The cuisine of southern China and, by extension, a large part of Hong Kong cooking, has a wonderful way with pickles, as well as other tasty condiments like fu ru and Chinese olive vegetable. During times when fresh produce is less abundant, preserved vegetables can come in handy, but they are especially frequent on the breakfast table to give a tasty kick to steamed rice or congee.
A classic pickle — which is still served as a free appetizer by many old-school Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong, together with roasted peanuts and braised gluten with mushrooms — is the one we detail here. It’s made with carrot and daikon. This large, firm and heavy root vegetable is often referred to in English by its Japanese name, but in Cantonese it is called lo4 baak6 (羅蔔), or sometimes baak6 lo4 baak6 (白蘿蔔, “white radish”), and it is one of the easiest vegetables to find, both in wet markets and supermarkets.
If you are in the New Territories and walk alongside some cultivated fields, you can often see it growing with only its upper part and its leaves sticking out of the soil. Paired with bright orange carrots, this easy pickle makes for a colourful little dish to liven up any table, and its crunchy, salty, sweet and vinegary taste is quite addictive and refreshing. You can prepare it in just one day, but it will taste even better after two, and it will keep for at least ten days in the fridge, developing a saltier taste. This pickle is also a reminder of the occasional affinities between Cantonese and Vietnamese cuisine: in Vietnam, it is also a common preparation, and it is very often served inside bánh mì to add saltiness and crunch.
The second marinated vegetable we are sharing here is also a Hong Kong staple: smashed cucumber salads. They are quite common in many parts of Asia, but each region has its own version. In Sichuan, they are really quite spicy, with the addition of chilli peppers and numbing mala peppercorns; in northern China they are made tasty by generous amounts of black Chekiang vinegar and lots of garlic, while Korea adds some beautifully bright red gochugaru chilli flakes to the marinade.
In Hong Kong, where a touch of sweetness is preferred, this recipe can be made either by adding some sugar to the marinade, or using a sweet vinegar like the ones Pat Chun produces, which gives a more complex and layered flavour to the final dish.
Both of these dishes are cold and raw, and while you can whip up a smashed cucumber salad in very little time (just assemble the ingredients together, toss and wait a few minutes), the pickled daikon and carrot will require a bit of patience with the chopping up of the vegetables – but once that is done, time will take care of the rest.
Recipe: Daikon and carrot relish
The ratio should be about four parts daikon to one part carrot, so, to fill a mid-sized mason jar, you will need around 700g daikon and one medium sized carrot.
65ml white vinegar
65ml rice vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar (white sugar will give a bright colour to the vegetables, but cane sugar gives a more complex flavour: whichever you choose, the amount is the same)
250ml boiling water
Put slightly more water than you need in a pot and bring to a boil. Take a very clean medium sized mason jar and mix the sugar and vinegars inside it, stirring well. (You can sanitise the jar in boiling water if you wish, but it is not strictly necessary, as this is a quick pickle with no fermentation.) When the water boils, scoop out one cup, mix it with the ingredients already inside the jar, stir thoroughly so that the sugar melts well, and let it cool.
Now prepare your vegetables. Wash and peel the carrot and the daikon. With a sharp knife, chop the daikon and the carrot in regular, thin slices about half a centimetre thick. Daikon can be slippery, so one good method to cut it without getting injured is to slice a very small sliver off its side, and rest it on the cutting board on the side you sliced off: this will give it a stable base.
Once you have your slices, cut them again until you have chopped everything in match-stick size. Put the chopped daikon and carrot in a colander over the sink and sprinkle the salt over them, massaging it in with your hands. Let them rest for 15 to 30 minutes, letting the salt draw out the water, making the vegetables crispier.
Squeeze the vegetables with all your might in order to draw out even more water, and once you are done, quickly rinse the vegetables under running water. Pat dry. Once the pickling liquid is completely cold, add the vegetables to the mason jar, pushing in until all the vegetables are in. Pack it tight and do not worry if any liquid overflows. Cover with the lid and store in the fridge for a minimum of 24 hours. After that, it will be ready to eat! Have it as a healthy appetizer, or use it in sandwiches for an extra boost of flavour and crunchiness.
Recipe: Smashed cucumber salad
Two seedless cucumbers (English cucumbers, widely available in Hong Kong, are recommended. Otherwise, use Persian cucumbers, also commonly found in Hong Kong, which are small and seedless, but use four or five instead of two. The general word for cucumber in Cantonese is ceng1 gwaa1 青瓜).
1 small piece of ginger
1 clove of garlic
1 small bunch of fresh coriander
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of light soy sauce
2 teaspoon of chilli oil
2 tablespoon of sweet vinegar
2 teaspoon of white or cane sugar and 1 tablespoon of white or rice vinegar
Wash the cucumbers very well and pat them dry. Cut longer cucumbers into half but leave small cucumbers as they are. Lay them on a large chopping board and whack them with the flat side of a Chinese cleaver. Be prepared for a few bits of cucumber to fly off in the kitchen and onto whatever you are wearing — an apron is recommended! — and smash every piece. You want to break the cucumbers in half, with some parts of their flesh more smashed than others.
Now cut the cucumbers on a diagonal, in pieces of about five centimetres each, and put them in a large bowl. Add the salt, mix everything with your hands, and set aside for about 10 minutes in a colander. Quickly rinse the cucumbers under water, shake them and pat them roughly dry with a piece of kitchen paper. Put them on your serving plate or bowl.
Peel the ginger, and chop it into fine, rough pieces. Smash the garlic and chop it into very fine pieces. Add both to the cucumber and mix.
In another bowl, whisk together the other ingredients: if you are using the sugar, put it with the soy sauce and vinegar and let it melt first before adding the chilli oil (if you are using the sweet vinegar you don’t need to worry about this step, and you can simply mix all the liquid ingredients together). Whisk well and pour onto your cucumbers. Mix and add the chopped coriander for flavour and decoration (remember that the stems are the tastiest part, so do not omit them). Let the cucumbers sit in the marinade for a few minutes, and mix everything once more just before serving.