China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

In the Yunnan Kitchen: Pickles

November 23rd, 2013

In Yunnan, pickles are everywhere. They add bite and spice to soup, impart a distinctive aromatic quality to potatoes, punch up the flavor of stir-fried rice cakes. If there’s one flavor that ties together Yunnan’s many different cuisines, it’s the sharp, sometimes briny, often spicy flavor of the region’s pickles.

Pickled onions, daikon, and mushrooms

Pickled onions, daikon, and mushrooms

Pickled vegetables are popular throughout China, but they seem to be particularly prevalent in Yunnan. Everything you can think of is pickled here: cabbage, mustard greens, daikon root, bamboo shoots, spring onions, garlic, chives, chive blossoms, fern tips, mushrooms, fresh chiles, lotus root, black beans, and many more cultivated and foraged ingredients go into pickling jars. Even fruit like strawberries and pineapple are turned into quick pickles and sold as a snack by street vendors.

Street snack: quick-pickled pineapple, cucumber, daikon, celery, lotus root, strawberries, and mugua (Chinese flowering quince)

Street snack: quick-pickled pineapple, cucumber, daikon, celery, lotus root, strawberries, and mugua (Chinese flowering quince)

Despite the wide variety of ingredients that are pickled, the method remains almost uniform across these different ingredients and across the province—the vegetables (or legumes or roots or fruit) are massaged with salt and chile flakes or chile paste, and sometimes some Sichuan peppercorns, and packed into jars to ferment and develop lactic acid. The result is slightly more complex than a German sauerkraut but simpler than Korean pickles with their shrimp pastes and fish sauces.

As an ingredient, these pickles are are versatile as they are varied. They can be added to everything from stir-fried beef to sandpot rice noodles (which usually call for mustard green pickles in Kunming and Napa cabbage pickles in Dali). They’re particularly good when added to mild ingredients like fried white beans. I once had a dish of simple stir-fried potato slices that was made wonderfully aromatic by the addition of tiny pickled chive blossoms, which have a lemony, floral, almost soapy quality. And no matter where you use these pickles (or what ingredient you choose to make them from), the resulting dish always takes on a distinctively Yunnanese flavor and aroma.

Pickled ferns from a market in Jingdong

Pickled ferns from a market in Dali

Photos: Josh Wand (2), Georgia Freedman, Josh Wand

  • Monica Weintraub

    Love the last shot. Just found this blog while looking for the dressing recipe to a mint and beef cold dish I love from Yunnan. I went to Yunnan over the summer and got rained in without being able to explore much. Luckily for me, Beijing does pretty well with their Yunnan joints. Keep it up! – Monica @ http://www.woklikeme.com