Nutritionists say it's rich in antioxidants, enzymes, and vitamins, that it helps treat canker sores and even cancer, some studies indicate—but those are just the positive side effects, most importantly and the reason we're here to tell you how to make it yourself: It's yummy.
Spanning the reaches of history, all the way to ancient Greek and Roman times, sauerkraut exists in numerous cuisines around the world in some shape or form—as tsukemono in Japanese, as suancai in northeast Chinese cuisine (and every Harbin Jiaozi restaurant should have it), as kimchi in Korean—but it's still mainly associated with Germany. The association is so strong that during the world wars, "sauerkraut" became an ethnic slur used by American soldiers. In the post–war era, it has been adopted as a self-ironic genre name for German progressive rock—krautrock.
As with DIY gherkins, DIY sauerkraut is superior in taste and texture, without additives and comes at a fraction of the price of the commercial shelf product. Your single biggest investment and primary obstacle may be the right jar or pot. For a trial and direct comparison you could use the well-cleaned glass left over from a commercial sauerkraut (or any food jar as long as the lid is resealable). Ikea also sells sealable glasses that can be used, and local kitchenware shops (such as those adjacent to the produce markets) sell bigger and cheaper paocai jars, which might be even better as the ideal pot has a little round channel with water on top on which the lid sits and allows internal gas to escape without letting air in.
It's an essential part of national Polish, Hungarian, and Russian dishes, particularly stews. In Germany it is usually served as a side accompanying pork knuckle or ribs, grilled sausages, or roast meat in combination with gravy or mustard and potatoes and dumplings, but it could also be used as filling for meat dishes, or in casserole or lasagna, cold as a salad, or in a rather unusual combination with fish or sautéed with fried noodles. Some even drink the leftover juice. Depending on the dish, regional or personal preference one could add diced carrots and bacon, caramelized onions or apples, (beef) broth, beer, or, for a French touch, dry white wine or even champagne. It tastes even better reheated.
One small white cabbage
Salt (1 Tbsp per kg of cabbage)
1. Remove the two outermost layers of the cabbage (throw them away or wash them and use them for soup).
2. Slice the cabbage into strips 1cm wide.
3. Add salt and mash the cabbage with your hands until the cabbage surfaces are juicy (you're breaking down the cell walls; the salt absorbs the juice and starts the fermentation process).
4. Place cabbage slices in freshly washed glass jars. Cover the opening of the jars with plastic wrap and place the lids on top of that, sealed tightly.
5. Store them protected from the Chengdu sunlight in a cold place for a week or two if you prefer it sour (as few as three days may be enough for some tastes). The sauerkraut is ready when it's sour, with a touch of sweetness, but still crunchy.
If the cabbage turns brown and dry, too much air has found its way in, and you'll have to restart. A moldy film just on the surface, however, can be skimmed off.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 68. Illustration by Sascha Hommer and Jul Gordon.