I'm not sure if we've ever made it public, but we are Pickle People. It's something to do with our love of sourness in absolutely any form, I suppose. We adore vegetables too, so it stands to reason that any food that is both sour and vegetal is a guaranteed winner in our book.
Last year, while reporting a story on a cooking class in northern Thailand led by Naomi Duguid and her partner Jeffrey Alford, we were introduced to the pickle of our dreams. Made with mustard -- our favorite leafy green -- and dried chilies, turmeric, and rice wine and fermented with glutinous rice, it's crunchy and sharp and possesses the funky pungency more often found in Asian pickles than those made in the West.
We encountered said pickle on a lovely lychee farm in Fang (a city about 2 hours north of Chiang Mai) where students spent two idyllic days learning how to cook Shan dishes from a soft-spoken Burmese Shan couple. She had made the pickle, and so we've called it 'Shan pickle' ever since.
In Thai the pickle is called pakkat dong. Dong (pronounced 'dawng') is a general term for anything pickled or fermented. Pakkat most often refers to the choy sum-ish yellow-flowering mustard that is a main ingredient of northern Thai jaw pakkat, a delicious sour pork and vegetable soup. Yellow-flowering pakkat leaves are also served as part of the array of fresh herbs and vegetables that accompany every northern Thai meal.
Pakkat is also a general term for any leafy mustard. Our Shan pickle is made with a variety that closely resembles in flavor the especially sharp-tasting, egg-shaped 'head' mustard that Chinese call jie cai (gai choy in Cantonese).
Before and after: mustard before pickling and the pickle, sun-dried
The Shan are also Pickle People. Not only do they make and eat 'wet' specimens like our Shan pickle, they also take those pickled vegetables and dry them in the sun. These intensely flavored wisps of soured goodness, which are often touched with a whiff of smoke, are then added to soups and curries. (You can taste and buy a variety of dried pickles at the Cin Haw Friday morning market in Chiang Mai.)
Shan pickle is a cinch to make, though it does require a bit of space in which to lay out the mustard greens to dry. They need to be shriveled and moisture-free before they're put in their pickling bath. (If you live somewhere very hot and sunny, the greens can be dried in a day.)
There are no set-in-stone amounts for most ingredients. It depends on the size and shape of of your jar (or jars), how spicy you like your pickle, whether or not you like turmeric, etc.
For my last batch of Shan pickle I started with about 6 pounds of jie cai / mustard. I removed the core and sliced it into approximately 3/4-inch / 3-cm pieces, which I washed thoroughly and dried in a salad spinner. I then laid the mustard in a single layer on towel-lined cookie sheets -- 6 in all -- and set them on my dining table under a ceiling fan.
You don't have to live somewhere hot to dry vegetables this way, but it is very important that the cabbage, if not dried outdoors, be exposed to moving air. Otherwise -- speaking from experience, when I tried to dry them in my hot, airless, fan-free little kitchen -- the leaves will rot rather than dry.
So, there they sat on the table for three days. Did they begin to emit a strong cabbage-like stink? Yes, a bit. No matter; we don't spend much time in the vicinity of the dining table. By the end of the third day the mustard leaves had shrunk to about 1/3 of their original volume and looked like this:
I put all the leaves in a bowl, added about half a tablespoon of kosher salt and a full tablespoon of dried ground chilies, and rubbed the seasonings into the leaves with my fingers. I then cut a peeled knob of fresh turmeric into 6 or 7 slices (if fresh turmeric isn't available you can substitute about 1 teaspoon turmeric powder and rub it into the cabbage leaves with the chili and salt).
I placed the leaves and turmeric slices into a jar (see photo above), smushing the leaves down to pack them in tightly, then sprinkled in 2 or 3 tablespoons of Chinese rice wine. (Sake would work, as long as it isn't sweet, shoju might work as well, or a very dry sherry.) A single layer of glutinous rice topped the greens, and then I added warm (not boiling) water to about 3 fingers' height above the greens.
I sealed the jar, set it in a dark, warm place -- and 2 weeks later we had Shan pickle.
We could have let the pickle ferment for another week for a stronger taste, or pulled it a week early for a lighter fermentation. Once the jar is opened it goes in the fridge, where it stays good forever -- or 3 months, at least.
We eat it as a condiment to accompany other dishes and rice. You could toss it into a northern-style soupy curry made with pork, perhaps. But when we cook with our Shan pickle we most often use it in a wonderful pork belly and pressed tofu stir-fry that we learned at the class. The sharpness of the pickle is the perfect foil for the belly's fatty richness. Feel free to adjust ingredient amounts (you could certainly do with more pork belly if you're a pork lover.) Serve with regular (not sticky) steamed rice.
(The glutinous rice aids fermentation. It doesn't soften. If you're eating the pickle as a condiment you might want to pick off the grains, but we don't bother. If you're cooking with the pickle the grains kind of disappear into the dish.)
Pakkat Dong Khua Sai Daohu Muu Sam Chan (Shan Pickle with 'Three-Layer' Pork and Bean Curd)
This recipe is adapted from Jodi and Farina's collection of recipes from Naomi Duguid's culinary immersion in northern Thailand.
2 Tbsp cooking oil
200 grams fatty pork belly, skin removed and sliced thin
Optional: 1/2 Tbsp (or more) ground dried chili
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
Optional: 1 cup sliced fresh mustard greens, any variety
1 lb pressed tofu, sliced thin (Substitute regular firm bean curd, wrapped in towels and pressed under weights for at least 1 hour)
1 1/2 cups pickled mustard greens
Salt to taste
5 scallions (white part and green part), chopped with a medium bunch of cilantro
- Heat a wok or frying pan over high heat. Add the oil and heat, and then add the pork belly. Fry it till it's brown and beginning to crisp, stirring often.
- If using the chili, add it now and fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the sliced onion and fresh mustard greens, if using. Stir for a minute and then ad the tofu and fry until the tofu begins to brown.
- Stir in the pickled greens and toss together, then cover the wok or pan, lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 7 minutes.
- Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary. I f you wish for a bit of sourness, splash in a Tbsp or two of pickle juice. Stir everything together.
- Serve sprinkled with the cilantro and green onions.