Guangxi’s pickled “sour stuff (酸野)” is the perfect summer snack that comes in almost any flavor
“A hero cannot resist a beauty, but a beauty cannot resist a suanye stand,” goes a popular saying in southwestern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Suanye (酸野) refers to a variety of pickled fruits and vegetables—quintessential Guangxi snacks that provide refreshment in the steamy summers in the region.
Suanye is a term from the Guangxi Nanning dialect, where suan has the same meaning as in standard mandarin (“sour”), and ye simply refers to “things.” In this subtropical part of the country, this “sour stuff” is a refreshing and cleansing snack. The streets are full of people clutching bowls of the sour treats and a bamboo pick for skewering the juicy pieces.
At night markets, suanye stands resemble colorful aquariums. Placed in small tanks, suanye pieces “swim” in a pickling mixture made of rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and secret ingredients specific to each stall. The variety of suanye is astounding: From papaya to lettuce, guava to lotus roots, almost any fresh produce can become suanye. Patrons take their own basket to pick out their favorites from the tanks—or ask the boss for their speciality.
Often, it’s the seasoning that makes the snack. Some stalls have as many flavoring options on offer as the pickles themselves. From spicy salt and brown sugar to sour plum powder and licorice, there are seasonings to cater to every taste. You can even add cilantro, white sesame seeds, or a few spoonfuls of the sour pickling water to your serving—some diehard suanye fans enjoy drinking every last drop of the tart “soup.”
Some suanye has its classic combos, though. Pink guava, for example, is best mixed with hot spices for a perfect blend of sweetness and piquancy. White radish, on the other hand, is best dipped in rice vinegar for a crisp and strong taste. For green papaya, spiced salt brings out the fresh sweetness of the fruit.
In early summer, when Guangxi plums taste their best, plum suanye is popular among locals. While most suanye is pickled in the sour water for hours prior to serving, the plum variety is submerged in the water on the spot to bring out the freshest flavor. The chef first presses the fresh green plums until their skins crack, so that the suanye water seeps into the sweet plum flesh. Then, the plums are shaken in the mixture until the whole thing becomes a delicious cocktail. The crisp and juicy plums suanye explode with rich flavors in the mouth.
Carambola, or star fruit, make for an aesthetically pleasing suanye ingredient with their star-shaped pieces. Those with adventurous taste buds might try pairing carambola with bolder flavors from garlic, cauliflower, or “fish mint” (Houttuynia cordata), a stinky weed known as the “durian of herbs.” In the heat of summer, some stands even add ice cubes in the suanye mixture for a teeth-chattering sour experience.
Though the snack is ubiquitous in Guangxi, it is rarely seen outside of the region. Perhaps the sour taste is too much for the rest of China. But there‘s surely no better way to enjoy a warm summer evening than with a bowl of suanye in one hand, a skewer picking up the juicy pieces in the other. Together, the fresh, sweet, and sour tastes help alleviate the summer heat.