Among the fried dish, “streaky pork with kimchi” is the most familiar to people. Another Korean miso soup takes kimchi as the main vegetable. Besides, it is a delicacy when kimchi is roasted with pork, which is well-known to people eating Korean roasted meat.
There are many other kinds of pickled vegetables at that time, thanks to Chinese heritage and wisdom. The sour and sweet garlic is made by putting sugar and fresh garlic into vinegar. The sweet garlic, the side dish when eating mutton slices cooked in hot pot, is made when sugar and honey is put into the plain water, so the fragrance of honey is also added. Sauced garlic is made if only soy sauce is put with the garlic. Also, sauced radish, Jerusalem artichoke, tender cilantro root, tender celery root, and tender cabbage root are all good side dish for porridge. Some households with excellent cooking skills can even cook sauced cucumber, which is a tough job because the watery cucumber easily decays in the pickling process.
At the time when there was no greenhouse and vegetable transportation was tough, pickled dish solved people`s big headache of scarce vegetables in winter, at least helping releasing some worry. If the family dried some green bean, eggplant or store some Chinese watermelon, cushaw, squash with thick peel, the dishes in winter are abundant. Of course there is the tomato sauce. I wonder who figured out the method of tomato sauce, a way to store tomato in sealed places which was mastered by many households. Clean the infusion bottle or other narrow-mouth bottles, dry it, put in minced clean tomato, seal the lid and then sterilize in boiled water inside the cauldron. Just imagine there is also tomato among piles of potato, Chinese cabbages and radishes, just like a big bone with much pork is found inside the egg flower soup in the big dining hall. But at that time, people didn`t know how to put some meat or fish when cooking pickled vegetables. Of course there was no meat or fish. The northern people at that time had never heard of chicken feet, duck webs, pig ears or other meat inside the Sichuan pickled vegetables, nor wine sauced poultry and river food in the south. Even preserved meat, poultry and fish and sausage products were scarce in the north. For a long time, pickled vegetables were the major method to tackle the problem of deficient vegetables with simple vegetables.
Poverty sometimes can turn into a kind of motivation, stimulating some people to learn or invent some innovative cuisines and eating methods. Pickled vegetables have a long history. There were records in Zhou Dynasty. The Important Arts for the People’s Welfare in the Northern and Southern Dynasties recorded a variety of cuisines of pickles, such as pickles made with sweet paste and soy sauce, wine sauced vegetables made with vinasse, sweet pickles made with molasses, etc. In the Tang Dynasty, the pickles were introduced to Japan, which contributed to the world famous Nara pickles. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the pickle cuisines were prevalent in the whole country, many of which were passed down until present. However, at present when life is prosperous, market is active, life tempo is quickened and social service is prevailing, many households can not cook pickled vegetables, though quite a few people still like this taste.