Tangy, Crunchy, Salty: Asian Pickles to Make at Home
From quick and easy Korean kimchi to several-day Chinese fermented mustard greens, there’s sure to be a pickle to tickle your fancy
Easy Kimchi from Asian Pickles at Home: 75 Easy Recipes for Quick, Fermented, and Canned Pickles, by Patricia Tanumihardja, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2020 by Callisto Media. All rights reserved.
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Growing up in Singapore to Indonesian-Chinese parents, I was exposed to a plethora of pickled and fermented foods.
Many of the pickles I grew up eating were akin to quick refrigerator pickles. After a swift soak in a seasoned vinegar bath, vegetables like cucumber, carrot, and even green chilies were transformed into flavor bombs. The sweet-tart pickles were a delicious complement to fried rice or noodles, adding flavor contrast, crunch and/or fire.
My mum often made the quintessential acar kuning (pronounced “ah-char koo-ning”) — shredded vegetables coated in spice paste — a popular pickle in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. In addition, she tossed pickled mustard cabbage into soup with sour plums, and braised finely chopped pickled cabbage with pork belly.
Fermented foods also showed up regularly on my childhood table, much to the chagrin of ten-year-old me. Though we ate fermented Chinese mustard greens and fermented cassava (tape, pronounced tah-pay), which, unlike quick pickles, takes several days to develop their complex flavors, the food I remember most was tempeh, made from fermented soybeans. No matter how much my mum touted its good-for-you-ness, I just couldn’t stomach “moldy” food!
Fast forward 30 years. Now I love all kinds of pickles, from quick ones made with vinegar to fermented pickles that involve the natural, slower production of lactic acid. (Fermented foods are also a significant part of my diet because I know that fermenting preserves a vegetable’s nutritional profile and antioxidant power. Plus, the resulting probiotic bacteria helps improve digestive health and support your immune system.)
If you’re intrigued by Asian pickles but still feeling intimidated, don’t worry. I’ve included plenty of recipes here for easy vinegar-pickling, like Vietnamese Daikon and Carrot Pickle, some of them ready in just a few minutes. If you’re fermentation-curious, you’ll find some of those recipes, too (for rice bran pickling and miso-curing, for example). As a bonus for anyone new to this: traditionally Asian pickles are not canned. They are usually eaten fresh, refrigerated, or left at room temperature.
The best way to master the art of pickling and fermenting is trial and error. Although I’ve been making pickles since I was wee high, I fermented my very first batch of vegetables — an easy cabbage kimchi — only about a decade ago. Keep persevering (and preserving) and you’ll soon be a pro! Here are some tips, tricks, and things-to-know to get you started.
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Ingredients for Asian pickles
Many ingredients to make Asian pickles can be found at your local supermarket. Condiments such as soy sauce and even fish sauce and miso (fermented bean paste) are now showing up at well-stocked grocery stores. However, some specialized seasonings like ground Korean chili peppers (gochugaru, used to make kimchi) might only be available at Asian markets and online.
Buy the best produce you can find. Buy vegetables in season where possible because they’re fresher, cheaper, and often local. Farmers’ markets are ideal. If you’re shopping for more unusual Asian veggies, it’s best to go to an Asian market where there’s a higher turnover. And avoid anything with bruises or mold.
Use the right kind of salt. Natural sea salt, pickling (aka canning) salt, and kosher salt are all good choices for pickling. However, pay attention to the type of salt called for in the recipe. Natural sea salt is available in both fine and coarse styles. Pickling salt is pure granulated salt. Unlike table salt, it doesn’t contain iodine and anti-caking agents which can cause off flavors and cause the pickling liquid to turn cloudy. Kosher salt has large crystals that do not dissolve as quickly as pickling salt.
Get the right vinegar. For quick pickles, the basic brine is equal parts vinegar and water, but you can adjust the ratio to your preference. One caveat: Feel free to use more vinegar (e.g. 2/3 cup rice vinegar to 1/3 cup water) but not less, and then add sugar if the flavor is too harsh.
• Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor and is a staple ingredient in Asian cooking. This is my vinegar of choice.
• Distilled white vinegar may be close in color to rice vinegar, but the flavor is sharp and harsh in comparison. I think it's the most aggressive of the vinegars but it’s cheap for pickling in bulk.
• Cider vinegar has a mild flavor that is the best substitute for rice vinegar; however, it causes the produce to darken.
No onggi, no problem! No fancy equipment is required to make Asian pickles. In fact, you probably already have most of the essential tools.
For all kinds of Asian pickling: Use nonreactive bowls, pans, and utensils, as materials like copper, aluminum, or cast-iron could react with acid or salt and affect quality and safety. Select large bowls (glass or ceramic) and glass jars.
For fermented pickles including kimchi: You don’t need a handmade kimchi crock (called onggi) to ferment kimchi!
• Glass jars or ceramic crocks are perfectly fine vessels just as long as they’re food-safe. Don’t use plastic which might leach chemicals, or stain (especially for kimchi). You will need a 1-gallon container for every 5 pounds of fresh vegetables.
• Weights keeps fermenting foods submerged in brine, which is important to prevent spoilage. You can buy special fermenting weights, but glass jars and glass or porcelain dinner/pie plates work just as well. Another option is to fill a food-grade plastic bag with brine (to prevent dilution just in case the bag breaks).
11 quick Asian pickle recipes
These pickles are fast and easy to assemble with ingredients you likely already have in your kitchen. After a speedy soak, they’re ready to eat. (Although a longer steeping time equals more flavor). If you’re short on time, pickles like Salt-Pickled Cabbage, Malaysian Pineapple Pickle, and Korean Cucumber Salad can be made to order and be ready in time for dinner! Others may take up to 24 hours, but to me, that is almost-instant gratification.
The Vietnamese sandwich banh mi is not complete without this sweet and tangy duo of pickled daikon and carrot. The pickle, called do chua, adds both crunch and flavor and can be served with noodle and rice bowls too. Feel free to adjust the ratio of daikon to carrot. It takes only 20 minutes to assemble and is ready to eat after a quick soak, but tastes even better if you let it sit for a few days to absorb flavors. (After that, you can refrigerate the pickles for a few weeks.)
In Singapore and Malaysia, pickled green chilies are set afloat in soy sauce and served in little dishes alongside many noodle dishes. I can’t eat my favorite chicken and rice noodle dish (Ipoh Hor Fun) without them. And now I don’t have to because I can easily make them at home. For the "green chilies" the recipe calls for, you can use jalapeños or fresh green Korean chilies, if you can find them. As for the Chinese vinegar, more-readily-available (Japanese-style) rice vinegar should work just fine.
Smacking or smashing cucumbers is a traditional Chinese technique that serves two purposes: it releases the seeds and allows the crags in the smashed cucumber pieces to soak up the marinade more readily. The pickled cucumbers only need about half an hour to marinate.
This simple cabbage pickle is just one of many tsukemono. Tsukemono (which means “pickled things”) are Japanese preserved vegetables pickled in salt, brine, or a bed of rice bran. During a Japanese meal, tsukemono is served as a palate cleanser to counter other flavorful dishes, and also provides color, texture, and fragrance. This pickle uses only three ingredients: cabbage, salt and kombu (dried seaweed). A couple of hours at room temperature, and it’s ready.
Salt-imbued condiments like miso and soy sauce can also be used as a pickling medium. For this miso-cured pickle, vegetables like carrot and cucumber are sliced thin and slathered with white miso and left to cure overnight. The result is crunchy, salty, and oh-so-tasty pickled vegetables packed with umami.
If you’ve had sushi, you’ve had pickled ginger or gari. The pickled ginger served at restaurants is often dyed pink. But at home, you can skip the food coloring and the ginger is just as tasty in its natural color.
There are many variations to soy sauce-pickled eggs. The Chinese version involves spices like star anise and cinnamon as well as cracking the shell to create a pretty marbled effect. This simple Japanese recipe that I created for my book involves steeping hard-cooked eggs in only four marinade ingredients: soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar and sugar.
The word “acar” means pickle in Indonesian and this recipe reminds me of the pickles my mum used to make when I was little. The pickle brine is pretty standard, with the usual suspects of water and vinegar, but it is sweet, sweet, sweet! Feel free to reduce the amount of sugar. You’ll need 30 minutes to make them and then a day for the flavors to develop.
The combo of sweet-tart pineapple and cooling cucumber makes for a refreshing accompaniment to bbq foods. Do I see satay in your future?
Cucumber might be the one vegetable in the Korean repertoire that is better off not kimchi-fied. Here’s a Korean-inspired way with cucumbers: Japanese cucumbers, English cucumbers, or kirby cucumbers are tossed with a light and tangy soy-vinegar dressing and sprinkled with red pepper powder. A great palate cleanser, appetizer, or snack! The recipe takes all of 5 minutes.
Papayas are aplenty in tropical Southeast Asia. And when green and unripe, the fruit is treated like a vegetable. (Buy it at an Asian market.) Green papaya is synonymous with this popular Filipino pickle called atchara. Shredded green papaya, carrots, bell pepper, and a host of other ingredients are tossed together in a vinegar brine and left to steep for several days before serving.
6 fun fermented pickle recipes
There's nothing like a little fermentation to satisfy that yen for a project recipe. You'll combine vegetables with salt and seasonings, and over several days or longer, lacto-fermentation takes place: Bad bacteria are killed off and good lactic-acid-producing bacteria thrive, resulting in a final ferment that’s chock-full of tangy, funky flavor and good-for-you probiotics.
Unlike traditional cabbage kimchi, the leaves are chopped for this easy kimchi recipe that I created for my book, making it easier to handle. Plus, I’ve left out the rice “porridge” that many traditional kimchi recipes use. Although kimchi is usually fermented first before eating, I sometimes like to eat it fresh too.
I used to buy fermented mustard greens but once I learned how to ferment it at home, there was no turning back. Food coloring and chemical preservatives be gone! It doesn’t take long to put this together, and then you let it sit at room temp for a few days. Visit an Asian market to get the Chinese mustard greens (dai gai choi).
Rice bran pickling is a quintessential Japanese pickling method. Traditional Japanese households cultivate a rice bran “bed” (nukadoko) for everyday pickling. The first step is to establish a live and active bed which usually takes 1 to 2 weeks. Once the bed is established, pickles can be ready in as little as a few hours. You’ll need roasted rice bran, available at an Asian market or online.
Indian pickles, often made with mangoes or limes, are quite different from other Asian pickles. Chopped fruit is tossed with a mélange of spices ranging from turmeric to mustard seeds to fenugreek. Vegetable oil (usually mustard oil) is then drizzled over to preserve the pickle. In this recipe, sprouted chickpeas are added to mango for nuttiness and a nutritional boost; you’ll start them 12 hours ahead.
Did you know you can turn any vegetable into kimchi? And that includes one of my favorites, kale. Kale is tougher and more fibrous than Chinese (napa) cabbage, the typical leafy vegetable that kimchi is made with. Kale kimchi is chewier but every bit as tasty in all its bitter-tangy-spicy glory. Strip the leaves off the stems and discard the stems, or chop them up and add them to the mix.
Water kimchi or dongchimi is proof that not all kimchi has to be spicy. The Korean fried chicken chain Bonchon Chicken has made daikon radish water kimchi a favorite in my household. Sweet, tart, and with just the right amount of funk, the crunchy white pieces of daikon pair very nicely with every shattering bite of spicy fried chicken. Despite "quick" in the name, you'll need to allow a couple of days for it to ferment.
More ways to love pickles
Pucker up! We've just gotten started on all the ways you can enjoy pickles.