“Dilly the Pickle” emailed last week to announce that the 2009 International Pickle Week goes from May 15 to 25 (pickleweek.com). That' s more like 11/2 weeks, but I didn't care because I’m a sucker for cute cartoon icons and pickles of any kind, so I looked in the fridge for my go-to Vietnamese pickle – do chua made of tangy sweet daikon and carrot. This ubiquitous Vietnamese pickle is what’s stuffed into banh mi sandwiches, served alongside morsels such as grilled beef in wild betel leaf (thit bo la lot), and added to salads.
Sadly, my jar of daikon and carrot pickle was mostly brine and a few floating white and orange sticks of vegetables. Oye, what kind of respectable Vietnamese cook was I? It’s not so much that it is national pickle week, but rather that pickles play an important role at the Vietnamese table. They provide textural and flavor contrasts to food. For example, the flavor of rich foods gets cut (mitigated) by a tart-sweet pickle. At Tet Lunar New Year celebrations, you always see several kinds of pickles on the menu as that’s a holiday where lots of fatty dishes are served. In banh mi sandwiches, the daikon and carrot offer a crunch that pairs well with the baguette and the tartness offsets the savory rich meats and mayonnaise. But Vietnamese cooks, like their Asian brethren, prefer to make what I call fast pickles.
Asian fast pickles
Cooks in Asia don’t can the way westerners do using sterilized jars and the like. We eat pickles and preserved vegetables so often – think of Korean kimchi sold in the refrigerated sections of many markets these days and the assortment of Japanese pickles – that it’s more practical to make regular supplies and keep them in the refrigerator, where they last for weeks and sometimes months. This Vietnamese daikon and carrot pickle is sold in bulk at Vietnamese-American markets (check the produce section) and in Vietnam, sold by wet market vendors in small plastic bags. I prefer to make my own and on a regular basis I replenish my ever dwindling supply of do chua.
How to buy daikon radish
Look for evenly shaped, firm, smooth, unblemished skin. I gravitate towards daikon radish that are no more than 2 inches in diameter because they tend to have a milder bite and wonderful sweetness. Really young daikon that are less than 1-inch thick are rather tasteless, and older fat daikon radish can be bitter hot. Farmers markets and Asian markets are a great place to score super duper fresh daikon.
How to deal with stinky pickled daikon
If the daikon develops a strong/stinky odor in the jar, it has not gone bad. Before serving, open the jar and let it sit for 15 minutes to allow the smell to dissipate. Leave the room, if you must.
Daikon and Carrot Pickle
Do Chua (download pronunciation)
Try this daikon and carrot pickle recipe once and then tweak the recipe to your liking. Variations of the include adding tangy-sweet-pungent pickled shallots (cu kieu) to the mixture, as well as making heavier on the carrot side than the daikon side. I prefer to keep a higher ratio (say 2:1) of daikon to carrot as I like the mild bite of daikon radish. I like a tangy-sweet flavor whereas you can alter the ratio of sugar to vinegar to make the brine sweeter, and hence affect the pickle’s flavor.
Makes about 3 cups
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 pound daikons, each no larger than 2 inches in diameter, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup lukewarm water
1. Place the carrot and daikons in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Use your hands to knead the vegetables for about 3 minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Stop kneading when you can bend a piece of daikon so that the ends touch but the daikon does not break. The vegetables should have lost about one-fourth of their volume. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to expel extra water. Return the vegetables to the bowl if you plan to eat them soon, or transfer them to a 1-quart jar for longer storage.
2. To make the brine, in a bowl, combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the vinegar, and the water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Let the vegetables marinate in the brine for at least 1 hour before eating. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks. Beyond that point, they get tired.
Recipe from: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors (2006, Ten Speed Press)