Making Sichuan Pickled Peppers (Pao La Jiao, 泡辣椒)
Our Pick for Pickled Peppers~~
Many of you have asked us to source pao la jiao (泡辣椒, pào làjiāo), 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).
Pao la jiao is used most famously in Sichuan’s yu xiang-flavored dishes—starting with yu xiang pork and yu xiang 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 pao la jiao are both made from Sichuan’s beloved er jing tiao chili. In the case of chili bean paste, er jing tiao are fermented along with broad (fava) beans in a dry salt brine, and for pao la jiao 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 er jing tiao.
But we in the West do not have easy access to fresh er jing tiao or any similar chili. Er jing tiao 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 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 er jing tiao 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 er jing tiao 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 (pao cai) 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 er jing tiao are renowned for.
If you prefer to make a pickled chili sauce from fresh chilies, see my recipe for la jiao jiang. 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 (Pao La Jiao)
- dried er jing tiao 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 er jing tiao 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.
This is a fabulous idea! I’m trying it right away. I find I use pickled chilies more that the hot bean paste so this’ll be tested right away.
Excellent. Hope it works for you!
Nice! Seems easy and useful!
I would love to grow jing tiao chilies! Do you know a source for jing tiao chili seeds?
I don’t know of any sources for seeds, but we’ve had a lot of customers successfully grow them with seeds from our chilies.
I love those jars that you have shown, I been searching for something like those but fail to find any like them, were they purchase here in the states? And if so could you mention where? For I’m looking to try pickle chile peppers.
The Wok Shop in San Francisco usually carries the glass pickle jars. Try their online store.
These look amazing. Just getting into Sichuan cooking and looking forward to trying all the recipes on your site!
Recently had pickled peppers at a Sichuan restaurant and they used cherry peppers. Might be a good alternative when er jing tiao aren’t available.
Can I ask why you pour off the brine? Seems that the chiles might get moldy over time without the protective brine. Is there harm in keeping the brine covering the peppers?
I usually pour off most of the brine because I find that the longer the chilies sit in it the more color they lose and softer they get. I have not had any of them without brine mold, though I can see how they might. I guess my brine had enough salt in it to begin with. Having said that, it’s probably a better bet to keep them in the brine for longterm storage.
Is it possible to pickle fresh green peppers? I planted some peppers this summer, I am not sure if they are Tien Tsin or Er Jing Tiao and unfortunately it got too cold before they all matured. If pickling them is not ideal is there a go to recipe for green peppers?
Yes, you can pickle fresh green peppers! We were in the same situation as you this summer, and I actually wrote a whole recipe making use of the green peppers in a traditional Sichuan condiment/topping that will be published in the near future. It may have to wait until after Lunar New Year, but if you sign up for our newsletter you’ll be the first to see it. Hope you bookmark it to try this summer with your next harvest!
Sorry for the late reply, but hope this helps anyone else reading!
Just pickled some of the 二荆条 for the first time, turned out fantastic. I used about 7% brine for about five days. Just drained them – do you store uncovered at room temperature? Am sure will go through the first batch within a week or so.
Also as a general comment I am so incredibly stoked to have discovered you guys, for the longest time have been trying to get something better than what I can find in your average Asian grocery or Ranch 99.
Thank you, Ben! So glad the pickling worked for you. I would refrigerate the pickled peppers in a sealed container. I’ve had them last quite some time that way.
Is it possible to make it without the addition of alcohol, to keep it halal? What other alternative might you suggest then?
Thank you! Much appreciated
Hi Zuhairi. Apologies for the slow response, but, yes, I think you can just leave the alcohol out. It does help with deterring the formation of bad bacteria, but perhaps you could add a bit more salt to your brine. Not too much though, as they won’t ferment with too much salt. You may have to experiment.
Took the last of my peppers and pickled them according to this recipe. They are delicious! There is no comparison between the quality of these dried peppers and others you can find online – Mala Market’s are the best.
That’s wonderful, Bobbie! Thanks for letting us know!