Handiwork: Pickling

By Jam Sanitchat

Fall is the perfect time to think about pickling in Texas. Summer (and even some spring) vegetables—like cucumbers, summer squash, onions, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers—are still in season, and as the breezes of fall finally make their way through Austin, we also welcome cooler-weather vegetables—like cauliflower, broccoli, hardy greens and cabbage. Such bounty calls for ways to preserve and use those vegetables for just a little while longer.

 In Thai cooking, we love to pickle—everything from watercress to lime to duck eggs. Most Thai pickles are used to add depth and complement the foods they are served with or used in. And because Thai food is about the harmony of five flavors—salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter—pickles provide a necessary flavor profile and counterbalance. For example, a quick-pickled cucumber relish or cucumber salad usually accompanies a dish that has coconut milk and dried spices like curry powder or turmeric. The sweet-and-sour taste of the relish helps cut the heady spices and rich coconut milk and makes the dish more balanced to the palate. This is the reason that Thai pickles are usually not eaten alone; they almost always work in concert with other foods.


Many Thai pickles are quick and easy to make and are meant to be eaten within a few days. The aforementioned cucumber relish is the most popular quick Thai pickle. It’s usually served with yellow curry or satay, but the relish is so versatile that it can be served as a side dish for any spicy food. Another quick pickle is the spicy mixed vegetable, which goes great with sandwiches, spicy curries and grilled meat or fish. Best of all, many different types of vegetables can be used to make it, so it’s perfect for the change of season.

And finally, the Texas fall brings hearty greens. Pickling them allows their intense flavors to grace stir-fries, soups and side dishes well into the cooler months. The recipe below is designed for Chinese mustard greens, but bok choy, Chinese broccoli, regular mustard greens, napa cabbage, regular cabbage, kale or collard greens can also be used. Using the water reserved from rinsing rice to preserve the greens helps promote fermentation, and the mixture of white sugar and palm sugar gives the pickled greens a complex sweetness.