A mystery vegetable

One thing I soon learnt after coming to China was that there are a myriad of vegetables in this country that just don’t exist in Australia. There are an incredible amount of chinese vegetables that end in -瓜 (gua), which means melon, and in my mind they don’t represent melons at all!!

As the weather has recently started to warm, I’ve revisited my favourite outdoor fruit and vegetable market behind Gongti. It’s only open from the wee hours until about 10am and is secretly hiding behind a big brick wall. The only way you know it is there is from the steady stream of grandmas and grandpas going in and out!

This market has a great range, and is generally dirt cheap – though I’m pretty sure I still end up paying a few laowai prices. There are also great surprises like asparagus, radish sprouts and thai basil, usually not showing their green faces at standard markets around the city.

As a result, there’s often a random fruit or vegetable that’s just dying to sneak into my shopping bag for some investigative cooking!

This week I discovered 榨菜 (zhàcaì). This bolbous, almost-fluorescent green head of a vegetable is difficult to research. I eventually found out that it is most commonly used as a pickled vegetable bought in a jar loaded with chilli. It’s commonly a bar snack, associated with Sichuan province, to be snacked upon whilst sipping on beer. It sounded like this snack was incredibly salty.

But I decided that it must be used fresh somewhere! So, myself and the girls at work starting searching online in chinese and got a little further. We found a recipe for pickling it, though I wasn’t so interested in that. Further home-based research, stretching my chinese skills to the limits, got me a recipe for ‘Stir-fried zhacai and pork strips’. A simple recipe (phew!) and a good place to start. After a bit of dictionary work, I had a simple recipe.

I was a little scared of this bright green monster as everything online consistently said that it was: a) very salty or, b) had a ‘distinct’ flavour, without specifying further. I sampled a fresh piece – similar to a 冬瓜 (donggua) I thought. I sliced it all up and made my stirfry!

And, I really enjoyed it!! The zhacai has a western cabbage-like flavour, but it’s more solid than cabbage, so it has a nice texture to sink your teeth into. The pork cooked perfectly and wasn’t tough at all. The colour of the dish made me smile – it looked so green and fresh! There were no crazy distinct flavours, and it wasn’t salty. It was a subtle dish, and I think it would be a great dish as a part of a chinese banquet with other strong-flavoured dishes. I put a nice dollop of my favourite chilli and peanut paste on top and wolfed it down.

Stir-fried zhacai and pork strips 榨菜炒肉丝

50g sliced zhacai, 50g sliced leek, 10mL cooking wine, 2g salt (I omitted this), 10mL cooking wine, 5g cornflour

1. Mix the cornflour with some water and add the sliced pork. Sit for a few minutes.

2. Put some oil in a wok and heat it on high until quite hot.

3. Add the pork, stir-frying continously.

4. When the outside looks mostly cooked, add the cooking wine. Keep stirring.

5. Add the zhacai and leek. Keep stirring.

6. When the pork is cooked through, serve!

I would recommend chilli paste if you’re eating this on its own. I imagine that some fresh dill or coriander would also make a great garnish.

**Update** I bought this dish from our local take-away place to do a comparison. They used the pickled variety in their dish. It was good, but I think I prefer fresh. Having a whole plate of something pickled is pretty intense on the stomach. Their pork strips were a little prettier though. The greenery is a little bit of garlic chive.


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