Beijingers Prepare for Winter: Chinese Cabbage

Why do Beijingers stockpile vegetables?

Chinese cabbage piled high in October

Winter is over. A couple weeks ago, I used the last of our dongbei suancai (Northeast China’s sauerkraut). My father and I used the suancai to stir-fry pork and cellophane noodles (suancai fensi, 酸菜粉丝), a “dongbei” (Northeast China) staple. My wife’s cousin from Taiwan inspired a suancai hotpot meal. We emptied our crock, and with these two meals, the suancai season came to close.

In Northeast China, suancai is a product of the seasons, starting in October with the harvest and ending with an exhausted crock. Chinese cabbages are harvested in the late fall, just as the temperatures start pushing towards freezing. After harvest, the cabbages are stored in root cellars, apartment hallways or  balconies. Many are processed and placed in crocks, left to ferment at low temperatures through the winter months and require little salt. Some people ferment a few cabbages, others a whole crop. Heilongjiang University is host to a large-scale fermentation operation, and in the winter of 2007, students lined up to buy hermetically sealed bags of Heida suancai.

Georgia is warmer, and our winter is shorter. I have been fermenting in our North Georgia garage, and the crocks are no longer hovering in the 40s and 50s like they did in the winter months. By early April we were well into the 60s. Today, the last day of April 2014, I checked one of my bamboo ferments and the water temperature registered in the low 70s. There are ways to ferment Chinese cabbage in the warmer months, and I’ll be experimenting with warm-weather ferments over the next 5 to 6 months. But spring is here, and this round of fall and winter ferments is coming to a close. Now we can wait until next fall’s harvest and the return of the cold.

In Beijing, this harvest transforms the city. Seth Coleman, a former colleague at Caixin Magazine, made this video about the autumn vegetable sales in Beijing. In mid to late October, minivans begin to populate Beijing neighborhoods and the ruckus begins. Mounds of cabbage pile high, and winter vegetables are sold by the cart load. Bicycles are loaded with leeks and baby carrages are filed with cabbage. America’s current interest in “seasonal foods” is put to shame by these Beijinger’s gusto as they stock up on their winter veg.

Video Description:
The Beijing winter is long and cold. In the late autumn many of the older generation follow old tradition by stocking up on Chinese cabbage and leeks. It’s not strictly necessary in the modern era, but for older folk it’s a combination of nostalgia and good value.

More of Seth’s videos:
http://vimeo.com/sethcoleman

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