Before greenhouses, the Chinese cabbage known as baicai was a mainstay of Chinese dinner tables. Especially in the north, where most areas are covered with thick snow or a light coat of frost much of the year, Chinese cabbage remains popular because it’s often the only local vegetable left. Plus, it’s cheap.
“I had a ‘four dishes and one soup’ (四菜一汤 sì cài yī tāng) style lunch this afternoon,” said a man to his colleague, aiming to show off his high standard of living. (“Four dishes and one soup” is a popular expression in China.)
“What were they?” asked his colleague, jealously.
“Fried baicai with dry red pepper, sweet and sour baicai, baicai salad, stewed tofu with baicai, and a baicai soup. You see, not too much and not too little, just four dishes and one soup. ”
It may be funnier in Chinese. But it’s easy to see why baicai rules dinner tables nationwide: it’s easy to grow, cheap, and you can cook it with anything.
Not so long ago, October was an important month across China’s northeast. As the weather turned, every family stored away a winter’s worth of baicai. They’d store it in the courtyards, or between windows and the window bars, or under their beds, peeling off the slowly-rotting layers to reveal untouched leaves underneath.
Li Wenzhong, the manager of Liaoning Provincial Restaurant in Beijing, remembers the process he’d go through every winter. “My parents would buy more than a half-ton of baicai at a time. The truck driver helped deliver it to our door, but the rest was up to us young boys. We dug a deep ditch in advance, maybe one meter across. Then we planted the baicai by the roots, and covered them with a think layer of soil. This way, we could store the baicai for the whole winter. It was a kind of natural refrigerator.”
That’s the way we did it in my hometown. Back when most Chinese people still lived in one-story houses, almost everyone had a little vegetable cellar in their courtyard. Our cellar was very deep, deep enough for an adult to stand upright. It was so cold in the winter that my mother never allowed me to go in—she would lock it from the outside to make sure. Every winter, we’d fill it with sacks of baicai. They were the staple of our meals, and winters wouldn’t have felt like winters without them.
There are so many ways to cook baicai… It can be fried, stewed, used in a salad, boiled in a soup, or—and this is one of my favorite ways—pickled in a big clay pot. Pickled baicai is known as suancai (酸菜, “sour cabbage” literally), and is one of the most important foods in Dongbei, northeastern China, as Dongbeiren (Northeastern Chinese) say in their dialect:
“Where I’m from, we’re all addicted to eating suancai. Suancai is wicked good!”
Zài ǎn men nà gāda, ǎn men jiù ài chī suāncài,suāncài zéi lā de hào chī!
But I’m not from Dongbei, and I’d never heard of suancai before a pop song brought it to the nation’s attention. “All Dongbeiren Are Living Lei Fengs” (《东北人都是活雷锋》Dōngběirén Dōu Shì Huó Léi Fēng), a sassy hit, included the line “Cuihua, serve the suancai! (翠花，上酸菜！Cuìhuā, shàng suāncài!)” Cuihua, a common rural-Dongbei girl’s name, immediately became a byword for waitress, and suancai turned into the representative dish of Dongbei cuisine.
The taste of suancai is unforgettable. It’s sour, refreshing, and somewhat like sauerkraut, a dish I discovered when I first studied abroad, in Düsseldorf. But Manager Li pointed out the difference between the two. “German sauerkraut is made of regular cabbage—this is more suited to a salad. Chinese baicai, though, is strong enough for slow cooking.”
As the days get cooler, Li pickles both baicai and regular cabbage for himself. “The suancai sold in supermarkets is not good to eat. My homemade suancai is much better,” he said in his strong Dongbei accent. “Ever since I learned to cook, I’ve been picky about foods. I only like my own homemade suancai.”
To make your own homemade suancai, Li says you should wash and dry the leaves of 75kg of baicai individually, then cut them lengthwise. Spread them flat on the bottom of a large earthen jar, scattering 1.5kg of salt on top. Fill the jar with 15kg of clear cold water, cover the leaves with large stones, then seal the jar with plastic wrap. I know—it seems like a large amount, but if you’re going to eat it all winter, you better prepare well! Leave the baicai to ferment for a month. “After one month,” Li says, “it is OK to eat.”
Li takes his food seriously, and hesitated when I asked him what to pair it with. “We Dongbeiren like drinking alcohol with dinner and chatting happily with friends, and a pot of stewed pork with suancai is ideal for that situation. It tastes great. It’s the classic Dongbei dish.”
Manager Li’s head chef, Li Zhongzhi, is very shy and always smiling. “Manager Li is a better cook than I,” he said demurely. “You should interview him, not me.” But finally, after a battle of compliments, Chef Li agreed to teach me his recipe.
Li was the typical Dongbeiren: friendly, caring, reliable. I’d recommend you make as many Dongbei friends as you can. But before you do, why not try this traditional Dongbei dish first? I’m sure there’s a waitress named Cuihua who would be happy to take your order.
- 500g pickled baicai (Chinese cabbage) 酸菜 suāncài
- 250g boneless marbled pork 五花肉 wǔhuāròu
- 30g ginger, minced 姜 jiāng
- 30g scallion, chopped 葱 cōng
- 50g sweet potato noodles 粉条 fěntiáo
- 3g salt 盐 yán
- 5g chicken bouillon 鸡精 jījīng
- 10g vegetable oil 植物油 zhíwùyóu
Bring 500ml of water to a boil in a large stockpot. Add the meat, and half the ginger and scallions, and allow it to simmer for about 30 minutes, making sure to discard the foam floating on the surface of the soup.
Remove the pork from the soup with a slotted spoon. Reserve the broth, which you’ll need later, in a bowl. Chop the boiled marbled pork into 4cm slices.
Soak the pickled baicai in a bowl of clear cold water for about 5 minutes. Take it out and wash it carefully. Then chop it into 1cm slices.
Add the pork slices along with 600ml of water to the pot , quickly stirring for 1 minute. Then remove the pork again. Pour out the water and wash the pot carefully.
Add the remaining scallions and another 50ml of water to the pot, quickly stirring for a few seconds, then add the pork and the pickled baicai to the pot for 1 minute.
Add the soup that’s been used to boil the pork back to the pot, together with 3g of salt and 5g of chicken bouillon. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat, and simmer for about 30 minutes. Stir slowly, to keep the suancai leaves from sticking together.
Add the 50g sweet potato noodles and bring the mixture to a boil once again.