Preserved 芽菜 (yácài) 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. The “suimi” prefix for this type means “broken rice,” or that it has been minced rather than left as long stems. Yibin yacai is found most famously in dandan noodles and ganbian sijidou (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. Yacai is generally used as a cooking ingredient as opposed to a condiment.

Made from the stem of a kind of mustard plant that grows in Sichuan, yacai is dried, flavored and fermented in a multistep process that ends in a one-of-a-kind taste—not too salty, sweet or spicy, just savory and sour veggie essence. Do not confuse it with zhacai, the other well-known preserved mustard from Sichuan that is most often eaten as a condiment. They are quite different in taste and texture. 

Zhacai is a fermented mustard green tuber that is typically both slightly sour and slight spicy from being preserved with chilies and Sichuan pepper. Zhacai originated in the Fuling district of Chongqing more than 100 years ago and has spread across China and the globe. Chongqing calls zhacai China’s favorite pickle, and the sounds about right. It is sold in various flavors from mild to quite spicy and is used most often as a topping for rice or congee. It can also be found in pork soup and as a noodle topping for Chongqing xiaomian.

About Yibin Yacai

Our Chengdu friend Jessie Levene traveled to Yibin 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.

Yibin Suimiyacai Preserved Mustard Green Stems

As with most heritage products from China, Yibin yacai’s price belies the effort behind it. The most famous brand, Sichuan Yibin Suimiyacai, comes in foil packages as well as in a larger, boxed version. It is labeled 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 are notably inferior and less tasty (though they may try to fool you with copycat packaging). This is the real deal.

Non-GMO, Vegan, Gluten-Free

Yibin yacai

More Yacai Recipes

About Fuling Zhacai

Zhacai is a preserved vegetable condiment that originated in the Fuling district of Chongqing more than 100 years ago. For many years in the U.S. we could get only the version of zhacai made in Taiwan and sold in a can under the name of Szechuan Preserved Vegetable. But now that Fuling zhacai is available, that is the one to seek out.

Zhacai is made from a large bulbous tuber of a local mustard plant that grows right above ground. It is preserved with Sichuan spices including ground chilies and Sichuan pepper and fermented in large earthenware crocks. It is sometimes sold in whole bulbs but more often is sliced before being preserved in spices and sold as ready-to-eat pickles in jars or single-serving foil packets.

Wujiang Fuling Zhacai Sichuan Preserved Vegetable

The Wujiang brand is a local favorite that has conquered the globe—the top of the packet proclaims 15 billion packs sold worldwide! Zhacai is eaten as a condiment with congee and Sichuan noodle soups or a side pickle with any meal. This zhacai is ready to eat right out of the package and should NOT be rinsed.

Wujiang zhacai comes in various shapes and flavors. This one, our favorite, is cut in thin strips and is wei la, or slightly spicy. 


Cooking and Storage Tips

Store yacai and zhacai packets in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight and heat sources. Once opened, transfer any remaining yacai or zhacai to an airtight glass or plastic container and refrigerate. If stored correctly, and not cross-contaminated, fermented products do not really expire. Let your eyes and nose be the judge of its shelf life.

Some recipes call for rinsing the yacai in cold water to reduce saltiness, usually when used in large quantities (as opposed to seasoning). Most cooks will also quickly fry yacai in a dry pan to absorb moisture. If the amount called for, like a noodle topping, is not much, you can use the yacai directly from the packet without rinsing or cooking. Be sure to taste-test the dish before adding additional salt, as it likely will no longer need it.

Zhaicai is ready to eat right out of the package. Do not rinse its seasoning off.

zhacai and yacai

Starting Your Sichuan Cooking Journey? Get the Complete Sichuan Pantry Collection

Complete Sichuan pantry collection

Stock your shelves with a premium version of every specialty ingredient needed to cook classic Sichuan food, plus nine recipe cards for the most-loved dishes of Chengdu and Chongqing. The core of the collection is the ingredients for creating ma and la, the defining tastes of Sichuan food. ‘Ma’ refers to the tingly, citrusy taste of Sichuan peppercorn. ‘La’ refers to the heat of chili pepper.

This kit further includes the highest quality Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste) on the market, handcrafted and aged for three years, plus Sichuan’s other two umami powerhouses: douchi (fermented black soybeans) and tianmianjiang (fermented sweet wheat paste). Other must-haves are Sichuan’s oldest and most esteemed brands of soy sauce and vinegar: Zhongba light soy sauce is naturally brewed for 360 days, and handcrafted Baoning vinegar is aged for 3 years. Like Pixian douban, they are China Time-Honored Brands, in business for centuries, and we are their exclusive U.S. representatives. 

We round out this collection with our own organic, stone-ground sesame paste and Yibin suimiyacai, a fermented mustard pickle used in many classic dishes.

All How to Cook With Yacai & Zhacai Pickles