Sourcing Yibin Suimi Yacai (Preserved Mustard Greens)
Yibin Yacai: The Queen of Sichuan Pickles~~
Yacai is another one of those only-in-Sichuan ingredients. All of China loves a preserved vegetable, but this particular example—fermented mustard green stems—is made only in Yibin, a county in southern Sichuan Province. Yibin yacai is used most famously in dan dan noodles and gan bian si ji dou (dry-fried green beans), where it is absolutely indispensable. But it also provides a deep veggie essence to all kinds of sauces and dishes in Sichuan cooking. I have never made it to Yibin, but my friend Jessie Levene traveled there to check out the process of making yacai for Chengdoo magazine. She discovered quite a process:
Yacai’s primary ingredient is jièmòcài (芥茉菜), a type of mustard green native to southeast Sichuan. Four to five months after being planted, the mustard green plants are harvested in the ninth lunar month. The leaves are then discarded, the stems sliced into even strips, and the strips hung out on poles to dry. The making of yacai is unusual among Sichuanese ingredients in that it demands two fermentation stages—others, such as doubanjiang (chili bean paste) and douchi (fermented black beans) require only one. Once sufficiently dry, the mustard green stems are mixed with salt and left to ferment in sealed containers for three to six months. Small ceramic pots called tutan are traditionally used. Once this first stage is complete, the mustard green stems are boiled with brown sugar for eight to nine hours and then hung up to dry out once more. Next, star anise, Sichuan pepper, and other spices are added, and again, the mustard green stems are left to ferment in sealed containers for another three to six months.
No wonder this stuff tastes so special. Though as with all artisan-made ingredients from China, its price belies the effort behind it. The most famous brand, Sichuan Yibin Suimi Yacai, comes in small foil packages, in 70 gram, 100 gram and 230 gram sizes, and well as in a larger, boxed version. Look for the one that says Suimiyacai on the package, meaning it is cut into rice-size pieces. That word also tells you you’re getting the brand made by the original producer. The knock-offs, including Spicy King, are notably inferior and less tasty.
Yibin Suimi Yacai has been imported and seen in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S. for a few years, but its availability comes and goes. There was a time when it was never available, however, so recipes often called for the king of Sichuan preserved vegetables, zha cai, which is preserved mustard tuber. It is made and spiced differently and has a completely different texture from yacai, but it works well as a substitute in many things, especially noodles.
In fact many of the vast assortment of Chinese pickles-in-packets you can find in the U.S. might work in Sichuan recipes, whether they are from Sichuan or another pickle-loving province, and whether they are mustard plant, kohlrabi, radish or another vegetable. Dongcai is minced, dark green, mustard bits similar to yacai, while the others are mostly bigger, toothier pickled vegetables similar to zha cai. The above photo is my current collection, all but one example bought in the U.S. Fong Chong eats these on zhou (congee), and I use them in Sichuan recipes as well as make up my own uses, adding yacai to stir-frys of edamame or snap peas along with some garlic and fresh red chili.
As of December 2016, our own Mala Project SHOP is selling both of our favorite preserved vegetables—Yibin Suimi Yacai and Lao Gan Ma’s Xiang La Cai, a spicy cabbage-and-chili pickle.
On my most recent trip to Chengdu I finally got to try Yibin County’s famous noodles, ran mian, or burning noodles, which feature—you guessed it!—yacai. The Yibin Ran Mian restaurant I happened upon may be a chain. It was certainly fast food, but it was brilliant fast food. These thin wheat noodles were topped with seasoned pork, scallions, peanuts and a pile of yacai. The sauce was less spicy than in the similarly made dan dan noodles, but equally robust. If only I knew the ingredients. None of The Cookbooks include this dish. I’ve seen recipes elsewhere, but not one that looks like it would produce these beauties. Ahhh, the secrets of Sichuan!