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

Suancai on the Market: Instant Noodle Makers Fight With Ferments

Over the past few weeks, Master Kong’s instant noodle advertisements began appearing across Beijing. The ads prominently feature the new addition of shelf-stable sausages.

First they added suancai. Now this? I was suspicious.

Make your crazy face.
Make your crazy face

A few years back, I began noticing suancai making its way into junk food (in these noodles, the suancai is a variety of fermented mustard greens, see post on suancai here). First, there was a commercial featuring the Chinese actress Yao Chen eating suancai noodles on an airplane. Sometime the same year, either in anticipation or response, their competitor Tong Yi came out with their own ad.  This ad included a celebrity endorsement by Wang Han: “There are people who try to look like me and people who even try to copy my noodles! No matter how much they try, its not Tong Yi Old Crock Suancai Beef Noodles!” Wang Han is clearly angry. “Somebody” is copying his noodles.

But the suancai ad war predates celebrity endorsements. Tong Yi is the major instant noodle company in Taiwan, they entered the mainland market after Master Kong. At present, Master Kong’s share of the mainland market remains substantially larger than Tongyi’s. Master Kong made profits of 24.592 billion CNY in 2012, whereas Tong Yi’s were 7.269 billion. In 2008, Tong Yi began a nationwide campaign featuring suancai noodles. In the intervening years, Tong Yi’s noodle sales grew from 150 million units to 3.5 billion, much of the growth attributed to adding fermented mustard greens to instant noodles and marketing it well. As of 2012, 60% of all suancai noodles in the PRC are Tong Yi brand and 55% of Tong Yi’s profits come from these noodles.

I do not know how much the ads swayed me, if at all. Early on, the ads were not high budget (Tong Yi in 2009Master Kong in ’09 and ’10), and I have no memory of seeing them. The Yao Chen and Wang Yong ads were clearly the most heavily invested and left an impression. As I alluded to above, I think the current ad campaign is ridiculous and desperate, both on its own and in comparison with the older ads. So what captured my imagination?

I think the story of suancai propelling a company from latecomer to contender is compelling.

So, after five years of ads and developing a full time interest in fermentation, I finally caved. Looking for a quick, hot meal the other day, I walked into a 7-11 planning to buy a bowl of suancai instant noodles. I asked a person in the store, “What’s better, Tong Yi or Master Kong?” She responded, “Instant noodles are bad for you, you shouldn’t eat them.” Good advice.

The bowl of noodles, not as pictured in advertisements:

Pickle, paste and powder
Pickle, paste and powder. (Meat chunks not included).
Shuanghui's "Instant Noodle Ham Sausage"
Shuanghui’s “Instant Noodle Ham Sausage”
Fermented mustard greens packet
An Old Crock Suancai Pack

Instant noodles are embedded in the rhythm of modern Chinese life. There is free boiled water in airports, train stations, and even the national library bag check room. People are highly mobile and a 5 CNY meal is rare thing. TThis all makes a market for a quick, cheap hot meal— that at least smells and tastes like meat and vegetables were used its production— possible. Had I not developed a pounding headache and unquenchable thirst, I would eat the suancai noodles again.

But back to the original question. Why the eye-catching ads and meat sticks? Identical sausages– Shuanghui brand– are found in both Master Kong and Tong Yi suancai noodle packets, so neither has any competitive advantage in terms of product. Shuanghui is getting more exposurein this deal, but the instant noodle companies? According to this CBN article, this market has entered a period of  restricted growth, leading to a zero-sum game for producers. This could explain the continued focus on ads and the recent spat of sausage promotions. There’s no new noodle turf; competition for existing market share is fierce.

These instant noodle makers have made a fortune off of a 10 gram packet of pickles, but market saturation is bringing that era to a close. Unable to endorse suancai noodles from either company, check out this quick homemade noodle recipe from the Teczcape’s blog. This dish uses preserved xuelihong to make a tasty  noodle soup, meat sticks optional. 15 minutes of labor and a small amount of money can get you a lot further than a trademarked bowl of Old Crock Suancai Beef Noodles. If you don’t salt-cure or ferment your own leafy greens, a packet of xuelihong or suancai will make excellent substitutes.

“Yes to the appeal of speed and flavors.”
-Teczcape

But not to instant noodles.

Advice for those in Beijing:
There is a Chaozhou Speciality Store  just south of the Zhichunli Primary School that sells southern Chinese fermented mustard greens. Most Beijing wet markets carry  salt-cured xuelihong and suan baicai.

Suancai, More Than Just A Chinese Sauerkraut

The delicious color of fermented mustard greens

The delicious color of fermented mustard greens (a Guiyang recipe)

For almost a hundred years, hucksters across Eastern Europe and Asia have promoted their hometowns as a “Paris of the East.”  In the shadow of Shanghai, which claims the title “Paris of the East1,” the city of Harbin, provincial capital of Heilongjiang in northeastern China, has been called by its boosters a “little Paris.” Although three degrees south of Paris in terms of latitude, Harbin’s temperature regularly hovers around -20C (-10F) in December and January. Before living there and since, I have never had to wear two pairs of long-underwear to keep warm again. It is also the city where I first ate the Chinese equivalent of sauerkraut, suancai (IPA: sɥɛn.tsʰaɪ; Simplified Chinese: 酸菜 Pinyin: suāncài). Taking the kraut and adding the city’s ample supply of sausage and beer, a more Eastern European aspiration seems appropriate.

Suancai: Both Cabbage And Mustard Greens (Brassica rapa, Brassica juncea)

Across north eastern China, lacto-fermented cabbage is called both suancai (the generic term for pickled leafy greens) and suan baicai (sour napa cabbage). To make it, one requires not just salt, water, and the right vegetable: napa cabbage (Scientific name: Brassica rapa pekinensis; Simplified Chinese: 大白菜; Pinyin: dàbáicài) but correct technique. Though not as involved or diverse as Korean kimchee, suancai is an equally important winter staple.  This footage from the documentary “A Bite of China” shows suancai in its native environment, a Heilongjiang village, (skip to the 45m30s mark). In local cuisine, suancai is prepared by stewing with pork or as a filling for dumplings. It is also stir-fried with cellophane noodles. Napa cabbage is also salt-cured.

"Chinese sauerkraut" stewing for the camera

“Chinese sauerkraut” stewing for the camera (From A Bite of China)

But suancai is more than just a Chinese sauerkraut. Suancai is a term used to refer to pickled leafy greens in many regions. In southern China, suancai is used to refer to pickled mustard greens (Brassica juncea) across the spectrum of salt-curing and lacto-fermentation. Suancai of the cabbage variety is rare in southern China, but Muslim run beef noodle shops are known to have fermented cabbage as a condiment. When traveling in Guizhou, I found crocks filled to the brim with suancai alongside scallions and cilantro at the condiments station in a Guiyang Halal noodle shop. It was an all-you-can-eat affair.

The two most commercialized pickled mustard greens of southern China are Chaoshan‘s suancai and Sichuan’s suancai. These varieties can be found in grocery stores and specialty shops sold in clear, plastic packets. The local, fresh varieties are only found locally in their region of origin, but even then locals often show preference for their homemade pickles. In both the city of Guiyang and Chongqing, locals who shared pickled mustard green recipies expressed disdain for market pickles and were proud of their home-packed crocks filled with pickled mustard greens.

Two packets of pickled mustard greens from the city of Shantou (Chaoshan region).

Two packets of pickled mustard greens from the city of Shantou (Chaoshan region)

Varieties of Mustard Greens

Based on my travels, different mustard greens are used in different regions. Roughly, these mustard greens can be divided  into the costal varieties, the Yangtze river valley varities, and upland varieties.

The pickled mustard greens of upland provinces like Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan use taller, leafier varieties of mustard greens. In the Dong minority region of mountainous northern Guangxi, their mustard greens are upwards of two feet tall. In Guiyang, their mustard greens were slightly shorter. There are many uses of this type of mustard green, but the most common is soup. Fuchsia Dunlop compiled three recipes that use pickled mustard greens (three soups, one using fish, another chicken, yet another bean thread noodles) in her Sichuanese cookbook “Land of Plenty,” which I highly recommend as an introduction to the cuisine in English. This blog has adapted one of her recipes for the mustard green classic: Sichuanese sour fish soup.

A mustard green hanging out to dry in a Dong village of northern Guangxi (March  26, 2013)

A mustard green hanging out to dry in a Dong village of northern Guangxi (March 26, 2013)

In costal regions, mustard greens are shorter and their stems are both wider and thicker than the inland varieties. People in Fujian and Guangdong pickle this vegetable not only for the salty and sour flavors but for the stem’s prized crunch. The Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora is primarily from Fujian and Guangdong, so in the English blogosphere, you’ll see Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese romanizations of these ingredients. In Hokkien and Teochew, pickled mustard greens are called kiam chai (Simplified Chinese: 咸菜). In Cantonese, its called both ham suen choy (Simplified Chinese: 咸酸菜) and hum choy (Simplified Chinese: 咸菜), the same characters as the Hokkien kiam chai. This all gets terribly confusing when one begins looking at salt-curing vegetables. Salt-cured vegetables are called xiancai in Mandarin (IPA: ɕjɛn.tsʰaɪ) but uses the same characters as kiam chai and hum choy. Thus the characters “咸菜” means salt-cured veg in two dialects and lacto-fermented in standard Chinese. Malaysian, Singaporean, and other overseas Chinese bloggers have used various kiam chais and hum choys to create all sorts of dishes. Here’s a simple Kiam Chai Ark recipe (a duck soup) that looks promising.

Mustard greens, sold pickled by the bucket

Mustard greens, sold pickled by the bucket (Guangzhou)

Along the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Sichuan, xuecai the crispifolia variety of Brassica juncea (IPA: ɕɥœ.tsʰaɪ; Simplified Chinese: 雪菜 Pinyin: xuěcài). In southern areas, these leafy greens are both pickled into a suancai as well as being further processed into more thoroughly preserved and completely transformed product called meicai or meigancai. In northern areas, Beijing included, this variety is called xuelihong (IPA: ɕɥœ.li.xʊŋ; Simplified Chinese: 雪里蕻; Pinyin: xuělǐhóng), and it is typically salt-cured.

Notes:

1. Mark Gamsa records the history of “little Paris” and “Paris of the East” as terms in marketing materials of Harbin’s Modern Hotel in this article in East Asian History (“The Many Faces of Hotel Moderne in Harbin”). In promotional materials from 1996, the hotel is called “the little Versailles” built “in the French Renaissance style of Louis XIV.” As Gamsa notes. this is “a contradiction in terms, in its own right.” He goes on to state in a footnote, “Historians and advertisers in Harbin have been similarly ready to adopt alleged descriptions of old Harbin as “little Paris”, or “Paris of the East”, which had not been nearly as frequent in the Russian period as retrospectively claimed.” After reading the LATimes article about the Jews of Harbin, we can add journalists to that list, as it seems they are citing Gamsa’s misguided historians.