Zha Cai (preserved vegetables ) in most cases is named Sichuan preserved mustard green and is a tiny and humble side dish, usually packed in small bags. But if you are a returning reader, you may find I mentioned it a lot in my recipes. It has a history of hundreds of years and still keeps great popularity because of its sweet and savory flavor and crunchy texture. Zha Cai can be different in flavors.
What's Zha Cai
Zha Cai (榨菜), also romanized as Cha Tsai, is a type of preserved mustard plant stem originating from the Wujiang River, Chongqing, China. In English, it is commonly known as Sichuan preserved mustard green or Chinese preserved vegetable. It is a group name because we have several different flavors of Zha Cai. The most common and popular Zha Cai is made from the stem Brassica juncea var. tumida which belongs to the group of mustard green. Following is a picture of a whole head of preserved mustard head.
Zha Cai can have lots of forms, whole head (available only in local markets), diced Zha Cai, shredded version, or even minced Zha Cai.
About the processing
The most famous brand of Zha Cai is Wujiang Fuling. The mustard green head which is used to make Zha Cai is called "青菜头" in Chinese and has a lovely and incredible church texture. Sometimes we simply sun-dry it to make another type of preserved vegetable. When I was a child, we planted lots of mustard green heads and then shredded them before sun drying. The dried mustard green is super great for twice-cooked pork belly or serving as a topping for noodles and rice.
Zha Cai is not completely dried like the dried shreds I mentioned. The water content is mainly removed by "pressing". That's the meaning of "榨" which means "removing the water content from vegetables". Firstly it is rubbed with salt and then pressed to remove water content. This process will be repeated 3 times so the perfect church texture can be achieved.
Where to buy and How to keep
Zha Cai now is available in most Chinese supermarkets or online stores like amazon. It is usually packaged in small bags so you can use it in a short time. Zha Cai itself is quite salty so it will last for a longer time (around 2 weeks in the fridge) but it may dry out very quickly. So if there are leftovers, always seal the package to keep it moist.
You can choose from lots of flavors when purchasing. The most popular flavor is the original flavor which is a sweet and savory version, which can be further used in stir-frying and soups. But there are also hot versions in which spice mix is already added. I love to use the spiced version as the noodle topping, side dish of porridge or steamed rice.
How to use it
Zha Cai has a unique and strong flavor. So I love to use it as a seasoning or added to other dishes for extra flavor, stir-frying, soups, noodles, or even salad. The most common dish is the Zha Cai Rou Si, a very popular Sichuan home-style dish. You can use it further used to serve with noodles, making Zha Cai Rou Si noodles.
You can eat Zha Cai directly along with meals. Since it is a little bit salty, it usually serves with other plain staple food like steamed rice, porridge, or noodles.
Some of the local Sichuan dishes also call Zha Cai as a topping including Chongqing noodles and hot and sour noodles. I hope to give you some inspiration, if you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment.