If we were to pinpoint a vegetable as THE most representative of Chinese pickled vegetables, it would be zhacai. The Latin name of zhacai is Brassica juncea tumida. It is a peculiarly looking pickled vegetable, resembling the shape of a fist. It is the stem of a variety of mustard.
This special pickle originates from Sichuan (the Chongqing region, which is now a separate administrative region) and was first created in 1898. The name zhacai, literally meaning pressed vegetable, was inspired by the process employed to press out the salt water using bean curd press. Zhacai is flavoured with salt, chilli, pepper and a mix of typical local spices like star aniseed, kaempferia galanga, glycyrrhiza, etc. The exact composition of the spice mix is the secret of the manufacturer.
Though covered in chilli, it is not hot but extremely salty and is usually cut to size and soaked to remove the salt before cooking. When only a small amount is used as a seasoning, no soaking is necessary. It should be cooked only briefly to retain the crunchy texture.
Have a look at a Chinese video showing the processing of zhacai. Although it is in Chinese, experts should be able to understand the gist.
Zhacai is an essential ingredient in the famous Hot and Sour Soup. Entire tubers available in glass or stone jars, or cans. Shreds are sold in plastic bags Some manufacturers combine zhacai shreds with shredded mushrooms or other vegetables.
In recent years, the market for zhacai has expanded considerably, after it had become a kind of leisure food. It is shredded and packed in small aluminium sachets. The shreds can be used to spice up dishes, in particular the more bland convenience foods like instant noodles, or instant congee. Many Chinese even nibble on zhacai shreds in front of the TV.
On average, 100 gr. of zhacai has the following composition.
|Crude fibre||3.1 gr|
Zhacai: – the pillar of Fuling economy
The Fuling region of Chongqing has always been famous for its zhacai. The local authorities are supporting the development of growing and processing of this vegetable. Zhacai is regarded as the symbol of Fuling and vice versa. The region produced 1.28 million MT of zhacai in 2012. Almost 90% of this was processed into ‘convenience zhacai’. They also intend to promote export. Zhacai is currently the highest valued of the ‘Chinese Local Brands’, with an estimated value of RMB 12.532 billion. Zhacai is often refered to as another name for Fuling. Fuling has generated a turnover of RMB 275 mln in the first quarter of 2016; up 22.05%.
Fuling is also the home of China’s only research institute specialised in zhacai: the Yudongnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, with a separate Zhacai Research Department.
The importance of the Fuling region is reflected in the fact that China’s top 3 brands of pickled vegetables (so not exclusively zhacai) are all located in there.
Wujiang brand (Fuling Zhacai Group)
Yuquan brand (Yuquan Zhacai Group)
Fuliing Lameizi (Lameizi (Hot Sister) Group)
The Baiheliang Zhacai Factory of the Fuling Zhaicai Group has installed a completely automated production line in 2015.
So what’s in it?
A package of Yuquan brand zhacai proudly states: no preservatives added. Great; Chinese consumers have grown very suspicious of additives. However, apart from the zhacai itself, it does contain: salt, rapeseed oil, MSG, disodium 5’-inosinate, citric acid, acesulfame-K, sesame oil and spices.
In other words: several ingredients to enhance and preserve that flavour. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.
From zhacai to soy sauce – an innovative process
An interesting development is the use of the affluent of zhacai processing to produce soy sauce. The Fuling Group, China’s largest manufacturer of zhacai (capacity in 2014: 64,800 mt/p.a.), listed at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, has developed that technology. Moreover, the new soy sauce process no longer includes steps that require manual labour. Work that before required 500 workers, now only needs 30 – 40 people to complete. This is a fine example of how a traditional product can inspire industrial innovation.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.