In a 2014 post I tried to argue that the Kang Shifu 康師傅 (aka Chef Kang, or Master Kong) “happy chef” and his style of the popular beef stew noodles have influenced not only other instant noodle brands in Taiwan and China but also Chinese food trends more broadly. In the US we still don’t have access to those incredibly popular Kang Shifu offerings (due to the real beef meat packets inside each package of noodles and US import restrictions), but we do have several copycat variations with powdered soup packets where we can see the effects of instant noodle brand battles.
Today I have another example of that influence, this time with a style of fermented Chinese mustard (changed from cabbage–see comments below), the so-called “old crock” sour vegetable.
Since my last post on Kang Shifu, I started noticing a new genre of instant noodle in the noodle isle of most Chinese supermarkets in Philadelphia. These noodle packs are usually purple, and there is a key active ingredient that is translated as “old crock” sour vegetable, or sometimes sauerkraut (and the flavor of this lacto-fermented Chinese mustard is similar to sauerkraut in many respects). This key ingredient is also signified on the package with an image of a pickling crock off to the side.
This combination of sour vegetable with beef noodles is not a new thing, in fact it is a classic. That said, the reference to the “old crock” (老坛酸菜), as well as the uniformity with the purple coloring, made me think this must be a corporate partnership with a brand called “Old Crock” (老坛). Instead, this is just a catchy name employed by two competing instant noodle empires, Master Kong and Tong Yi in China and Taiwan. See here for a Google image search with the keyword “Old crock sour vegetable” to get a sense of how these two companies are promoting the idea of “old crock”. For a very interesting blog post on the aforementioned noodle battle over the “old crock sour vegetable”, see the outstanding blog Reputable Sources.
This noodle battle and food trend finally started spilling over to the international market in recent years, and we now have a relatively stable section at Chinatown noodle isles for “old crock” sour vegetable noodles. In Philadelphia, we can clearly see popularity of this flavor, but we don’t have the original versions from the two main battling factions.
I have to admit, I find this style of instant noodle delicious. Sour vegetables go very well with the instant noodle beef soup base. In fact, as I get older, I find pickled vegetables go well with most anything.
I am getting more interested in Chinese pickled vegetables in general, and am slowly working my way through the varied offerings at Philly’s many Chinese markets. Recently I found “old crock” sour vegetables for sale in foil packages alongside other types of preserved Chinese vegetables (see left).
This example comes from a well-known company, Chongqing’s Yuquan 鱼泉 (literally “fish well”), is perhaps best known for its line of Sichuan-style pickles, i.e. yuquan zhacai 鱼泉榨菜. See here for a Google image search for this kind of pickle. Unlike the more stem-focused zhacai or yacai (see here for my post on Yibin yacai), these sauerkraut-like lacto-ferments utilize more green leaves than stem.
Notice the purple packaging and the image of a pickling crock off to the side. To me, this is a clear example of how instant noodle companies are driving food trends in China and beyond.
Update 10 May 2017: Here is another example of “old crock” branding… Sichuan’s Baijia 白家 “Old Crock” sour vegetable potato starch vermicelli:
Fascinating post! I’ve not spent a lot of time on the instant noodle aisle, so thanks for writing about this trend.
One question: are you sure those are “fermented Chinese cabbage”? I’ve only seen fermented mustard greens sold as “old crock” suancai. Mustard green suancai have dark green leaves like those in your photo. In China, “old crock suancai” instant noodles are also made with mustard greens.
As for you looking for more suancai, good luck! I’ve seen both cabbage and mustard green suancai sold in American Asian groceries. I’ve tried quite a few brands (foil packets, plastic packets, packed in buckets). If you’re looking, be on the lookout for mustard green suancai in 5 gallon buckets, usually located in the produce area of the store. In Chicago, this is the case at the Vietnamese grocery Broadway Supermarket (Uptown) and the Chinese grocery Hong Kong Supermarket (Chinatown). The bucket suancai tend to taste better than the plastic and foil packet varieties.
That said, I’ve found that I can ferment mustard greens rather easily at home, and I think home-fermented (fresh from the crock or jar) taste much better than store-bought products. If you’re interested in making your own at home, look for fresh mustard greens in your produce section (big leaf, short leaf, or xuelihong) and check out Taiwan Duck on fermenting Asian mustard greens. She has an excellent video on how to make old crock water. http://taiwanduck.com/how-to-make-taiwanese-sour-green-vegetables/ . I wrote about fermenting mustard greens as well: https://reputablesources.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/lost-in-translation-old-sour-water-makes-the-best-pickled-mustard-greens/
In the past, I’ve done taste-tests on both cabbage and mustard green suancai from American Asian groceries, and none could begin to compare with homemade. I’d be very curious if you find any brands that you like and would recommend I try.
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Hi Evan, thank you for your comment. I suspect you are right, that this is a Chinese mustard green and not a cabbage. I am going to make a note in my post’s text to reflect this change. I really like your blog, and besides chiles, I haven’t yet embarked on Chinese-style home fermentation. I’ll look to your site for advice as I go forward on that front… it seems you have a lot of valuable insight on Chinese-style fermentation.
In terms of our preferences, we fairly regularly get Sino-Thai pickled mustard greens (product of Thailand) in the slightly larger vacuum packed packages. We use that for noodle curry dishes like the Khao soi. I am inspired by your comment that you prefer the bucket version to the individually wrapped. We’ll give that a try!
I am familiar with the Taiwan Duck videos (perhaps I saw them first from your site). Thanks for sharing those links and also for listing some nice options for Chicagoland.
Are you a fan of yacai? Have you tried to make that at home?
Great post! We have noticed these just lately here in Nashville. The ones we’re getting with pickles are in the big cardboard bowls and are made by Chuan Wei Wang, so I assume they are made in Sichuan, though it doesn’t say. They not only have pickles but are super spicy. Of course! My daughter is going through them like crazy.
As a fellow Asian market obsessive, I am happy to have found your blog!
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Thanks Taylor! I stumbled upon you blog a few days ago as I am contemplating a post on 老干妈. There is a lot of great information there. I’m not familiar with the brand you mention, but if they are anything like the styles I’ve eaten, I can understand why your daughter is loving them. Thanks for the kind words, and I look forward to your future posts!
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