Making Sichuan Pickled Peppers (Paojiao, 泡椒)
Our Pick for Pickled Peppers
Many of you have asked us to source paojiao (泡椒, pàojiāo), the pickled hot peppers or pepper paste used in numerous Sichuan dishes. Some of you just want a lighter touch than doubanjiang, the funky Sichuan base sauce that is made from a combination of fermented chiles and broad beans and is the go-to for most dishes. And some of you are looking for a gluten-free alternative to doubanjiang, whose fermentation is kickstarted with wheat (as are almost all fermented Chinese sauces).
Paojiao is used most famously in Sichuan’s yuxiang-flavored dishes—starting with yuxiang pork and yuxiang eggplant—as well as in cold dishes/salads, but can be used in place of chili bean paste in other dishes as well. You’ll lose some of the umami funk of the fermented beans, but you’ll retain the one-of-a-kind-fermented chili taste, since doubanjiang and paojiao are both made from Sichuan’s beloved erjingtiao chili. In the case of chili bean paste, erjingtiao are fermented along with broad (fava) beans in a dry salt brine, and for paojiao they are lightly pickled in a wet brine.
You don’t see these pickled peppers often in Asian markets outside Sichuan, and when you do they usually look pretty old and sad. You don’t often see them packaged for supermarkets in Chengdu either, but instead get them from the prepared-food section of the grocery store or, better yet, from the pickle woman at the wet market, since they are better when freshly pickled and are easily made if you have easy access to fresh erjingtiao.
But we in the West do not have easy access to fresh erjingtiao or any similar chili. Erjingtiao are fruity, fragrant, thin-skinned, not too fleshy, and perfectly, moderately hot. They have a very appealing shape and texture as well as taste and are used in their green form in stir-fries year-round. When ripe red in the summer they are also pickled. But by pickled, I mean naturally preserved in the Sichuan style vs. quick-pickled with vinegar.
One of the things I’ve learned as a food importer is that low-acid (and “acidified” or acid-added) foods such as brined paojiao pickles are much more difficult to import than naturally high-acid foods. They require filing a lot more paperwork with the FDA, detailing the production process and chemical analysis, and Chinese manufacturers (other than a few canneries) are not interested in a lot more American paperwork. And, in my experience, these pickled peppers don’t have a super-long shelf-life anyway, so by the time they get off the boat here in America they are already pretty ragged. For those two reasons, The Mala Market is not planning to import them anytime soon.
So, what are we to do if we want to cook with Sichuan pickled peppers or paste, considering the poor quality of imports and the lack of an appropriate pepper to pickle ourselves? Well, we think we’ve found the best solution there is. We pickle our recently imported, freshly dried erjingtiao chilies. They come back to life wonderfully in the pickle jar and are very much like their cousins that have been pickled fresh. Plus, they retain the elusive erjingtiao taste and texture—which a fresh red cayenne, jalapeno or fresno chili cannot do.
Here we should mention that you can buy a Hunan-style minced pickled pepper in jars in the U.S., but it is made with a different chili and is way too hot for Sichuan cooking, not to mention normally has added MSG and preservatives.
So let’s make our own! Our brine recipe for Sichuan pickles (paocai) works like a charm with these, and since they are not meant to ferment until fully soured but only until mildly preserved and tinged with age, they are ready in three or so days. They will be mildly salty, though not as salty as doubanjiang, so if substituting in a recipe that calls for douban you might want to increase the amount of pickled chili.
Mince them with or without their seeds for use in sauces and you’ll get that super-red hue and wonderfully fruity, medium heat that erjingtiao are renowned for.
If you prefer to make a pickled chili sauce from fresh chilies, see my recipe for lajiaojiang. It cheats a little by using a bit of vinegar, because naturally fermenting fresh chilies requires a heavy dose of salt due to their high water content.
Sichuan Pickled Peppers (Paojiao)
- dried erjingtiao chilies, enough to pack a quart/liter jar
- 3 cups water
- 40 grams kosher or sea salt (3-5 tablespoons, depending on type and brand)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons gin, vodka or Chinese baijiu
- Bring water to a boil, remove from heat, and add salt and sugar. Stir to dissolve. Let cool completely to room temperature, then stir in gin, vodka or Chinese baijiu.
- Pack dried erjingtiao chilies in a quart/liter pickling jar and cover completely with the cooled brine. Make sure all chilies are submerged beneath the brine, weighting them down if necessary. Cover with lid and leave to ferment at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. You can ferment them longer, but they are not meant to be fully soured, just lightly preserved.
- After fermentation period, pour off most of the brine or remove chilies to a clean glass jar with only a small bit of the brine. Seal tightly and refrigerate up to several months.