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.