The salty and sour kiam chai, also known as kiam chye or hum choy, was a big part of my childhood food memories. I am not sure whether kiam chai is of Teochew origin, but it is featured in many Teochew dishes such as Teochew steamed fish, kiam chai and duck soup and braised kiam chai and pork. I also remember my parents and grandparents having it raw as one of their Teochew moi (rice porridge) accompaniments.
My mom made her own kiam chai in a large plastic bucket in our kitchen. She was the local wet market’s vegetable sellers’ favourite customer she regularly bought big quantities of Chinese mustard greens among other things to replenish her kiam chai bucket. This was because her kiam chai bucket had a high turnover rate, with her being the official kiam chai peddler in our (very) extended family. She gave kiam chai away for free to family and friends, simply because she enjoyed sharing her homemade foods with anyone who appreciated them. Her regular kiam chai recipients were my maternal grandmother, aunts and uncles, whose houses were a one-hour drive from our place. My father often grumbled about how the half a dozen bags of kiam chai would stink up his car but happily loaded them up anyway.
Another reason my mom religiously kept her kiam chai supply up was that she disliked commercially sold kiam chai that had added colouring and appeared practically fluorescent yellowish-green, with passion. She was also very proud of the fact that her kiam chai was naturally fermented, with no artificial “chemicals”.
A few years ago, I asked my mom about how to make kiam chai at home. But, she was not very sure what the starter ingredients were. They were first added into the bucket decades ago. All my mom had to do since was to refill it with salt-rubbed mustard greens to keep the fermentation going.
A few bloggers have written about making kiam chai at home, for example the “A Singaporean Uncle in Australia” and “Cooking Pleasure” bloggers. But, I am not confident enough yet to try making my own kiam chai. For now, I will settle with buying no-brand kiam chai made in home kitchens from Asian grocery shops which I usually use to cook an old favourite, braised kiam chai with pork and tomato.