Paocai to the People: At Chengdu Restaurants, Free Homemade Pickles Are the Standard | Jordan Porter
Published Apr 07, 2017, Updated May 31, 2023
A Pickle a Day
By Jordan Porter—Holler out “paocai,” the Chinese word for pickles, at nearly any restaurant in Chengdu and the wait staff will deliver a bowl of delicious homemade pickled veggies to your table. I say nearly, because at some places the communal pickle jar (or urn, or bucket, or box) is self-serve, and you scoop them up on your own. Either way, a house-made pickle comes standard at every restaurant in the city. The best part? It’s free!
Pickled and fermented ingredients, from the famous douban paste to soy sauce and minced pickled chilis, play an important role in creating the depth of flavor that makes Sichuan cuisine what it is. Beyond hot and spicy, these ingredients set the umami-heavy stage on which the tingly and tangy peppers dance. The word paocai (泡菜) covers a range of pickled and fermented vegetables (including yacai and zhacai), but generally refers to the quick pickles—often called overnight pickles or shower pickles in Sichuan—that serve as accompaniment to your main dishes, adding a sour, salty and spicy crunch. They are cool and crisp and act as a sort of palate cleanser between heavier fried dishes.
Typically left in brine for just three to eight hours, these are lighter and crispier than the pickled chilies, ginger and long beans (to name a few) that are used in cooking and in sauces. Paocai are an accompaniment to your meal, not ingredients, and the easiest way to bring a simple meal to life.
These pickles are made in a salt brine, not vinegar like quick pickles of the West. Most often they are made with radish, daikon or cabbage, but the possibilities and combinations are limitless, and I’ve eaten everything from pickled chicken feet to grapes. Spices such as Sichuan peppercorn or chili peppers and star anise can be added to the brine for extra flavor, and multiple veggies pickled at once. Each family or restaurant will have its own recipe or take on the classic, and the variation and nuance at each place is not only noticeable but often characteristic of the establishment. In fact some restaurants become famous for their pickles more than their food, with the paocai itself becoming the draw.
Paocai is usually served on its own, in a small dish from which the diners can pick a piece at a time. It is not unheard of, however, for diners to help themselves to the pickle bin to add spoonfuls directly to noodles or rice. Spices and chilies may be part of the pickling mix, or the paocai may be tossed in chili oil or spices right before serving. Each place has its own style, and will create its own pickle experience.
In a classic pairing, pickles accompany a plate of fried rice as a quick and cheap lunch for many of the city’s workers and people on the go. The pickles add an important textural element to the soft, clumpy rice, and the slight sourness cuts through, adding maximum flavor with minimal ingredients (and investment in those ingredients). It’s a cheap, easy way to pack an otherwise basic meal with excitement and flavor.
Pickles are also said to aid in digestion and are often paired with rice for this reason. At most family-style places, the rice is brought out not with the main dishes but part way through the meal to help fill you up once you’ve had your share of proteins and flavors. The paocai is brought out alongside the rice and rarely before. At the food stalls and simple restaurants of the city serving baozi, congee, noodles and fried rice it is always available for this reason.
While paocai can be bought by the pound at markets or supermarkets, most families and family-run establishments still make their own pickles, the way they have for generations. Not only are the pickles an essential companion to every meal, but a great insight into the people’s reliance on homemade, artisanal ingredients—not for flash, but as a fact of life.
Jordan Porter is owner and chief experience officer at Chengdu Food Tours. His custom tours include a paocai workshop where participants get hands-on experience making Sichuan pickles and a meal featuring pickled and fermented vegetables. Contact him for culinary workshops or a wide range of other food adventures in Sichuan.
Check out Jordan’s post on the infinite varieties of Chengdu noodles here.
See my recipe for the quickest version of Sichuan quick pickles here.