Spicy Pickled Mustard Greens (Suancai) and the Food of Yunnan: A Q&A With Georgia Freedman
China’s Most Deliciously Diverse Province
Have you noticed that there’s a new Chinese cuisine making waves in some larger American cities? Yunnan restaurants are popping up along the coasts, giving more people a chance to try the diverse dishes of the province for the first time. Home to hundreds of distinct ethnic minority groups, the food of Yunnan is a wondrous mix of Chinese and Southeast Asian influences—which alone gives you some idea of its great appeal.
Fortunately for us cooks, a dedicated Yunnan cookbook has also just been published, allowing us to make some of these dishes ourselves. When I got my hands on Georgia Freedman’s Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories From China’s Yunnan Province, I went straight for the spicy pickled mustard greens because it is the indispensable ingredient in Yunnan’s addictive mixian, or rice noodle soups. It turned out to be the easiest naturally fermented pickle I’ve ever made and also one of the tastiest. Salty and spicy with a strong mustard bite, it enlivens many Yunnan dishes. (More on this below.)
I have long waited for a book like Georgia’s. Traveling in 2009 in the southern province—which borders Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Vietnam, Lao, Myanmar and Tibet—I became enamored of everything about it, but particularly its markets, which are more abundant and diverse than any I’ve seen elsewhere in China, and its food, which is similar to other Chinese cuisines but also wildly different. As in my beloved Sichuan, chilies, Sichuan pepper and pickled vegetables abound; unlike in the rest of Chinese food, so do exotic mushrooms, cheese and an array of grilled meats and fresh herbs.
Georgia has been traveling to Yunnan since 2000 and in 2011 moved there with her photographer husband, Josh Wand, who took the transporting photos in the book. They lived in the capital, Kunming, for two years, traveling the entire province and learning recipes from locals. The book is as generous with the stories and photos of Yunnan cooks as with their recipes.
As Georgia’s book was nearing publication, I began working with her to source some of the ingredients that would make it possible to cook from her book. This turned out to be fairly easy, since many of the spices used in Sichuan are actually grown in Yunnan and its neighboring provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi, less industrialized regions with subtropical climates that pamper aromatic spices and produce two chili pepper harvests a year.
Interview with Georgia Freedman
Here, Georgia shares a little tutorial on Yunnan food, its similarities to and differences from Sichuan food, how she went about collecting the recipes for her cookbook and travel tips for Yunnan.
TH: What was it that drew you, over and over, to Yunnan? You left a job as managing editor of Saveur magazine to move to the province in 2011, correct?
GF: Yunnan is a really unique corner of the world, unlike the rest of China or any other part of Southeast Asia. I first traveled there as a college student, when I was studying Mandarin in Beijing, and I was really taken with the landscape, the fact that local minorities still have a lot of unique cultural practices, and, of course, the foods. And I was surprised that more Westerners hadn’t learned about this beautiful part of the world. Being in Yunnan can sometimes feel like stepping back in time, to an era when China wasn’t so homogenized and commercialized. But it’s also developing really quickly and becoming a popular tourist destination for Chinese travelers, so I knew that if I wanted to experience the old towns and villages, I had to act fast, before they changed.
TH: Perhaps no one has previously written a comprehensive book on Yunnan food because it is so very diverse, with rapidly changing terrain and climate from mountainous north to tropical south and dozens of different ethnic minority groups and foodways. How did you corral and organize the dishes of the different regions and ethnicities?
GF: Yunnan definitely doesn’t have one type of cuisine—the flavors, dishes, and even cooking techniques vary significantly as you travel around the province. I organized the book geographically so that I could include Yunnan’s many different styles of cooking. But the boundaries I drew aren’t strictly about geography—I define the areas by their staple flavors and cooking styles and also by certain elements that are important to the local culture. For instance, my Central Yunnan chapter extends fairly far north, because the foods around Dali share flavors and ingredients with the foods of Kunming, and the locals weren’t influenced by Tibetan Buddhism the way minority groups farther north were.
TH: How did you go about collecting the recipes? Did home cooks from ethnic minorities usually speak Mandarin?
GF: When I moved to Kunming, I started by taking some informal cooking classes with a friend of a friend named Zhu Bo (who I profile in the book), who has worked in restaurants but was taking a break to stay home with her toddler. Then, when I started traveling around the province, I sought out small restaurants where the cooks would let me stand in the kitchen and watch how they cooked and small guesthouses where I could connect with local families and ask for recommendations for good home cooks. People are very proud of their local foods and were usually quite happy that I was interested in them—and interested in introducing Americans to them. (And I should note that I made sure to pay everyone for their time and attention, because I really value their skills and their willingness to share them with me.) Everyone in Yunnan speaks some Mandarin, though most people in Yunnan have a very thick accent. Fortunately, the vocabulary for cooking isn’t very complicated, so even if I had trouble communicating with someone, I could still learn from them.
TH: What dishes or ingredients are found throughout Yunnan? And what are some of the representative ingredients and dishes from each region that are unique to those regions?
GF: This varies by region: Food in Central Yunnan is noticeably Chinese, with lots of stir-fries and soups, and includes lots of dried chiles and pickled vegetables. Northern Yunnan has lots of cold weather foods, like fried pork ribs and rich chicken soups, as well as Tibetan dishes that have become popular in the region. Southern and Western Yunnan both have lots of grilled foods, cold dishes (like salads made from foraged greens), and sticky rice. But the two areas are also distinct because the foods in the south are more similar to what you’d find in Laos, while the foods in the west show the influence of Myanmar and even include ingredients like canned milk, which was introduced by the British. And Eastern Yunnan has lots of dishes that are reminiscent of the foods of southern China and include ingredients like oyster sauce, which you almost never see in other parts of Yunnan.
There are a few things that you find in various forms all across the province: pickled vegetables (whether it’s mustard greens in Kunming or sour bamboo shoots in the west); chiles, either dried or fresh; foraged ingredients, from local greens and flowers to the province’s hundreds of kinds of wild mushrooms; and a rice cake called er kuai, which isn’t made in other parts of China but is a staple ingredient all over Yunnan.
TH: Because this is a blog mainly about Sichuan food, can you talk about how Yunnan food is both similar to and different from the food of Sichuan?
GF: Sichuan and Yunnan have a very long shared border, and they also share lots of ingredients, though the dishes are pretty distinct. Both provinces use a lot of pickles, but they’re made in different ways and used in different kinds of dishes. Both use lots of chile-bean paste, though Yunnan’s versions are often a bit sweeter and less earthy than what you find in Sichuan. Sichuan peppercorns are used across the province, especially in central Yunnan, where dried chiles are also popular (though the varieties of chiles are different than the ones you find in Sichuan). It’s also notable that both provinces have areas that were historically part of the Tibetan region of Kham, so they’re both influenced by Tibetan foods.
TH: Sichuan is also known for naturally fermented vegetables such as paocai, a wet-brine pickle usually made at home, and yacai and zhacai, two dry-brine pickles made by specialists. You have several recipes that call for suancai, spicy, home-pickled mustard greens, in the book. Is it the most popular pickle of Yunnan? How do they use it?
GF: Suancai, pickled mustard greens, is a very popular ingredient in central Yunnan and is used in everything from stir-fries to soups. Unlike some Sichuan pickles, it’s not usually served alone. That said, it’s only one of dozens (or possibly even hundreds) of kinds of pickles made in Yunnan—if you go to markets across the province you’ll find rows and rows of pickle vendors selling everything from pickled fruit (which is usually eaten as a snack) to pickled chive flowers. I could actually do a whole book about Yunnan pickles, but unfortunately most westerners wouldn’t be able to source the raw ingredients, so in this book I stuck to three pickles that are used in many dishes: suancai, quick pickled cabbage, and salted chiles.
TH: Your recipe for suancai is unusual in that in addition to mustard greens, chili flakes and Sichuan pepper, it calls for a small bit of cooked rice. What is the purpose of the rice?
GF: Adding rice is a trick I learned from a noodle shop on my street in Kunming, where the cooks used to make big tubs of pickles in the fall, sitting on the sidewalk and kneading the greens for hours. The rice kickstarts the fermentation process to speed things up. You can make the same recipe without the rice—you’ll just have to wait a little longer for finished pickles.
TH: What products from The Mala Market would you recommend to readers for cooking from South of the Clouds? Keeping in mind that we might use different names. For example your book often calls for dried Thai chilies, whereas we carry xiaomila chilies grown in Guizhou, which are similar in size and heat and used throughout the spicy cuisines of China.
GF: Xiaomila are very important in Yunnan cooking. Like the term “Thai chiles,” the name xiaomila actually gets used as a shorthand for a variety of different chiles with a similar shape and flavor. Chile flakes are also very important in Yunnan cooking, as are red Sichuan peppercorns (green Sichuan peppercorns are also used, though only in a couple recipes). The foods of central Yunnan are also flavored with lots of caoguo, black cardamom, which is similar to Indian black cardamom but has a slightly different flavor. And some dishes include bajiao, star anise, which is grown in eastern Yunnan.
In addition to the spices, you will need light soy sauce and could get dark soy sauce (which is used in some dishes) and Zhenjiang vinegar, which is used in a lot of Yunnan’s salads and as a flavoring for soups. If you’re interested in making Yunnan’s noodle soups (which are one of the region’s main staples), I’d also suggest getting the Yunnan rice noodles, and if you like mushrooms, the dried shiitakes would be perfect for making a rehydrated mushroom salad that’s eaten in northern Yunnan; it’s a really simple, flavorful dish.
TH: Lastly, how would you advise a traveler new to Yunnan to tackle such a diverse province? How about traveling there as a family?
GF: Most people who travel to Yunnan stick to the route that goes from Kunming to Dali and up to Lijiang. Some also continue north to Shangri-la. These are all wonderful places to visit, but they can be quite touristy, so it’s nice to get off the beaten path in between these stops. Smaller towns like Shaxi can be a nice relief from the tourist spots.
If you really want a trip that shows the extremes of the province, you could do a few days in central Yunnan, fly down to Xishuangbanna, to see the tropical side of the province, and then fly up to Shangri-la, to explore the Tibetan regions. Or you could pick one area and really dig in; in northern Yunnan, for instance, Songstam hotels has a route that takes you to a handful of luxury hotels built in small Tibetan towns.
If you want to do a little more exploring but you don’t want to travel like a backpacker, there are a number of tour companies that do great trips. Wild China is the best bet for upscale travel with really knowledgeable guides who can provide themed itineraries, while the newer company 51 Adventures specializes in going into more remote regions and can just provide a driver/translator who will help you explore whatever areas interest you. Both companies provide drivers (and cars with proper seat belts, which is not a given in Yunnan) and would be good for families.
TH: Visit Georgia’s blog here. The suancai and mixian are only the beginning of a great adventure. [Unfortunately, this superb book is no longer in print as of 2022; a used version is your best bet.]
Suancai, or “sour vegetable,” is made from a type of mustard green sold in Asian markets in the U.S. as gaichoy (jiecai in Mandarin). I’ve found that making suancai per Georgia’s recipe is foolproof—as long as you use the right ratio of salt. I tried it with less salt and it smelled not-so-sweet after a week of fermentation. Naturally fermented pickles should not smell foul but absolutely appetizing. I tried it both with and without the addition of cooked rice, and both batches fermented to my liking within seven to eight days. My next blog post will be for Yunnan’s mixian noodle soup, but this pickle is also great stir-fried with minced beef (or chicken) for a quick rice-topping and homey meal. And it is also wonderful in Sichuan’s suancaiyu, fish stew with pickled mustard greens.
You can make suancai in any pickling jar, but we recommend a Chinese jar with a water-seal moat. We sell a beautiful mouth-blown glass pickle jar at The Mala Market. (Note that the one in these photos is an older jar I carted home from Chengdu and is not mouth-blown glass.)
Yunnan-Style Pickled Mustard Greens (Suancai)
- 2 pounds large or baby gai choy (Chinese mustard greens)
- 28 grams kosher or sea salt
- 1½ tablespoons Sichuan chili flakes
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- ½ tablespoon cooked rice (optional)
- Wash and thoroughly dry gaichoy. Core it and cut into small bite-size pieces. Put all ingredients in a large bowl. If you do not have protective gloves, hold chili flakes for later. Wearing gloves, knead the greens and spices vigorously until reduced by about half. If you withheld the chili flakes, mix them in now.
- In a pickling jar with 3 cups to 4 cups capacity, pack the greens into it fairly tightly. You want the greens to mostly fill the jar, so adjust the recipe accordingly for your jar, with 14 grams salt per pound of greens. Let the mixture sit for up to an hour, packing it down with a spoon every so often, until it has released enough liquid to cover the greens. If there is not enough liquid to fully cover the greens, add additional boiled-and-cooled water to top off. Lightly sprinkle a bit more salt on top. Use a weight if needed to make sure all vegetables are submerged in liquid and loosely seal the jar. Leave about an inch or more headspace, as the greens will expand as they ferment. If using a Chinese jar, fill the moat with water and keep it filled at least half-way throughout the fermentation.
- Keep in a room-temperature dark place like a closet for about a week, checking periodically to make sure the greens are still submerged in liquid. Push them down or add more boiled water if necessary. Sample the greens after about seven days (or earlier in a hot climate). They should be notably sour and less salty and not at all smelly. If you want them to be more sour, leave a few more days. When done to your liking, transfer to the refrigerator, which will greatly slow the fermentation process. The suancai will keep for weeks, or even months.
So excited Georgia is coming to Boston next week and I’ve got my ticket! My stomach literally just growled as I read this post!
I’ve learned a lot from Georgia and her book. I think you’ll love it!
Hello there. I wonder where the liquid came from. Did you use vinegar? You never mentioned where the liquid come from your pickled mustard recipe. I am very curious and I want to try out this recipe. Thanks.
That is a great question. There is no added liquid. The salt draws the water from the vegetable, making its own brine.
What is the significance of the cooked rice in this recipe? Is it for flavor or help with the fermentation process?
For fermentation, I believe. Though I usually omit it, and the recipe is still spot-on.