Seriously Asian: Dried and Pickled Greens

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Every year the lady who cares for my octogenarian grandparents presents to them a bag of mei gan cai (also called mei cai), or dried and pickled mustard greens. She hails from a small village in Zhejiang Province just outside of Shanghai, where the preserved vegetables are a specialty. Happily, the product is now widely available in Chinese markets in the United States.

A number of different varieties of mustard greens and cabbage may be used in the making; the process is long and complicated. The vegetables, once harvested, are sun-dried, salted, fermented, steamed, and finally, dried again, yielding clumps of reddish-brown to dark brown twigs. Though the entire process takes several weeks, the preserved mustard greens can be kept for years without deterioration.

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After rehydration.

Given the various stages of drying, brining, and fermenting, mei gan cai tastes uniquely savory and complex: salty and wine-y, with an herbaceous and pungent flavor. Like olive, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes,or just about anything that's been pickled, brined, or in some way preserved, mei cai is a handy ingredient to have in your pantry. Adding just a handful of mei cai to a braised dish gives the entire dish a more complex tone because the flavor profile of vegetables, intensified by their production, infuses a lot of umami into meat, tofu, or just about any braising ingredient.

Mei cai is a prized ingredient in the common red-braised dishes in central and southern China; the briny vegetables add a savory note to the sweet soy sauce-based braises. To use mei cai, simply rehydrate a few handfuls of the vegetable in water before adding them to your braise. Look for the product in the dried goods aisles of your Chinese market.