Ya cai, is one of Sichuan’s most famous and distinctive food products. Made from the stems of a variety of mustard green, it’s fragrant and distinctive flavor is found in many of the regions dishes. Said to have been invented in the early 19th century, ya cai is just one of the myriad different preserved vegetables used in Sichuan’s cuisine, including zha cai, da tou cai (‘big head vegetable’)and many other regional varieties.
Ya cai’s primary ingredient is jie mo cai, a type of mustard green native to Southeast Sichuan. Around 4-5 months after being planted, the mustard green plants are harvested in the 9th lunar month. The leaves are then discarded, the stems sliced into even strips, and the strips hung out on poles to dry.
The making of ya cai is unusual among Sichuanese ingredients, in that while doubanjiang (chilli bean paste) and dou chi (fermented black beans) only require one fermentation stage, ya cai demands two. Once sufficiently dry, the mustard green stems are mixed with salt and left to ferment in sealed containers for 3 to 6 months – small ceramic pots called tu tan are traditionally used. This is the first of the two fermentation stages.
Once the first stage is complete, the mustard green stems are boiled with brown sugar for 8 to 9 hours, and are hung up to dry out once more. Now, star anise, Sichuan pepper, and other spices are added, and again, the mustard green stems are left to ferment in sealed containers for another 3 to 6 months.
In Chengdu’s markets you can sometimes find un-cut ya cai – long, straggly strips of green-brown vegetable, bought by weight – but mostly ya cai is bought already chopped up in small, sealed packages. When buying ya cai make sure to buy a brand based in Yibin, the city about 250km southeast of Chengdu which is the most celebrated producer of this ingredient. Once opened, you should store ya cai in a sealed container in a cool, dry place.
Though a few different brands exist, by far the most common is Yibin’s Sui Mi Ya Cai Company, who apparently started the practice of chopping up ya cai, hence the name – sui mi means crushed rice, referring to the appearance of the company’s bitty, pre-cut ya cai.
Ya cai is often mixed with pork for the stuffing of baozi, and is also a vital ingredient in Yibin’s signature dish, ran mian (‘burning noodles’). But it is perhaps most famously used in one of Sichuan’s most popular vegetable dishes, Dry-Fried Green beans. I’ve eaten countless different versions of this dish, but this one is my favorite.
Dry-fried Green Beans with ya cai
- 250g green beans
- 2 tablespoons ya cai
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans (dou chi), rinsed and drained
- 5 dried chillies, halved and seeds discarded
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper (huajiao)
- 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, and the same amount of ginger, thinly sliced
- 3 spring onions, cut into 3cm lengths
- 50g minced pork (optional)
- Cooking oil
- Salt to taste
- Top and tail the green beans, and cut into 5cm lengths.
- Heat your wok, and add about a tablespoon of cooking oil. Once hot, add pork and stir-fry for a few minutes until cooked through, and then set aside.
- Add a tablespoon of oil to the wok, and once hot add the beans, stir-fry for a couple of minutes, and then add another 1-2 tablespoons of oil. Stir-fry for another 3-5 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Remove from wok and set aside.
- Add another tablespoon of oil to the wok, and once hot add the garlic and ginger slices. Stir-fry on a moderate heat for about 30 seconds, and then add the chilies and Sichuan pepper. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds, taking care not to burn the spices, and now add the ya cai and dou chi and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.
- Finally, add the spring onions (and the pork, if using), and return the beans to the wok. Stir-fry for another minute or so, add salt to taste, remove to a serving dish and serve.