Crocks in Beijing

A Canadian friend living in Beijing recently asked how he could start making paocai at home. The first step is to buy a crock.

There are three places I’ve bought crocks in Beijing:

Gulou Shangchang 鼓楼商场

#238 Guolou Dong Dajie, Dongcheng District

The Gulou Shangcheng storefront as seen on QQ maps

The Gulou Shangcheng storefront as seen on QQ maps

This kitchen supply store is a relic of former era, and a place to buy crocks and other miscellany. In a quieter era (c. 2007) before youthful Chinese consumption transformed the street into an endless row of sock shops and ukulele sellers, this shop supplied the nearby restaurants with standard culinary tools at a decent price. They have somehow survived the rent increases. They sell metal shot glasses and cookie cutters in the shapes of dragons and phoenixes.

The shop is located just east of the Chun Chen Hotel on Gulou East Street, its small and easy to miss. Look for the storefront in the picture above. Alternatively, use QQ maps to find the location if you’re unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

East Fifth Ring Road Wholesale Market

Chaoyang District, #28 Dongba Middle Road

Entrance to East Fifth Ring Road Wholesale Market

Entrance to East Fifth Ring Road Wholesale Market

The selection of crocks here is much larger than Gulou Shangcheng but in a highly inconvenient location. From Chaoyang Park, it takes at least 45 minutes by bus. (Get on either the 729空调 or the 406 at 朝阳公园桥西 and ride ~11 stop to 奥林匹克花园东门). Taxi or driving would clearly be faster, although you will spend more on cab fare or gas than you will on crocks. Glass crocks range from 10-40rmb depending on size, ceramic crocks 20-80. Some are quite large, upwards 300 liters, and rune 200-300rmb. If you need to store your fall rutabaga harvest to feed your family through the winter, you could buy a 60-100 liter fermentation urn (pàocàigāng泡菜缸) and ship it back home when you leave China.


Many smaller vessels are available on taobao, running 20 to 80 CNY. Search for paocai crocks “泡菜坛子” and you’ll find all sorts of decorative ceramics and glass crocks of all sizes.  Again 5 to 25 liters is an ideal size for your first crock.


News Day for Paocai: Taiwanese Singer Frankie Kao Dies at 63, Sang About Kimchi

Like so many pickling terms in Chinese, “paocai” (泡菜, pàocài) refers to more than one thing. Many Chinese speakers hear “paocai” and think of “Korean kimchis” (韩国泡菜). Others associate paocai with Sichuanese lacto-fermented vegetables, usually cabbage or a mix of celery, radish, and peppers. All paocai are fermented, but how they are made and how they taste vary greatly.  To make things more complicated, the “pao” in “paocai” can be used as a verb to mean lacto-fermention or soaking something in water.

But, today I am not interested in discussing Chinese pickling terminology. Today, I’d like to celebrate the life of Frankie Kao (Gāo Língfēng, 高凌風), the Taiwanese pop singer famous for his Elvis-like hip shaking and dance moves. In the ’70s, Chinese-language variety shows were dominated by swaying crooners known for their gentle demeanor. His dancing and dramatic movements contrasted this earlier style and single-handedly earned him the nickname “The Frog Prince”  (青蛙王子 Qīngwā Wángzi).

Much thanks to a WeChat friend who shared his song “Paocai”. The Karaoke music video can be viewed here:

Below, I’ve translated some of the more interesting lyrics:

The Opening
Hey boss, bring me some paocai!
Hey boss, bring me some paocai!
Paocai, paocai, ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo
Paocai, paocai, ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo

The First Stanza:
Once everyone sits around the table,
I can go put myself out there,
My goal is simple! I’m here to help people
Quickly open up their appetite.

My name is Paocai! (x4)
Everybody loves me.
Is that really so weird?

The Second Stanza:
As soon as I’m on the table,
I can see all sorts of people:
Men, women, old, young,
Fat people, skinny people, all kinds of people.


Judging from the wall decorations, Frankie is singing about kimchi. Gotta love the dance moves.

Some obituaries in English and Chinese:
[MSN] Frankie Gao dies from leukemia at 63
[Straits Times] Veteran Taiwanese singer Frankie Kao dies
[Shanghaiist] “The Frog Prince” Frankie Kao dies from cancer

Other songs:
The TV theme song that made Frankie Kao famous, “Big Eyes” (Audio only)
“Fire in Winter” (KTV version)
“Burn Phoenix Burn” (Live 2004)

Making Northeast China’s “Suancai” (AKA Chinese Sauerkraut)

Washing cabbage

Washing cabbage

Cabbage, after 3-4 days drying and wilted leaves removed.

Dried cabbage, after 3-4 days leaning against the wall. 12kg of cabbage weighed only 6.8kg after drying and removing wilted leaves.

Halved and sliced at base.

Halved and sliced at base.

Stacked one layer at a time, with salt and Sichuanese peppercorns (huajiao 花椒) spread on top of each layer.

Stacked one layer at a time. A layer of salt and Sichuanese peppercorns (huajiao 花椒) are spread on each layer.

Salt and Sichuanese peppercorns on every layer

Salt and Sichuanese peppercorns on every layer

Placing a kraut rock

Placing a kraut rock

Adding boiled water, AFTER cooling to room temperature.

Adding boiled water (after cooling to room temperature)

Over 30 days below 50 degrees, and no mold...

Over 30 days below 50 degrees, and no mold…

Suancai is ready to be chopped for a dish of Chinese sauerkraut and vermicelli noodles (suancaifensi, 酸菜粉丝)

Suancai is ready to be chopped for a dish of Chinese sauerkraut and vermicelli noodles (suancaifensi, 酸菜粉丝)


These photos are from my January 2014 crock of suancai. This batch was made using the recipe of a Chinese friend. His family is from Foshun outside Shenyang in Liaoning province. He makes suancai every year in his Beijing apartment.


Sour-Pickled Mustard Green Stems: Touched by Time

I’ve met picklers and preservers in some strange places. A water pump station in the middle of the Takalamakan Desert still tops the list. But yesterday, sitting in a coffee shop in an Yunnan tourist town, I was introduced to a Heshun pickler through a Chongqing barista. I’m now her student.

Heshun is a Han Chinese town in a frontier area with many minorities. Established at the beginning of the Ming dynasty (c. 1350-1360) and first populated by families of soldiers given titles by the Hong Wu Emperor, the townspeople and farmers today are still predominantly Han. The buildings, alleys and surrounding countryside are all very picturesque. Like Lijiang and other “ancient towns,” it has become the recipient of tourist investment and promotion.

Since 2003, government and businesses have actively cooperated on projects to redevelope the town and build an economy around tourism. In Summer 2009, a subsidiary of the Yunnan-based Brilliant Group received a credit line of 3.9 billion RMB from the Chengdu branch of Export-Import Bank of China to “transform Heshun into an international tourist destination” in 6 years time. Less than 2 months later, the New York Times featured the “rural charms and ancient arcitecture” in a slideshow on its travel blog.

In many ways, Heshun is a Lijiang-lite, retaining that essence that attracted investment in the first place without reaching Lijiang’s extreme of commercialization. In Heshun, many townspeople still live in the town. In the surrounding fields, there are still peasants harvesting rice. People ride in and out of the area on motorcycles to tend their fields. Many important Qing and Republican era buildings are open to the public (with a 80RMB ticket), including the old clan halls and the town’s library. Older residences are quite common in back alleys. Nevertheless, some newly renovated buildings now line these streets, and an overwhelming number of jade sellers have rented many of these spaces. Skirting the ancient town is a long line of bars in old looking buildings. Overall, it seems to be a few steps behind the Lijiang path of ancient town development

Being a good tourist, I found my place to park disposable income, skipping the beer and the precious stones for a coffee at the YLK Coffee Shop (云南小粒咖啡). YLK is run by two cousins from Chongqing, both in their late-twenties and serious about developing their business. Yang Chen, the owner, moved to Heshun to open her first shop in 2010. She then brought her cousin, Luo Wenjing, into the business with plans to open a second location. It opened in 2011. They grow their own supply of beans on nearby farms, roasting 4 different blends. I really enjoyed both cups of Typica, one a flatbean, the other round.

When the YLK cousins relocated to Yunnan, they soon met Heshun native, Auntie Zhang. Auntie Zhang, affectionately known as “Daniang,” is a go-to cook for weddings, funerals, and other community affairs. When they first arrived, Daniang arrived at their shop with a gift of pickles to welcome them. So when I mentioned to Yang Chen that I am learning to pickle and preserve foods like Chinese people, her eyes lit up immediately. She said, “You have to meet this lady, she makes great pickles.”

Thirty minutes later, I’m sitting in their other shop with Luo Wenjing, sharing a pot of Typica flatbeans with Daniang and talking pickles. We chatted about mustard green varieties, pickling techniques and local history. Daniang makes really tasty pickled mustard greens. Here’s the plate she brought us to try, which she calls these sour pickled greens (酸腌菜) or salty greens (咸菜):


Daniang’s sour pickled mustard greens are similar to those in Yunnan’s markets but taste immeasurably better. Her main ingredients are carrots and long, thick stemmed mustard greens, which people in Yunnan typically call qingcai (青菜). She uses ground red pepper and fennel seed to impart flavor. The greens are sun-dried for a day or two after which the leaves are removed. The stems are washed and then chopped into short strips. The stems are then mixed with rice and salt placed in a crock or piece of pottery then sealed. No water is used. She typically makes 50 pounds per batch, purchased fresh from a nearby village in the 11th and 12th months of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Making these in America will not be easy. In Yunnan, I have encountered an extraordinary diversity of mustard greens. Some are used in cooking, typically boiled or stirfried. Only some are for suitable for making Auntie Zhang’s pickles. Those plants unfit for preservation, she called “fruit mustard greens” (水果青菜). The characteristics of these greens are highly variable, depending on variety. Some are harvested mature, others are harvested only a week or two after sprouting. Some grow tall, others bunch lower to the ground. Whether tall or short, their stems can be thick or thin. Leaf margins can be soft and undulating. Other varities have jagged and incised edges. Getting the right variety is extremely important.

It was sad parting, as I only met her in the last hours before my departure. I have a general understanding and decent notes about how to make sour-pickled-greens, but I’m sure I’ll have more questions. Before parting ways, I asked her if she’d be my “master,” I her student, which after a good laugh she promptly accepted. Come December, I’m sure I’ll have more than a few pickle failures. For now however, thanks to Auntie Zhang’s generosity, I can enjoy the real thing:


Xinjiang: Culinary Crossroads?

A week ago today, my wife and I parted ways with my parents in Urumqi, marking the end of two weeks traveling in Xinjiang and the beginning of 10 days in Sichuan and Chongqing. Flying from Kashgar via Urumqi to Chengdu, we left behind the arid deserts of the Tarim Basin, skirting the Tibetan Plateau, only to descend at its western end through a thick cloud cover into the humid air of the Sichuan Basin. Located at opposite ends of the Earth’s largest, current orogenic event and separated by thousands of kilometers of mountains, deserts and grasslands, these two basins are– culinarily– worlds apart. Sichuanese cooking incorporates many historically “Chinese” methods of food preservation and fermentation (a later post). With a few notable exceptions, Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities use few of these techniques.

The Uighurs, a turkic people, are the largest ethnic group in the PRC’s eponymous Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Traveling with my parents and planning to cover thousands of miles, we organized a tour through the company Uighur Tours. The tour organizer, driver and guide were all Uighurs from Kashgar. The tour organizer and boss of Uighur Tours, Ali, spent hours customizing our trip and was very responsive to both emails and phone calls. Our guide, Hasan, was excellent. He spoke excellent English and fluent Mandarin. His knowledge was vast, his humor well-timed. Needless to say, I highly recommend their services to anyone considering a custom tour in the region. It is with debt to their guidance and translation that I was able to experience and learn about food preservation and fermentation among Uighurs and other non-Han ethnicities of the region.

Naan, a leavened flatbread, is the Uighur’s most prevalent fermented food. “Uighurs can eat naan bread at every meal and never grow tired of it,” explained Hasan, “when we travel, we always carry plenty of naan.” Traveling nearly 300km every day, our driver, Korbun, made sure the car was well stocked, stopping at roadside tandoors each morning to guarantee freshness (and ensure a Halal supply of food in case lunch options were only Chinese). The roadside bakers we encountered universally use factory yeast to make naan. According to one baker, factory yeast provides a consistent rise, allowing him a degree of control and scaleability to production not afforded by wild yeast. Yet in villages, many homes still maintain starters composed entirely of wild yeasts. As guests in a village outside Kashgar, our host explained that her naan was made with a yeast starter recently transplanted from a neighbor’s supply. Typically, she bakes naan for home consumption in a tandoor in their courtyard. Occasionally, she will gather with neighbors and make big batches in a larger tandoor a few doors down. More than one Uighur explained that shelf life and flavor are the main difference between factory yeast naan and wild yeast naan. Fresh, both factory and wild yeasts make a similar product. Yet the naans made with factory yeasts begin to change flavor for the worse after only one day. In contrast, naan made with wild yeast is regularly stored (wrapped tightly in cloth or plastic) for a week or more without much degradation of flavor.

Naan is ubiquitous in Xinjiang, but yogurt and yogurt products are certainly the second most prevalent fermented foods. Over two weeks of meals in Uighur establishments, we became connoisseurs of local yogurts, discussing its acidity, consistency, and mouthfeel. There were enormous differences in flavor, linked to source of milk and production technique. By visiting morning markets and talking with those who made and sold yogurt, we learned that the common variables of yogurt production (boiling time, cooling time, fermentation time, etc) differed greatly. Boiling times varied from person to person. Temperature is not rigorously controlled. None of methods we encountered fit within FDA guidelines for home production. That didn’t stop us from eating it. After all, Uighurs consume yogurt without any apparent fear of disease. What can explain this discrepancy between public health advice and seemingly contradictory practice?

The oases of the Tarim Basin are historically home to Uighurs, but in the surrounding mountains and grasslands, there are many areas dominated by Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Mongols who also have a strong tradition of dairy products. The most common fermented food is a yogurt product called “korut,” a word used in Uighur, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh to refer to a thoroughly dehydrated ball of hardened yogurt. Korut in Ghulja’s markets made by Kazakhs varied greatly from those made fresh by Kyrgyz nomads in the Pamirs. This difference is rooted in variations in dehydration and drying techniques. Flavors also varied. Some korut are salty. Others are sweeter, others more sour. The saltier korut are easily stored. A Kyrgyz woman I met stores her yak-milk korut for upwards of a year. When needed, she rehydrates it by boiling then adds fresh yak cream for consumption over naan.


Yogurt and naan production have corollaries in Central and Southern Asia, but the use of yeast and bacteria among the Hui and Han of Xinjiang looks eastwards. The use of crocks (坛子, tanzi) is common in both Han and Hui communities. A spicy Hui-made paocai (fermented cabbage and other vegetables) was found both in groceries and on breakfast buffets at Chinese operated hotels. Fermented sunchokes marinated in a soysauce and spice brine were also found. We did not speak with or visit any Hui people in our travels, but further investigation into fermentation practices in Hui areas would likely shed light on transmission of culinary techniques between Central Asia and East Asia.

Since 1949, Han Chinese have emigrated in large numbers to the region, growing from from 6.7 percent of the population to over 40 percent today. As a result, regional ferments and salt-cures associated with Inner China are also common, Sichuanese in particular. In many Chinese restaurants and hotels in Xinjiang, I spoke with kitchen staff from both Chongqing and Sichuan who ferment vegetables for use in their cooking. Most common were various paocai (vegetables quick pickled in old, highPH crock water) and sour green beans (酸豆角). When crossing the Taklamakan Desert, we encountered a Sichuanese working a multi-year assignment at an irrigation pump station who regularly makes wind and salt cured pork. In Urumqi, we met a Han Chinese, born and raised in Xinjiang, who at the mere mention of sour green beans his mouth began to water. Of note, his parents were not of Sichuanese extraction. Nevertheless, I met another Han Chinese, recently arrived from Henan, who strongly disliked both Sichuanese paocai in particular and Uighur food in general. I failed to follow up, but I assume she prefers her native cuisine and continues to cook in the style of her parents. Either that or the woman doesn’t eat.

The fermentation traditions found in Xinjiang can be divided by ethnicity. Shared techniques and similarities between ethnicities can be potentially explained through analyzing both length of historical contact and similarity of lifestyles (e.g. sedentary agriculturalists, nomadism, or a mix of the two). Naan production is found among sedentary populations. Yogurt can be made by both nomads and agriculturalists. Korut, however, is a more nomadic food. The absence of crocks outside of Hui and Han communities is an interesting phenomenon. Nomadic life potentially explains their absence among Mongols and Kazakhs. Among Uighurs, however, their absence is notable. Whether or not Hui make yogurt and naan would also shed light on culinary transmission in the region.

Today is Tuesday October 1, the first day of China’s weeklong National Day holidays. At this point, I’ve been traveling in Sichuan for over a week and the wide variety of fermentation and food preservation techniques here are numerous and well diversified. Their wide use in Sichuanese cooking explains their presence among Sichuanese in Xinjiang. Yet traveling in Xinjiang, I was looking for culinary crossovers. I sought Han traditions among Central Asian ethnicities and I found almost none. The Hui– the ethnicity I had least contact with– were the only people to use crocks in the Chinese tradition. An investigation into Hui practices in Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Gansu would likely yield interesting results.

Earlier today, my wife and I went to People’s Park in the heart of Chengdu to people watch. We were rewarded with thousands of National Day revelers, singing patriotic songs, carrying flags, and eating all sorts of snack foods. The intimate paths of this 100 year old park were designed for a bygone era when fewer people frequented its lush green forests. Like pressurized pipes, the paths and its contents propelled us until reaching bottlenecks only to spew us out into squares. Accelerated along to an exit, we heard the now familiar sound of Uighur spoken, sprinkled with Chinese for “kebab” and “lamb meat.” A young Uighur man with barely a stubble of facial hair was selling kebabs and naan. Excited to meet a Uighur in Sichuan, I began to speak Mandarin to him, inquiring about his naan, “You sell naan? Is there a restaurant with a tandoor for making naan here in Chengdu?” By the second question, he was saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand much Mandarin.” If I spoke decent Uighur, I would have asked him what brand of factory yeast he used.

The word naan has uncertain linguistic roots, likely arising first in communities that spoke an ancient Persian or Indian language. It is still used still today in Farsi, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. In Xinjiang and Central Asia, naan is the word for flat bread used by Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, and Tajik. In Chinese, the word for naan is “nang” (馕), pronounced like naan but with a nasal “g” ending. Although I’ve never heard it used pejoratively, the character for nang can be used as a verb to mean “cram your mouth with food.”

Reputable Sources Goes Crockless

As of yesterday, Reputable Sources has been crockless for two weeks. Looking back on it, the exact moment is hard to pinpoint, but one day last spring, my wife and I knew we would be leaving China before winter. We didn’t have specific dates or thorough plans in those days, but Beijing’s extreme winds, bitter cold, and lingering pollution were frequent villains in our stories, looming at the end of the year. Our calendar began to fill with all sorts of deadlines and projects. We busied ourselves with packing for the move — “sell it or ship it” — and preparing for our lives in America. The crocks were not sold.

In total, we’ll be on the road for just over two months, researching all foods pickled, cured, fermented, dried or otherwise preserved. We’ll start among the decidedly Central Asian minorities of western China and traveling eastwards, looking for people who process their own food and how these ingredients are used in their cooking. Come November, we’ll return to Beijing to process mustard greens and cabbage for winter. In January, I’ll begin experimenting with Chinese preservation techniques in Atlanta, reunited with my fermentation crocks.

Yesterday marks yet another milestone: our first full week of travel. Here are some pickles, ferments, and cures made by Kazaks, Huis, Uighurs, and Han Chinese from Sichuan and Henan, all found in Xinjiang:











Reputable Sources in Time Out Beijing

Reputable Sources makes the July issue of Time Out Beijing, see the article here. The team there did a great job with the interview, the photoshoot, and helping me put together a side bar.

But as my name is on the article, I just need to clarify one error made in printing (and forgive me for putting on the pedagog hat):
“The English word ‘pickle’ refers to foods preserved in vinegar or brine, as this type of pickling — lacto-fermentation — has always been most common in Britain and the US.”

Lacto-fermentation is not the most common method for pickling in America (I can’t speak for Britain). With the advent of modern canning techniques, using vinegar to make pickles almost entirely replace lacto-fermentation.

Modern pickling methods, including use of vinegar (usually in place of fermentation) and pasteurization, produce a uniform, shelf stable product suitable to the needs of the large food corporations. Unfortunately, modern pickles do not offer the authentic flavor or health-promoting qualities of traditional pickles.

Using vinegar to make pickles is so common that the verb “pickle” (which once meant “to ferment or cure a vegetable for storage”) now almost universally refers to “preserving in vinegar or brine.” Historically, the verb “pickle” may have once included “to ferment” in this meaning, but my understanding is most people juxtapose “pickle” and “ferment” and are mapped onto the “modern-method” and “traditional-method” distinction.

And that’s what makes the Chinese term for this so great. It includes everything. The verb is simple. Salt, vinegar, ferment, or marinade… they’re products are all “腌-ed”. I’m “腌-ing” a salt-cured cabbage, a crock of Sichuanese paocai, and a jar of quick fermented radishes right now.  As for the Chinese nouns… that’s another story.

News Day for Cured Fish

Monday was another bad day for preserved foods in China.

According to Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News, fisherman outside Foshan are curing dead fish using industrial salts. The fish are cut into strips and laid out on mats to dry in the summer heat.

In the drying process, flies become a problem. But these inventive food processors haven’t let problems like dead fish and expensive food-grade salts from preventing applied a new technique to prevent maggots from infesting their drying fish: insecticides.

Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News:
广东三水渔民被曝用臭死鱼做鱼干 喷杀虫剂驱蝇

June 24th CCTV Segment:
广东佛山:腌制鱼干竟用私盐加农药 剧毒农药喷洒鱼干 执法人员称无监管标准

News Day for Century Eggs

When pickles make the news, good news is the exception (exhibit one: Xi Jinping eats Zhacai).

This week its bad news. According to reports from state run media, century eggs (IPA: pi.tan; Simplified Chinese: 皮蛋; pinyin: pídàn) are processed at many Jiangxi facilities using industrial copper sulphate to expedite the food processing time.

Bottom line? Industrial copper sulphate contains heavy metals. No immediate threat from consumption, but long term consumption will lead to build up of heavy metals in the body.

For English coverage, see this article in the South China Morning Post.

The original Chinese reports:
China National Radio (streaming audio)
工业硫酸铜腌出”毒皮蛋” 监管缺失致问题食品防不胜防_中国广播网
CCTV (streaming video)
[视频]皮蛋食品安全调查 江西南昌:工业硫酸铜腌制皮蛋违规难检测