Among the condiments that you can find in every Hong Kong supermarket are little glass jars filled with a dark vegetable mixture and labelled with a very intriguing name: Olive Vegetable. In Chinese, it reads gaam3 laam2 (橄欖), which is the name of a tree that grows in southern China, Taiwan and Vietnam. In Latin, it is called Canarium album, and in English it is known as a white olive tree: a broadleaf evergreen that provides delightful shade and that can grow up to thirty metres in height.
It’s worth noting that the white olive tree does not belong to the same family as the Mediterranean olive tree, Olea europaea, but it gained its English name because it produces a fruit that roughly resembles an olive: green, elongated, with an edible exterior and a pointy seed that is occasionally ground for oil. You may see these “olives” preserved in dried foods stores, but do not expect an aperitivo style snack; in China, they are cooked in syrup and candied, and you consume one or two as an accompaniment with Fujian or Taiwan style tea, together with other sweet dried fruits. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used as an anti-inflammatory and to regulate diabetes.
In the little jars at the supermarket, however, the olive is part of a savoury condiment that is one of the many delightful, umami secrets of Chiu Chow cuisine, known for its salty preserves. The most basic recipe has the olive boiled in water, then shredded together with mustard greens, stir fried, then marinated in oil and soy sauce (although some brands use salt). Some manufacturers may add a few spices or aromatics like scallion and garlic, but do read the label, as there may be a few unnecessary additives that sneak their way into the condiment before it is put into the jars.
When you scoop the olive mixture out, you will notice a rather dark concoction, surrounded by a greenish oil, but just the smell of it will tingle your taste buds. It has a very special flavour, which is not so easy to describe. It is salty and leafy, mushroomy, with a slight bittersweet edge, and it’s really quite addictive. The black filaments of the two vegetables are chewy, but turn crisp quickly when you pan fry them with other foods.
As is, this olive relish can be enjoyed as a tasty add-on to congee, like other very flavourful condiments from the Chinese pantry like fu ru, the umami-bomb fermented tofu, or simple stir-fried salty peanuts. If you want to taste it straight out of the jar, however, a word of caution: often a jar will contain one or two olive pits, which you don’t want to put in your mouth unaware. The best way to consume it without finding a hard wooden pit under the teeth is to take out a portion of the olive relish and put it on a small plate, and discard any fruit pit that may be there: they are large and easy to spot, even if they are as black as the condiment.
Another thing to bear in mind when cooking with the Chinese olive condiment is that you need to use your spatula, or your cooking chopsticks, to separate its strands, as it tends to clump together in the wok.
Some suggestions when buying your jar of Chinese olive relish: choose the ones with the shortest list of ingredients, and even better if you can find the ones that say Hong Kong olive vegetable. In this variation, the list of ingredients is short, and the flavour is very pleasant.
As a general cooking ingredient, it is often used to add an extra kick to fried rice, or to give a deeper flavour to steamed fish.
By far the most popular and simple recipe, however, is the one we are sharing below: classic stir-fried green beans with Chinese olives. Once you get used to the unique and delicious taste of this relish, it will become second nature to always keep a jar handy in your pantry, and add one or two spoonfuls to a dish that is turning out a little bland, whether it is steamed tofu or stir-fried vegetables.
Recipe: Beans with Chinese olive
Ingredients for two servings
400g string beans or runner beans
250g plant-based mince or minced pork (for meat lovers)
2 spoons light soy sauce
2 spoons Shaoxing cooking wine or mirin
1 spoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon dark cane sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red chilli, chopped
2 spoons Chinese olive vegetable, cleared of any pits
About 3 spoons neutral oil
Cilantro for garnish
In a bowl, marinate the pork or plant-based mince by mixing it well with the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, cornstarch and sugar. Let it rest for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash the beans and chop them into roughly 5cm pieces.
Heat the oil in a wok and stir fry the mince, moving it frequently with a spatula. After three to four minutes, scoop it out of the wok and set aside, leaving the oil in the wok.
Immediately add the ginger, garlic and chilli to the hot oil and stir for about a minute. Add the beans, and stir with the spatula. Add the Chinese olive vegetable, stir it in, and keep it from clumping using your spatula. Stir until well mixed, about one minute.
Add the marinated and cooked mince back to the wok and stir it with the beans until it is well combined and the flavours have amalgamated.
Add the salt, stir again for about thirty seconds, sprinkle some chopped cilantro and serve.