Inspired by Manhattan’s Cafe China: Quick Sichuan Pickled Vegetables (Sichuan Paocai)
In a Pickle~~
Life has gotten in the way of serious cooking recently. And of blogging too, you may have noticed. You know how that it is, I’m sure, when there’s little time to do even the things you most love to do. For me over the past month, there was Fong Chong’s graduation from middle school, multiple family birthdays, a trip to New York and, finally, a temporary move to Los Angeles.
Not that I’m complaining! A summer in L.A. brings infinite eating rewards—especially since we’re staying only minutes from the San Gabriel Valley, home to the best Chinese food in the U.S.—but one of them is not a fully, or even marginally, equipped Chinese kitchen and pantry in our borrowed guesthouse.
So Fong Chong and I will be doing lots of eating out over the next few weeks, working our way through the menus of the SGV’s stellar Sichuan restaurants and taking copious notes for later attempts at recreating our favorite dishes. Though you unfortunately won’t see many recipes for a few weeks, do expect to see previews of the dishes that inspire us as we explore the cutting edge of Sichuan cuisine in America.
In the meantime, however, here’s a recipe that one can make even in a tiny, temporary kitchen, since it requires only three ingredients and a knife. With little prep and no cooking, paocai, or Sichuan pickled vegetables—and especially quick Sichuan pickles—can liven up a simple meal or plate of dumplings and make it feel special and complete.
I agree with those Sichuanese who believe that paocai belongs at every meal. Many Sichuan households still maintain an earthenware crock with a salt-water brine that they constantly replenish with various vegetables. Cabbage is kept in the brine for only a few hours or overnight, but root vegetables might stay in much longer.
Even in my normal kitchen, I don’t always keep the pickle jar filled and ready as they do, as I have found salt-brine pickling much trickier than vinegar-brine pickles—mine usually come out either way too salty or a little funky-rotty. Therefore I love this quick cabbage-and-carrot pickle, which is inspired by the paocai served at my favorite New York City Sichuan resto, Manhattan’s Cafe China.
Nothing against Flushing, which I frequent when I can, but Cafe China has delicious traditional Sichuan food served in a bohemian-chic 1930s Shanghai dining room in an easily accessible location in Midtown. Win, win, win.
I won’t pretend to do a full review of Cafe China, because I have eaten only a small portion of the menu. But everything I’ve tried has been exemplary, and I trust from its Michelin star (!) that everything else is as well. I do know that I am obsessed with Cafe China’s version of paocai, which is crispy fresh, just barely sweet and drenched in toasty chili oil.
Most paocai comes in bite-size chunks, but theirs makes a brilliant riff on American coleslaw and uses finely chopped cabbage plus super-tiny-dice carrots. This allows the vegetables to taste unraw, even though they are just barely pickled. The chef then uses the most minimal of dressing, namely a spot of sugar and a generous pour of that perfectly roasty, toasty chili oil. It is simple and sublime.
(Interestingly, the restaurant’s menu describes the dish as being composed of napa cabbage, celery, carrot and green chili. When I’ve had it there, it has clearly seemed to be white cabbage and carrot only. But do add those additional ingredients to the recipe if they appeal to you.)
My guess at recreating it involved “pickling” the chopped cabbage and carrots in kosher salt and sugar for only an hour or two and making a pure chili oil with maximum toasted chili taste. When I said three ingredients, I meant cabbage, carrots and chili oil. I am assuming you have salt and sugar in your pantry already.
But the crux of this dish is the perfect chili oil, so although I already had two types of homemade chili oil in my cupboard, I made another one for this recipe. It should have no flavor other than pure toasted, nutty chili. So I made a double-toasted chili oil, if you will, toasting whole chilies in a wok until lightly brown before grinding them to flakes and toasting again in hot oil.
This worked nicely and tasted great, but was too spicy hot for this use, as you are meant to use a generous amount of oil on the cabbage. Turns out that using whole dried chilies—even Chinese dried red chilies—makes for hotter flakes than pre-processed flakes, from which some seeds are generally removed. Better to stick with my basic chili oil recipe, I decided, which uses Chinese or Korean chili flakes and yields an almost-as-toasty chili oil. You’ll want to strain out the flakes for this usage.
All you have to do is prepare the cabbage, then dish up a portion for each diner, sprinkle with a little sugar and top generously with the chili oil. The finished flavor is so much greater than the sum of the parts.
- ½ head white cabbage
- 1 large carrot
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- chili oil, without flakes
- Core and finely chop the cabbage into small bites. This is easily done in a food processor, though do watch closely to make sure you stop chopping before the cabbage is minced. Peel and chop the carrot into a fine dice.
- Combine the cabbage and carrot in a colander and mix with the sugar and salt. Place the colander in a bowl or sink as the cabbage will release some of its water. Let the mixture sit for at least an hour, then refrigerate until ready to serve.
- To serve, portion the cabbage-carrot mixture into small bowls, sprinkle with a bit of sugar and top with pure toasted-chili oil (no flakes).