Foodstuff is a freelance food writer who has been exploring the art of fermentation. Traditional Chinese preserves is the latest project.
What Is Dongcai?
Dongcai (or toong choi in Cantonese) is one of the most famous forms of Chinese preserved vegetables. Made from Chinese "celery" cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis), it is sold in distinctive dark brown earthenware jars that are labelled "Preserved Tientsin Cabbage".
Widely used in home cooking, its distinctive savoury flavour sparks up many Chinese home-style dishes, from steamed meat "cakes", soups and noodle dishes to stir-fries.
Dongcai is extremely easy to make; there are only three ingredients and four steps. Let's take a look at the overview, and then we'll discuss each step in greater detail, below.
(Scroll down for information about amounts and proportions).
- Chinese cabbage
- Wash and chop the cabbage.
- Dry the chopped cabbage.
- Rub a salt and garlic paste through the dried cabbage (or just salt if the dongcai is intended for consumption by strict Buddhist vegetarians).
- Pack the seasoned dried cabbage pieces into jars and wait for it to mature.
I strongly recommend making a very large quantity for two reasons: shrinkage and the length of time to maturity.
As this vegetable has very high water content, there is massive shrinkage on drying. You will lose around 75 to 80% of the fresh weight during the drying process. So start with what might seem an almost an obscene amount of fresh Chinese cabbage. You won’t regret it!
The other reason for preparing a large quantity is because the maturing process is extremely long. In the trials that I have done, I found that it takes over 12 months before the preserve reaches optimum flavour development. This is the point where the cabbage has turned a rich caramel brown colour and developed a strong yet mellow umami (or savoury) aroma and flavour.
Now, let’s go through each step.
Step 1: Prepare the Cabbage
- Wash and chop the leaves up into rough dice. You don’t need to do a very fine dice. The diced leaves will shrivel up when you dry them, and you don’t want to end up with overly tiny pieces.
- Transfer the chopped leaves into a very large container as you go. Once you’ve finished cutting up all the cabbages, use a large salad spinner to dry off the diced cabbage. Getting rid of excess moisture reduces the drying time.
Step 2: Dehydrate the Cabbage
- Load the dehydrator trays with diced cabbage that have had excess moisture removed in the salad spinner.
- Dry the diced cabbage in the dehydrator at 35°C until they are fairly dry to the touch but not crisp dry. It takes me about 12 hours to achieve this level of dehydration.
- With my dehydrator, I move the trays around from top to bottom after about 6 hours to ensure even drying.
Step 3: Prepare the Salt and Garlic Paste
- Weigh the dried cabbage pieces: note the weight.
- Then weigh out sea salt equal to 20% of the weight of the dried cabbage, and peeled fresh garlic cloves equal to 5% of the dried cabbage weight.
- Place the salt and garlic cloves in a mortar and pound them into a smooth paste.
- Add the salt and garlic paste to the dried cabbage pieces. Mix thoroughly by hand, making sure that all the cabbage pieces are evenly coated with the paste.
Step 4: Allow Maturation (12 Months)
- Pack the seasoned cabbage pieces tightly into glass or ceramic jars. Seal and leave to mature in a dark place. It will take at least 12 months for the dongcai to develop its rich mellow flavour and deep caramel colour.
- After a day or two, you may see some liquid in the jars. This is just the remnant moisture in the cabbage being drawn out by the salt. Any exuded liquid is soon reabsorbed by the cabbage pieces.
- There should be no visible liquid in the jar. However, if you pressed on the cabbage pieces with a spoon, a lot of liquid will be released. Do not try to remove this liquid. I have found that the presence of the liquid actually assists in the development of the dongcai.
In the first trial, I used a spoon to press down on the cabbage pieces to extract as much liquid as possible. I drained off all the excess liquid so that the cabbage pieces were quite dry; not bone dry but devoid of any surplus moisture. This ended up impeding the development of the dongcai.
As you can see in the comparison picture below, the colour of the dongcai from the first trial (lower jar) has remained at a pale beige and the flavour is actually quite insipid.
With the second trial, I only removed excess moisture after around 12 months. I did this simply by pressing down on the cabbage pieces in the jar with a spoon and draining off all liquid that exuded.
What you want to end up with are fermented cabbage pieces that are still moist but are not water-logged.
The mature dongcai will keep indefinitely in a cool dry place or in the refrigerator.
Toong Choi Ching Chee Yoke (Steamed Pork With Dongcai)
This classic home-style Cantonese dish is the ultimate comfort food. A generous slice of this steamed meat “cake” mashed into hot steamed rice is my idea of heaven.
Dongcai serves as a seasoning agent for the pork. It is not meant to be the dominant ingredient. I recommend a ratio of about 25% of dongcai to minced pork as a rough guide.
Dongcai is quite salty so be careful when seasoning the minced pork. You can always adjust for the level of saltiness with light soy sauce during the meal.
Note: Commercial dongcai should be rinsed before use to get rid of excess salt. You can actually see salt crystallised on the cabbage pieces! I have not found it necessary to rinse the home-made dongcai.
- 300 grams coarsely minced pork
- 75 grams dongcai
- 3/4 teaspoon tapioca flour (or corn starch)
- 3/4 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 3/4 teaspoon sesame oil
- Ground white pepper
- Mix all the ingredients together.
- Spread the pork mixture in a shallow sided heatproof dish to make a patty around 1.5cm thick.
- Steam the minced pork “cake” over boiling water for 25 – 30 minutes.
- Serve hot with steamed rice and a dish of stir-fried vegetables.
Dongcai Pork Balls and Noodle Soup
The addition of dongcai to minced pork and to the soup base as well makes for a tasty noodle soup. I tend to use around dongcai equal to around 15% to 20% of the weight of minced pork.
Finely mince the dongcai for making the pork balls: this prevents the pork balls from falling apart when they are boiled.
You don’t need stock to make a tasty soup; the addition of some dongcai to water along with pork balls and vegetables are enough to make for a very tasty clear broth. You can use any vegetables you like. I like leafy greens for soup noodle dishes like this.
Ingredients for the Pork Balls
- 100 grams coarsely minced pork
- Approx. 15 to 20 grams dongcai, finely minced
- 1/4 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon tapioca flour
Ingredients for the Soup
- Approx. 750 milliliters water
- Generous pinch dongcai
- Leafy greens or other vegetables of your choice
- Mung bean thread noodles or rice noodles or rice vermicelli
- Salt and ground white pepper to taste
- Fresh coriander sprigs
- Garlic oil
- Freshly sliced red chillies
- Make the pork balls by mixing all pork, finely minced dongcai and seasoning ingredients together. Form the pork mixture into small balls.
- Prepare the noodles according to instructions on the pack. Mung bean thread noodles and rice vermicelli need to be soaked in hot water until softened and then rinsed in cold water. Fresh rice noodles simply need to be blanched briefly with boiling water and drained.
- For the soup: Bring water to boil in a saucepan. Add a generous pinch of dongcai to the water.
- When the water is boiling, add the pork balls. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the leafy green vegetables to the soup. Boil briefly until the vegetables are just cooked. Taste the soup and adjust for salt.
- Place the noodles in a large bowl. Ladle the pork balls, vegetables and soup over the noodles. Garnish as desired. Enjoy!
Dongcai, Pork and Mushroom Sauce on Rice Starch Noodles
This is the Chinese equivalent of “spag bol” with a rich savoury meat sauce over rice starch noodles.
Rice starch noodles are fat translucent white noodles. They may be long or short in length. The short ones are also called “rice drops” (aka “lo shee fun” in Cantonese, which is literally “mouse noodles”). This type of noodles only needs to be blanched very briefly before using it. You can find these noodles in most Asian grocery stores.
Rice starch noodles or rice drops are smooth and slippery but with a nice al dente texture. They can be used with soup dishes, stir-fried or briefly “braised” with a sauce as in this recipe.
- 250 grams minced pork
- 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon tapioca starch
- Ground white pepper
- 3-4 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in boiling water
- Approx. 50 grams dongcai
- 1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- Oil for frying
- 1-2 tablespoons sweet dark soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon corn starch
- Green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, choy sum, mustard greens, etc
- Rice starch noodles or rice drops
- Mix the minced pork with the oyster sauce, light soy sauce, sesame oil, tapioca starch and ground white pepper. Set aside.
- Drain the shitake mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut the shitake mushrooms into small dice.
- If the dongcai pieces are very large, chop them roughly into medium-fine pieces. What you want if to have them roughly proportional in size to the diced mushroom.
- Blanch the rice starch noodles or rice drops briefly in boiling water. Then run under cold tap water. Drain and set aside.
- Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a wok until smoking hot. Add the seasoned minced pork and fry, breaking up any clumps, until the pork is browned. Add the minced garlic and continue to fry until the garlic starts to colour.
- Add the diced shitake mushrooms and dongcai. Continue to fry for a few minutes.
- Drizzle the sweet dark soy sauce over the meat mixture and toss to evenly coat the mixture.
- Add some of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid to the mixture. You want just enough to create a small amount of sauce in the wok About 125 – 150 ml should suffice.
- Blend the corn starch with a bit of water and add to the wok. Stir and check that your meat mixture is evenly coated with a lightly thickened sauce.
- Add the vegetables of your choice. Fry briefly until the vegetables are just cooked.
- Add the rice starch noodles or rice drops and toss until evenly coated with the meat sauce. Check and adjust seasonings to taste.
- Serve hot. You can accompany this with some fresh sliced chillies or a chilli sauce of your choice.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you need an airlock for the maturation process or would a tightly sealed jar do?
Answer: I would use an airlock. You do need to allow gases to escape during fermentation. A tightly sealed jar might explode.
Karen on July 17, 2020:
I think I've over-dehydrated the vegetables because my old dehydrator does not have temperature control. I've got it in the maturation stage for about 3 weeks now but there's no liquid appearing. I didn't press it with a spoon though. Is there anything I can do to correct it?