If you went looking for ya cai preserved mustard for dan dan noodles, you may have instead picked up zha cai mustard tuber. It’s confusing, the names, the Chinese characters, the lack of consistency at Chinese markets. I had a hard time for years figuring out what was what and where to find them. Both are Sichuan seasonings – pickled and preserved vegetables that add big flavor boosts to food. They can be used in the cooking process or as a garnish.
Zha cai is pronounced “jah tsai” or “zsa tsai” like cross between actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and chef Ming Tsai. It’s crisp and firm in texture, with a very salty flavor. Zha cai is made out of the stem of Brassica juncea, subspecies tatsai. It's bulbous and awkward looking -- similar to super knobby knees. The stem is salted, dried, seasoned with chile and fermented. That's why it resembles a relic.
On the other hand, ya cai has a finer texture and less of a bite. If zha cai were Laverne, ya cai would be Shirley. If that show is too old for you, think of the two as the Thelma and Louise of Sichuan kitchens.
Buying Zha Cai. Over the years zha cai has been relatively easier to find at Chinese markets than ya cai. For the can version, I’d peruse the canned vegetable aisle. For a spell in 2012, I could not find any in the can and panicked because I’d suggested it for a tofu recipe in the book. However, when I discovered ya cai in the produce section, there was its kin zha cai right next door in a similar kind of package. Phew.
For several years I was buying zha cai in a can made by Maling, a reputable company based in China that’s also known for its bamboo shoots. The stuff was salty but in a good way. You’d open up the can and there’d be a knob of crazy looking vegetable inside. There was no liquid in the can so the experience was unnerving. I went ahead and cut it up, rinsing it afterward to reduce saltiness. Then I ate it.
Zha cai adds a delicious savoriness to foods. It is loaded with umami, though in the case of the packaged zha cai that I recently found next to the ya cai, there was a “flavor enhancer.”
If the flavor enhancer doesn’t bother you, the 70-gram package is super convenient. A can of zha cai lasts a long time. I keep it whole in a jar in the fridge and since it’s a preserved, pickled vegetable, it lasts indefinitely. I don’t add water to the jar as it didn’t come with water in the can.
I most often eat zha cai atop of tofu pudding as a savory version of Sichuan dou hua. I’ve used it with dan dan noodles instead of zha cai. For a fast lunch, I eat zha cai with rice and a fried egg. It’s nice atop a bowl if instant noodle soup too.
Chinese zha cai reminds me of Vietnamese cu cai dam (sweet and salty preserved radish, see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, page 196). The difference is that the Chinese stuff is not made of radish and a bit softer in texture.
What do you do with zha cai? I would love to know more about this wondrous Chinese ingredient!
More on Sichuan ingredients