Pickling—the tradition of preserving foods in vinegar—traces back thousands of years to regions of India, Britain and Asia. In the Sichuan region of China, also known as the Land of Plenty, pickling became a vital and practical necessity to keep food from spoiling for cooks both home and royal alike; it's a process that dates back to the sixth century BCE.
The Sichuan region is rich in agricultural diversity, and while it is a landlocked province surrounded by mountains, it is also a melting pot of more than 13 cultures that merged during the political transition from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty.
Today, chef Josh Grinker of Sichuan restaurant Kings Co Imperial in Brooklyn, New York, honors the region's tradition of preserving food by applying the extensive, labor-intensive and ancient process to some of his restaurant's main staples—ingredients we likely wouldn't have thought twice about otherwise. Check them out.
① Fermented black beans
Made from soybeans dried and fermented with salt, these little nuggets of salty umami originated in Sichuan about two thousand years ago. The black soybeans are cooked and inoculated with aspergillus oryzae, the mold used to ferment soy sauce, then placed in a large wooden vat filled with salt water. The beans are brined for about six months before being dried in the sun and used in dishes like Kings Co Imperial's dry-fried long beans, which are yard-long green beans poached in soy oil and stir-fried with pickled Chinese kohlrabi root, fermented black soybeans and ground pork.
"This is a dry-fried dish, which means it is wok-seared without any liquid," Grinker says. "Fermented black beans are a variety of soybeans, which are the backbone of the seasoning world. We rinse them to get the salt off and grind them up to use as a seasoning."
② Bean paste
A commonly found component of many Chinese dishes, bean paste is the by-product of fermented soy sauce. During the first and second months of the traditional Chinese calendar, the best soybeans from the previous year's harvest in China are selected, roasted slightly, cooled and ground into powder before hot water is added.
When the paste is half-hardened, it's air-dried in the shade, wrapped in paper and left to ferment. After three months, the paper and mold are removed, and the paste dough is left to dry in the sun. Then, it goes into a stoneware urn, where it's combined with salty water, along with spices like aniseed, cinnamon and prickly ash peppers. Once it's covered with a lid, the second round of fermentation begins. After 10 days of stirring, the process is complete. Typically, this type of paste, known as panjiang, is used for dishes like soybean paste-braised eggplant and long beans.
③ Pickled mustard stem/kohlrabi root
The stealth ingredient in dan dan noodles, is known as zha cai, or Chinese pickled vegetable. Indigenous to Sichuan Province, zha cai (sometimes written in English as cha tsai, tsa tsai, jar choy or jar choi, to name a few iterations) is made from the stem of a mustard plant, a strange-looking bulbous specimen that's available in almost any Chinese market. During the pickling process, the roots are aggressively salted and pressed to release the moisture. After that, they're dried, rubbed with chile paste, stored in big porcelain pickling jars designed for breathability and set in a dry, covered warm place to ferment. The root is then chopped up and used as a seasoning for stir-fries, and the pickled leaves are used in dan dan noodles.
Helaina Hovitz is a native New Yorker, editor and journalist, who has the unreasonable notion she can help change the world, which food somehow factors into through six degrees of separation. Follow her on Twitter at @HelainaHovitz.