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Tongue-tingling pickles for prickling heat
By Gao Ceng

PICKLES - cool, crunchy, sweet, briny or spicy - add zest and favor, and they are said to stimulate the appetite, which may be lost during China's hot, humid plum rain season.

Summer is also the best season to make pickles, since many vegetables and fruits are ripe and perfect for pickling.

Pickles are prominent in classical antipasti that begin almost every meal, says Gianluca Serafin, chef de cuisine at Palladio Italian restaurant, The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai.

Pickles are popular worldwide and are especially famous in Italy, China and Koreas (kimchi), where there's a long history and great variety.

Italian chefs typically use vinegar and olive oil to marinate vegetables and fruits such as onions, eggplant and cauliflower so that their pickles - sott'aceti (pickled in vinegar) and sott'oli (packed in olive oil) - feature a light and clean flavor.

"The acidity of vinegar, especially the wine vinegar, keeps the food from spoiling and gives the flavor an extra touch," says chef Serafin.

Olive oil is better for highlighting the flavor of ingredients.

Many Italian chefs have their own pickle recipe passed down through generations, so that each restaurant has its distinct pickles.

Pickles are eaten directly or as a side dish to complement cold cuts and cooked pork and other meat.

China is generally considered the origin of Asian pickles known for diverse flavors and textures.

Ingredients include Chinese cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, lotus root, Chinese artichoke, plums, watermelon peel and other fruit and vegetables.

"Ingredients used in north China are comparatively simple while those used in south are more diverse. The northern flavors are intense, rich and salty, while in the south the style is much lighter, delicately sweet-and-sour or sweet-and salty," says San Zhang, chef de cuisine at Suntime Century Chinese Restaurant, Grand Kempinski Hotel Shanghai.

Chefs in north China typically use a yellow paste made from fermented soy sauce for pickling, while in south China, sugar and vinegar are more popular.

Chinese like to serve pickles with plain congee to highlight their flavor.

Famous Korean kimchi is often red in color and has a rich complex flavor combining sweet, sour, savory and spicy. Many kimchis are fiery hot.

Ingredients include cabbage, radish, scallions and cucumber, plus seasonings such as brine, fish sauce, shrimp paste, ginger, garlic and chili.Korean change their kimchi with the seasons, using fresh greens in spring, cucumber and radish in summer and cabbage in winter.

Kimchi in Korean cuisine is usually a side dish. "I personally believe that kimchi should be a little bitter to balance the flavor of Korean BBQ, usually served with sweet sauce," says Allen Cha, chef de cuisine at Smoki Moto Kitchen, Renaissance Shanghai Caohejing Hotel.

For wine pairing, white wine with firm acidity and sweetness goes well with pickles, especially those tasting spicy and sour. High acidity in many sparkling wines holds up sharp flavor of the vinegar. Some medium sweet wine well balances the heat of chili.

Many independent restaurants serve tinned pickles or those in jars to control costs, however, some hotel chefs insist on making their own to ensure quality and freshness. Some use private recipes to marinate and season.

Here are some five-star hotel pickles:

Homemade kimchi

This appetizer was launched this summer by chef Allen Cha. He adapts a traditional recipe using radish leaf. The sauce contains anchovy for more flavor.

"It's an ideal pairing for grilled beef and pork belly, which cuts through their fatness," the chef says.

Kimchi is served as a side dish with all BBQ.

Venue: Smoki Moto, Renaissance Shanghai Caohejing Hotel

Address: 1/F, 397 Tianlin Rd

Tel: 3325-8388

Marinated eel with preserved vegetables

Eel fillet is roasted and marinated in balsamic vinegar. A range of crunchy seasonal vegetables are preserved in a sweet and sour liquid made from vinegar, olive oil, herbs and spices.

It comes from the Veneto area in northern Italy, says chef Serafin. "The fatty eel is balanced by pickles with light acidity and sweetness."

Venue: Palladio, The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai

Address: 1/F, 1376 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 6279-8888

Crisp cucumber and preserved red cabbage (12 yuan+15% each)

Both two dishes are summer appetizers launched by chef Zhang. Cucumber, marinated with sugar, vinegar and Thai chili, has a clean, sweet-and-sour taste with a spicy touch. Fresh red cabbage, flavored with sugar, vinegar and drizzled with lime juice, has a citrus flavor and crisp texture.

Venue: Suntime Century Chinese Restaurant

Address: 2/F, 1288 Lujiazuihuan Rd

Tel: 3867-8888

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164