Backyard Ham Choy

  |   Cooking, Food   |   1 Comment


Rootling around for a quick blog post today I look out of my own kitchen window and see a neat row of green vegetables lined up in the bright winter sun.  My mother in law (henceforth known as MIL) goes about her business peacefully and keeps very much to herself. Our philosophies on horticulture differ greatly and we keep very separate gardens. But this I cannot ignore, I need to record it before the skill disappears.

It turns out to be the art of simple pickling greens known as Ham Choy  – and from what I can gather Ham refers to salt and Choy is general purpose green vegetable, in this case mustard greens. (The Hakka language is startlingly blunt and does have room for spare words – when I first got involved with it 22 years ago I was eager to learn the English translation of the months of the  year, imagining August to be “Golden Moon and Plentiful Harvest Month“. It is “Month Eight”, and no prizes for guessing the translation of the remaining eleven.)

MIL learned how to make Ham Choy from her Hakka-speaking Cantonese mother and had always seen this practice happening around her, performed by the women of her family.  It is an old way of preserving green vegetables in tropical conditions practiced all over South-East Asia and the pickling process is very, very simple.

The outer leaves only of the mustard greens are separated and left to wilt in the sun, the cellulose breaking down to allow for better pickling cure absorption I suggest? No, no, so it not hard. Of course. The tender hearts go mushy, as far as I can make out, and are rejected.


After the heat of the day, my MIL will take 4 parts vinegar (any vinegar) to one part salt and brings it to the boil with an unquantifiable volume of water – I suspect one has to know the volume of the family pickling jar and of the leaves to be pickled and judging from the amount wilting today  I would say 300g. The brine solution is brought to the boil and left to cool while the wilted leaves are rinsed and packed in to the jar. The brine is poured over until the whole leaves are covered and an ingenious device is used to make sure they don’t poke out of the brine and start to oxidise – a smaller jar immersed in the brine. The addition of sugar can correct a too salty or too sour brine.

The pickling process takes one week at room temperature and you get pickled mustard greens, or Ham Choy.

Almost ready to eat

I wonder aloud if, like the Japanese pickled Daikon and other pickled vegetables known as Tsukemono, Ham Choy imparts particular nutrients to the diet or enhances some digestive or otherwise bodily function? No, no. Cook with ginger and pork. I am not sure that the abundance of mustard greens correlated to the availability of pork when my MIL and her family spent the years of WWII hiding from the Japanese in the interior of British North Borneo but I’m not inclined to argue the toss; my MIL is not a particularly effusive person and I am simply happy to have had the opportunity to record this family tradition. Sometimes it’s best to take off the lab coat and just accept things on face value.

British North Borneo, now known as Sabah, East Malaysia
British North Borneo, now known as Sabah, East Malaysia


However, I will take the liberty of surmising that the reason the leaves are kept whole and not chopped is to reduce the surface area and  the leeching of nutrient-rich fluids as a fuel for any bacteria involved in fermentation, after all that is the main reason cabbage is chopped for sauerkraut. In any case, she promises to cook some when this batch is ready. Perhaps we can look forward to something like this

taken from Let's Eat Malaysian blog,
taken from Let’s Eat Malaysian blog,
or this from Food Endeavours of the Blue Apocolypse’s recipe for stir fried pickled mustard greens with chicken and pork balls.
  • Mars | Aug 3, 2013 at 20:20

    Sometimes it is what it is. Lovely reading. Thanks

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