Precisely how the perfect gherkin should taste is a subject of ongoing culinary controversy for those coming from the eastern part of Europe and of particular importance for those who grew up anywhere near Germany's most famous pickled-gherkin region, Spreewald.
On the shelves of the imported-foods sections in Chengdu's supermarkets, you will most likely come across a specimen produced by Kühne—a big German food company with strong monopoly tendencies in all kinds of fields whose products are usually avoided if any other choice presents itself.
That said, their gherkins—while far from superior—are surprisingly passable. Passable, but still not good enough for a former gherkin junkie. I never thought that a bad gherkin could lead to depression, but apparently good ones can at least kick-start the road to recovery. It may sound like a blatant and shameless ad, but I found it to be at least partly true when I recently rebooted my search for a gherkin recipe that an impatient man with limited supplies, intelligence, funds, time, and experience is capable of executing.
Here is the basic recipe:
1 kg small cucumber (小黄瓜/xiǎo huángguā)
375 mL water
250 mL white vinegar (白醋/báicù)
150g pearl onion (珠葱/zhūcōng)
1 Tbsp thyme (百里香/bǎilǐxiāng)
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp white granulated sugar (白糖/báitáng)
5 peppercorns (干胡椒子/gān hújiāozǐ)
3 bay leaves (干月桂叶 gān yuèguìyè)
dill to taste (莳萝 shíluó)
Carefully wash the cucumbers, and use a needle or fork to prick each one about a dozen times. Place them in a bowl with water and add the salt on top (this retains their crispness). Let them sit overnight. The next day, rinse the cucumbers. In a separate pot, boil the remaining ingredients in the water and vinegar mixture. Rinse a large, sealable glass jar with boiling water. This simple sterilization prevents the pickles from going bad. Position the cucumbers horizontally in the jar and pour the hot brew over it. Close the jar and leave upside down in a cool room, away from direct sunlight (ha, ha), for around three days. If the seal on your jar is not airtight (determine this by the sound it makes when you tap on it), stand it on its lid.
• Since cucumbers have a very short shelf life, it's best to buy them the same day you will start the pickling process.
• You can find large jars at small kitchenware shops for RMB15 to 20, but the jars and pots for making paocai don't seal, so buy the type used for making liquor. You can also buy a jar of gherkins, eat the pickles, and then use the jar—and mix the leftover pickle juice into your brew.
• For variation, you can try adding garlic or chili to spice it up, or experiment with new flavors such as summer savory, juniper berries, estragon, mustard seed, whole allspice berries, horseradish, clove, basil, cherry-tree leaves, wine-grape leaves, and so forth.
• You can also try making your own blend by substituting balsamic or herbal vinegar or white wine for some of the vinegar.
These customized gherkins are great (and cheap!) snacks and make an excellent addition to salads, on burgers, sandwiches or my favorite, all year round: pickle soup.