I have got to face the fact that we are in winter now. I have been using ‘late autumn’ to refer to this time of the year, but it is winter now — and I haven’t finished my autumn recipes yet! And now, I got to start my winter recipes, no matter how reluctant I am. The good thing is there are many tasty winter Chinese recipes. I am saying these dishes are for winter, one is because they are good to warm up your body, and give you enough energy to against the coldness, another reason is that some of the ingredients can only be found in winter — well, probably not totally true, as nowadays you can get everything at anytime of the year. But I still feel it only right if have it in winter.
Anyway, to start with, I want to talk about one the most distinctive winter food — pickled Chinese leaves (Napa cabbage). Its Chinese name is “Suan Cai”, means sour vegetable. I mentioned before, it tastes quite similar to sauerkraut, so when I could not get the real pickled Chinese leaves, I would use sauerkraut instead. In other regions in China, especially in Cantonese region, there is a pickled cabbage called “Suai Cai”, but the taste is still different. However, the actual thing, and the way of making it are totally different.
The original homemade pickled Chinese leaves — you probably can only get it in northern China, because it requires low temperature, and probably it was only northern people felt urge to store up some vegetables to pass through the cold winter, since thousands years ago. So northern Chinese people always have special emotional attachment towards it. You can imagine how much I miss it.
Northeast “Suan Cai” is made from Chinese leaves (or Napa cabbage if you call it differently). Normally in autumn, when it is the harvest season for Chinese leaves, every household would buy hundreds kilograms of them. Then the following days are hard, as you need to ‘dry’ up the leaves in open air. So you would see many people would lay the leaves separately on the ground in the yard before they go to work, and pile them up in the evening, cover them with some plastic sheet to prevent them from frozen. It is not a easy job, imagine you are dealing with 400 kg (the right amount for most households) of Chinese leaves everyday.
This normally last 2-3 weeks, then, before winter comes, they need to be pickled. Firstly, to get rid of the outer layers of leaves, then put them briefly in boiling water. After let them cool down, squeeze out of excess water, and place them in a deep crock (normally between 0.5m to 1m depth, depends on how much you are making) in layers. Once finishing layering them, place a piece of very big and heavy stone on the very top. — That is it. The rest is just to wait. During waiting, you need to keep eyes on them as well, as there will be lots of excess water spill out.
The whole thing needs to be kept in very low temperature, so many families would leave the crock in the corridor of the apartments’ building or on the balcony.
It normally takes at least 2-3 weeks before them can be eaten, but they can always be kept well through out the whole winter without being rotten. The taste of these pickled Chinese leaves is a bit sweet and sour, makes it good to open up your appetite.
So you can see the major difference between northern pickled Chinese leaves to the other versions is the original of the sour taste — sourness from northern pickled Chinese leaves is slowly pressed and fermented, while some of the other ones are using vinegar.
Pickled Chinese leaves need to be washed well before cooking. It can be cooked in stir-fried dishes and soups, can be cooked with meat or fish, and the most famous one is with frozen tofu.
All the recipes will come up — featured winter recipes.