Sometimes things are right under your nose and you don’t know it. For the dan dan noodle recipe that I wrote about in the Wall Street Journal last week, I needed a specific seasoning ingredient – Chinese preserved mustard greens, called ya cai (“yaah tsai”). I went to my Chinese market and perused the dried vegetable and canned vegetable section. Nothing. I’d read about the ingredient in cookbooks but none of them told me how to find the stuff – where it may be located or how it’s packaged.
Then, while I was in the refrigerated section looking at tofu (what else) and noodles (for the recipe), I turned around and saw a bunch of boxes filled with index-card size packages of something. Remembering that my friend Victor Fong told me how his family often ate some super salty Chinese pickle with their rice, and that the salty pickle was sold in small packs, I took a look. Lo and behold, there were boxes of ya cai – the good kind made in Yibin in Sichuan province. I’d read in Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop that the ya cai from that city was famous and prized.
Ya cai is an ingredient that Sichuan is known for, and the package indicated in the top left corner that it was “Sichuan Famous Brand"; it's torn off in the photo below. That seemed hokey but it means something in Asian food packaging. So does the HACCP labeling to indicate that decent food safety measures were in place. My only gripe is that I wish there was a best by date stamp. The manufacturer fit tiny tiny print on the package so be prepared.
It’s a small pack that cost around a dollar (I can’t remember because I was elated to find it!). The 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces ) is enough for many rounds of dan dan noodle. That said, I bought 3 packs.
So what does ya cai do for dan dan noodles? It gives the meat and sauce toppings an incredible umami funk and depth. I tried zha cai (Sichuan preserved mustard tuber, which I had around for savory tofu pudding) but it was overwhelming.
Ya cai was just right as a seasoning. In the photo at the top, you see it as small brown flecks. It’s salty and fermenty, which is why I thought of a decent substitute in kosher dill pickle. But side-by-side, dan dan noodles made with ya cai has an incredible flavor, a notch above the pickle which works in a pinch. The ya cai preserved greens contributes to dan dan’s signature Sichuan flavor.
I hope you go looking for it because I’ll be cooking with it more. It’s a cool ingredient to keep on hand. If you have experience with ya cai, what do you do with it?
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