Finding meaning in a Xiaoshan pickle factory

There may come a time in your life when you are wandering through the packaging facility of a Chinese pickle factory, looking back on past decisions in your life and deeply wondering how they brought you here, thinking about how this is simply, utterly, not a normal thing for a 19 year old to be doing, considering the degree to which your parents contributed to and encouraged this abnormality. But then the manager of the factory starts shouting at you in dialect-inflected Chinese and the sheer force of the smell of pickles overtakes you and in an effort to move away from this loud man and the flecks of spit rocketing at high speeds from his open mouth, these thoughts are quickly brushed away and you continue your leisurely promenade down the side of the conveyer belt. For me, that time in life came today.

Hangzhou Xiaoshan Dangshan Jiangcui Company, LTD., (杭州萧山党山酱萃食品有限公司 for Chinese speakers), is one of five pickle companies in Xiaoshan, a special administrative district to the east of Hangzhou with a comparatively tiny population (2 million! It’s so tiny!). Xiaoshan is home to a variety of industries from plastic to packaging to pickles, but also a burgeoning middle- and upper middle-class. I made the trip to the factory with Clare, a UC Berkeley student originally from Hangzhou who I’ve recently become acquainted with, Clare’s mother (who is the head of the Xiaoshan branch of the Hangzhou daily newspaper), a young journalist for the paper, and Professor Shen, whose lab I have been working in. I’m not sure if the journalist was actually writing an article about pickles or just pretending to write an article so that we could visit the factory. According to all involved, this factory was the best pickle factory of the five in Xiaoshan (when I pressed further about what “best” meant, it was amended to “most sanitary”).

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The “countryside” on the outskirts of Xiaoshan

The factory primarily produces pickled radish, cucumber, and zha cai (which I wrote about in an earlier post). Most of their food is sold in snack-size pouches rather than jars or large bags. The owner, Ma Guolong, is an ardent believer in the unshakable firmness of pickled vegetables as a cornerstone of Chinese culture. Without preserving Chinese culture (though the production and sales of pickles, Ma implicitly urged), the Chinese economy will collapse, he said. This was further spelled out in his 206-page pickle manifesto, 舌尖上的酱文化, roughly translated as “A Bite of Pickle Culture”, his smiling face dominating the maroon cover.

I was pleased to learn that the main processes the factory relied on were the same as traditional methods. Particularly involved was the luobo gan, or dried radish, recipe, which called for drying the radishes in the sun, salting and fermenting them, and then drying them in the sun again, in a process that takes around a year overall to complete. “These pickles are great for the environment!” exclaimed Ma as we walked through the packaging facility. “No need to put them in the refrigerator!” I was heartened by his enthusiasm, but also wary to take part in it, equal parts in awe and disgust at the sheer amount of un-recyclable packaging required to fit all of the pickles into snack-sized portions.

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I was also surprised to see that all of the pickles were pasteurized at a temperature of 85 °C before being packed into their shipping crates. Isn’t an important part of pickle-making and eating the probiotic lactic acid bacteria, which will die along with any other bacteria possibly present if pasteurized? “Our process kills the bad bacteria but leaves the good,” said Ma, “only these bacteria survive over 85 °C.”

Professor Shen, the PhD in nutrition science, stepped in: “There is no such thing as good and bad bacteria!” his voice becoming increasingly louder, “There is only total bacteria count! Total bacteria count!”

“So, what kind of good bacteria are there?” I asked Ma.

“Don’t listen to him! I’m the professor! Only total bacteria count!” interjected Professor Shen, stepping in between Ma and me so that I could no longer address him directly.

Quietly, Clare showed me a scientific journal article that she had pulled up on her cell phone while the interchange was taking place. As Ma and Shen continued their frantic debate, Clare whispered to me “I think they’re talking about different things. I don’t think the lactic acid bacteria survives the heat,” scrolling through the article to verify this. “Don’t listen to them. Just use google,” she added in an even less audible whisper.

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pickle mountain

Back in Ma’s office, after we had been showered with probably a lifetimes worth of pickle snacks (I have a large cardboard box of the stuff at my feet as I now type), conversation turned to Ma’s future business plans. He wants to break into the American market. “Um, actually, Chinese pickles are not very popular in America,” I said, using my most polite Chinese.

“So, how to market to Americans?” Ma asked.

“Maybe you could sell it in Chinatowns in American cities?” I said. This seemed not to please him, to be far too small-scale.

“Hm. Uh, if you want to convince American consumers to eat something new, tell them that it is a new health food. Market it as super healthy. Stress the probiotic factor, that’s becoming popular in America,” I added

He seemed to like my idea, discussing it in rapid dialect with his colleague. I did not mention to him that his current packaging would attract absolutely no customers (the mascot on their zha cai packages is a green blob reminiscent of the animated gobs of mucus in Mucinex commercials), and his company had nowhere near the advertising budget required to convince Americans why they should be eating snack-sized packages of salty, slimy pickles. While I do think that Chinese pickles have the potential to be successively marketed to at least certain niches of the American population, Ma’s company will most likely not be the ones to do it.

What I admire most about Ma is his verdant passion for preserving Chinese culture through the art of pickle-making, a tradition he says that’s being lost among the younger generations. “It’s too easy for them to buy their own pickles,” he said. “There aren’t enough benefits to making them on their own.” In a strange paradox, he is both contributing to and working against this youthful pickle apathy, one small package of salty, slimy pickles at a time.

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An unexpected visit to a cookie factory took place as well. Email me if you want to hear about it, or want free cookies (I was given an entire large cardboard box of individually wrapped sugar cookies and have no plans to eat them all)

How to make Spicy Cucumber Pickles

I’ve eaten these pickles quite often—they’re relatively popular in China— and after finding a good, basic recipe in a Chinese cookbook, I thought I’d share it. They’re simple to make and delicious to munch on, especially on a hot summer day.

Before I get to the recipe, I’d like to share a bit on what I’ve gleaned over the past week on how to eat pickled vegetables. Pickled vegetables are to be eaten as a compliment to a dish rather than the main thing. The most likely reason for this is that in order preserve vegetables, salt must be used. Too much salt is not beneficial to our diet. In older times in China, preserved vegetables were what got people through the winters without vitamin deficiency or scurvy. Not to mention that they’re a tasty addition to many traditional dishes and soups. But within the past few decades, especially after the advent of widespread refrigerator usage, some people have begun to lay off the pickled veggies.

My host mother said that it’s only within the past 10 years that people have begun to reevaluate the health benefits of pickled vegetables, which I would probably attribute to new research on probiotic bacteria and their positive influence on human health. However, certain people, like her father-in-law who has had trouble with his heart and is thus trying to cut his sodium intake, still lay off eating pickles.

“Enjoy fermented foods and beverages in moderation. They have powerful effects and strong flavors that need to be respected. Eat them often rather than in large quantities,” writes Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation. Curious about this distrust-of-salt-phenomenon among the Chinese population, I recently wrote Katz to ask if he had also encountered it. He said that in studies where epidemiologists looked at overall diet, there was no elevated rates of cancer for people who ate a balanced diet of fresh vegetables and preserved vegetables, as opposed to a diet where salty vegetables are consumed in high quantities and fresh ones are consumed in low quantities.

This “healthy in moderation” phenomenon can be likened to one of the world’s favorite fermented beverages: wine. While antioxidant compounds in wine called flavonoids have been linked to boosting good cholesterol, healthy lipid digestion, and reducing blood clotting (many attribute the unique combination of high consumption of fatty foods and long life spans of the French to their wine intake), these benefits are maximized by drinking a glass a day, at most. Excessive intake actually becomes a detriment to health.

Another way that I’ve found the Chinese are able to eat these foods skillfully and in moderation is by adding them to things that probably would have already had salt added. Salted mustard greens can make an excellent base for a soup (especially when combined with sesame oil!), and I’ve encountered a few meat dishes also that are actually cooked with salted or dried vegetables, thus eliminating the need for salt. Really, you can add them to almost anything savory it seems— doughy pancakes, dumpling filling, a garnish to a stew—the list goes on.

Now, on to the good stuff: the recipe!

This isn’t my own picture, but it’s a pretty close approximation to what the finished pickles look like.

Ingredients:

  • Two large cucumbers
  • Rock salt, one small spoonful
  • Vinegar (any kind will do), four big spoonfuls
  • White sugar, six big spoonfuls
  • Chili pepper oil, five big spoonfuls
  • Soy sauce, two big spoonfuls
  • Table salt, one small spoonful
  • Dry chili pepper, one piece
  • Fresh garlic, 6 cloves
  • Black peppercorns, 1 small spoonful
  • Cloves, one small spoonful
  • Star anise, two pieces

The recipe was in terms of big and small spoonfuls. This is all relative. I take small to mean a pinch, and big to mean not more than a teaspoon. You could interpret it differently. Also, if you don’t like one of the ingredients, like star anise or cloves, don’t add it. Cucumbers and salt are really the most important players here.

How to make it:

  1. Wash the cucumbers and cut them into two inch long cylinders. Cut each cylinder into four, length-wise, so you have four, long, two-inch cucumber strips per cylinder.
  2. Transfer the cucumbers to a bowl and spread the rock salt over them. The salt will cause the cucumbers to exude some water. After salting the cucumbers for 20 minutes, drain the water out and set them aside. You can wash the excess salt off if you like as well, because more salt is added later in the recipe.
  3. Take the seeds out of the dry hot peppers and cut them into rings. I would recommend using a pair of scissors to do this, cutting up the pepper width-wise. Mince the garlic into small pieces and set it aside.
  4. In a bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, hot pepper oil, soy sauce, salt, and minced garlic. Stir until the sugar and salt completely dissolve.
  5. Stir in the pepper, cloves, star anise, and dried hot pepper rings.
  6. Pour the sauce over the cucumbers, and transfer the mixture to a jar.
  7. Now you have two options. If you want to make these into real, lacto fermented pickles, you can pour mildly salted water over them until it reaches the top of the jar, make sure the cucumbers are below the surface, and let them sit out for two days. After two days, you should have crunchy delicious pickles. Put them in the refrigerator after this 2 day fermentation period. However, if you wish to preserve the crunchy, mild cucumber flavor instead, you can just put them in the refrigerator without the salt brine. Still, wait two days to eat them, so all of the juices can soak in.

Note: This may be obvious, but unless you have a real penchant for spices, don’t eat the black pepper, cloves, or star anise.

Happy Pickling!

(By the way, if you were wondering which type of wine has the most antioxidants, researchers at U.C. Davis identified Cabernet Sauvignon as being the most antioxidant rich.)

Can you make ferments with old vegetables?

The ostensible reason why I’m here is to investigate how traditional methods of Chinese fermentation can reduce food waste and save energy. Given this fact, and also the highly fortunate situation that I’ve been given access to an entire food science laboratory to use as I wish, I designed a little experiment that I’ve been working on for the past week.

Basically, what I’m looking to find out, is if you are in the (highly familiar) situation of having some past-their-prime veggies in your fridge—they’re soft, a bit wilted— and are about to chuck them, what if you could ferment them and eat them later instead?

The basic method I’m using to conduct this experiment is relatively simple—it turns out to be a pretty involved process to measure the specific nutritional content of different types of foods— but I think will give results nonetheless. Last week, I bought a da bai cai, which I think is called Napa Cabbage in the US, as well as some fresh ginger, a head of garlic, hot pepper flakes, salt, sugar, vinegar, and Sichuan pepper. I divided the cabbage into four equal parts, and planned to make pao cai (spicy pickles) with them at different time intervals. This way, I could see if the same cabbage’s edibility changes after making different batches of pao cai with it at various stages of decay.

The recipe I used was an amalgam of an experiment outlined in an old Chinese fermentation lab handbook that the professor I’m working with gave me, along with this recipe, which I thought was well-researched and thorough.

I used the first quarter to make a batch of pao cai on May 20th, and the second (which I left out overnight without refrigerating) on May 21st. According to my Chinese grandmother friend, the pao cai should be left out for three days fermenting at room temperature, and then put in the refrigerator and eaten within three days. It can stay in the refrigerator for longer, but after a while, it begins to become somewhat mushy.

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From what I’ve been able to find, no one in the literature has done an experiment like this before. However, I was able to find many studies about the loss of nutrients in vegetables over time, as well as the effects of freezing and drying. The loss of specific nutrients largely depends on the type of vegetable you’re studying. For example, in a 1987 study I read, more than half of the ascorbic acid in leaf lettuce was lost after 6 days of refrigeration, whereas only a quarter was lost in refrigerated broccoli. In another Chinese study I read, found by one of the PhD students in Professor Shen’s lab, the total nutritional content of red radish and white lotus root decreased to a much lesser degree after fermentation in salt water than carrots, lettuce, and broccoli.

Although it is natural for the levels of various vitamins present in fresh vegetables to decay after harvesting (even in the refrigerator), it is also the case that fermentation can make certain vitamins more bio-available, as it is a sort of “pre-digestion” process.

While my methods are not very scientific (although I have been using the same weight and volume of materials for each batch, as well as regularly testing the pH), I am relying mostly on look, texture, and taste for this experiment. Today everyone in the lab tried my first batch of pao cai, and seemed to like it, although I did hear quite a few people say I had made it too spicy.

Today, five days after making the first batch, I began the third batch, the cabbage for which has been sitting in the refrigerator all week. Next Monday, I plan to make my final batch, the last test. I think the results of this experiment could be particularly applicable to city-dwellers, who have less access to composting areas, or for foodies in general. I’m hoping that the results of the final test will still be edible— wouldn’t it be better to have a salty, sour condiment to a sandwich, soup, or salad, rather than a pile of lettuce leaves rotting in the trash?

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the first batch

A trip to Hangzhou’s suburbs, a visit to a vinegar and soy sauce factory

If you’ve ever wondered what a vinegar factory smells like, it smells like taking a sip of vinegar, washing your body with vinegar, and then preceding to dunk your head in a bucket of vinegar. At least, that’s what the Zhejiang Flavor and Food Co. smelled like.

It was a rainy drive along the factory-lined highway on the outskirts of Hangzhou, the smokestack plumes just barely distinguishable from the grey mix of rain clouds and air pollution that covered the sky. I had been hoping to go to a pickled vegetable factory, but we were heading to the vinegar and soy sauce factory instead, because this was a factory where the professor I’m studying with had guanxi. Translated directly as “relationship” or “connection,” this two-syllable word is extremely important in contemporary China. Without guanxi with certain people or organizations, you may have a hard time getting ahead in your career field, or even your personal life. Thus, we were on the road to the vinegar and soy sauce factory.

Our tour started with the soy sauce section of the factory. We were prohibited from taking pictures, ostensibly because they want to keep their production process as private as possible. While soy sauce has only four main ingredients (soy beans, wheat flour, salt, and water), the production process is somewhat complex, particularly the step where you have to let the soy sauce ferment from 4 to 6 months, stirring it once a day. While our tour spanned multiple floors and boiling, washing, mixing, and pressing chambers, not to mention an array of rather complex diagrams, soy sauce can actually be made at home. While it’s a project only for the patient, spanning around 6 months and requiring constant attention, it seems gratifying enough that I’d like to try my hand at making a batch. I thought that this was a good, simple recipe, but of course there are others.

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I did sneak a quick picture of the huge vats the soy sauce was left to ferment in

After walking through each step of the soy sauce production process, we turned over to the (very pungent) vinegar side. While the vinegar production appeared to be in a factory building, the methods they used to make it were actually identical to the traditional Chinese way. Instead of being lined with the shiny steel machinery of the rest of the factory, the vinegar factory was lined with rows and rows of ceramic crocks with bamboo lids.

The process is rather simple. Rice is cooked, mashed, and ground, and added to water in a ceramic crock. The middle is hollowed out so that there is a pool of liquid in the center. Then, it’s just left to sit for a year, first turning to alcohol, and then to vinegar. The array of bacteria present in the atmosphere will naturally ferment the mixture. However, this takes quite a long time—their lower-grade vinegar was fermented for a year, and the higher-grade vinegar fermented for around five years. While we were required to wear hair nets, I was particularly surprised when the man giving us the tour opened up a crock and let me dip my bare hands into the murky surface and try some of the vinegar! I think China’s food safety standards are a bit different, to say the least.

Continuing the tour, we were brought to a part of the factory where a lower-grade vinegar was made using mechanized processes, which only required a one month fermentation period. This vinegar was fermented with the skin of the wheat and rice plants, as to give it flavor and color.

Going to the factory had the interesting effect of strengthening my trust in processed food, particularly Chinese processed food. While I was expecting to discover that they were adding a cocktail of artificial flavorings and preservatives, their ingredients were surprisingly simple—they even were going through the effort of using non-GMO soybeans. I particularly was heartened by the ceramic crocks of vinegar fermenting in the warehouse building, the mix of traditional and modern. Turns out that sometimes the traditional way is the tastiest.

We made natto!

Upon arriving in his laboratory four days ago, Shen Lirong, the professor I am working with, announced that I would be making natto. I think it was a preliminary experiment so that I could get used to the equipment in his laboratory, but the language barrier between us is such that I can never be completely certain.

Natto is a traditional Japanese food, which is made by fermenting steamed soybeans with the bacillus subtilis var. natto bacteria. The result is a slimy, sticky mass of soybeans, which has a pungent odor that I liken to a mix of snot and permanent marker. Natto is chock-full of nutrients and good probiotic bacteria, and many attribute regular consumption of natto as one of the reasons why the Japanese have such long lifespans. However, most likely due to its unusual taste and mucus-like consistency, natto has not gained a foothold in the American palette, or Chinese palette, for that matter.

While I’m skeptical of calling anything a “superfood,” natto comes pretty close to deserving that moniker. Natto is one of the few foods that is high in Vitamin K2, a vitamin which has been linked to promoting healthy muscle function and bone strength. Additionally, natto contains a special enzyme called nattokinase, which is not found in any other foods. This enzyme has been directly identified as having fibrinolytic properties— in other words, nattokinase helps reduce blood clotting and helps prevent heart disease. Not to mention it is a live-culture food, so it also contains all the health benefits of eating foods with probiotic bacteria.

It was a rather strange experience using test tubes and fume hoods in a laboratory to make food—I distinctly remember one of the main tenants in high school chemistry lab was NO FOOD IN THE LABORATORY. Natto can be made in your home as well, but I’m glad that we made it in a laboratory for the first time, because even a little bit of bacterial contamination, from, say, your fingers, can make the whole batch go bad.

We began by mixing salt, yeast, and a peptide mixture called tryptone, which in addition to the yeast is another type of “food” for the bacteria to feast on. After dissolving the mixture in water, we steam-pasteurized it, as to kill any bacteria floating around. Next we added the bacillus subtilis var. natto culture to half of the mixture, and a bit of previously made natto to the other half of the mixture, as to compare results.

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In come the soybeans. After soaking the beans for 24 hours, and washing the thoroughly, we put them in the steam pasteurization machine, as to simultaneously rid them of bacteria, and also to cook them! Traditionally, the beans are steamed for around 6 hours, but since our machine was at a constant temperature of around 150°C, the beans took around 45 minutes to cook through.

After adding the yeast mixture infused with our two mediums of bacillus subtilis var. natto (one liquid, one from the previously made natto), we put them in the oven to ferment at a lower temperature— around 33°C, I believe— and set the clock for 24 hours.

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Upon arriving at the laboratory on Sunday, the natto was ready to be eaten! Mixing it with a spoon produced the long, sticky strands that are characteristic of natto. I brought half of the batch home to the family I’m staying with and we ate it for dinner with our rice and other vegetables. It’s a few days later, and we’re all still alive, so I think the natto was made correctly! I look forward to making natto back in the states— when eaten with rice and some soy sauce, it’s satiating, very umami, and delicious.

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榨菜: What is it and how do you make it?

榨菜 (zha cai) literally means “pressed vegetable” in Chinese. Along with the mustard greens, this was the other pickled vegetable that the woman at the market gave to me yesterday. After doing a bit of research, I found that zha cai is actually part of the same brassica juncea species as the mustard greens that I blogged about yesterday! To make zha cai, however, only the knobby stem of the plant is used.

zha cai at the market
zha cai at the market

While this pickled food originates from the Sichuan province (as most spicy Chinese foods usually do!), I was reading today on Fuschia Dunlop’s blog that zha cai is such a staple throughout much of China that the Chinese government uses its sales to measure fluctuations in the urban population, because it is a food that people generally eat regardless of their income level. Whoa!

That night, the grandmother I am staying with chopped up the zha cai into small pieces and cooked it up with some Chinese zucchini, using the slightest bit of olive oil to cook them until the zucchini was soft. Even the smallest chunks of the zha cai packed a huge punch of flavor! Zha cai can be eaten in a variety of dishes– today the graduate student I am working with told me that he usually would eat zha cai for breakfast as a condiment for either rice or porridge.

While the grandmother I’m staying with said that everyone in the city buys zha cai, she also said that almost everyone in the countryside knows how to make it on their own.

So, how do you make it? First, wash the knobby stem of the mustard green and cut away any rough patches of skin. Next, roll the stem in salt until it begins to expel water and is soaked in its own juices. After salting for a few days , the stem is rinsed and packed tightly into jars or pots (hence the name, pressed vegetable!). At this point, I believe that the vendor told me she added spices after fermenting, but every other source I’ve read says that the spicy hot chili powder used to flavor them is added before putting them in the jars to ferment, which makes more sense to me. In any case, the stems will stay in the jars for a few months fermenting, and can be kept fermenting for up to a year, which is how long the vendor I talked to said that she fermented hers for. After that, the stems can be chopped up and eaten! Apparently they can stay outside of the refrigerator for around two weeks, but after that, it’s best to put them in a cold place.

It’s amazing how much flavor only a tiny bite of zha cai has– imagine the pickle-y-est pickle you’ve ever eaten, and multiply that by ten. It seems as though most of the Chinese pickles I’ve come across are like this– because they are so imbued with salt and spice, they are eaten more as a condiment or relish. For example, my breakfast this morning consisted of rice porridge, soy sauce-fermented black cucumber, and spicy pickled green beans, which seems to be quite a typical breakfast (at least here in Hangzhou.)

While brassica juncea may not be on sale at your local farmer’s market or Stop and Shop, I encourage you to try the methods I’ve described in the last two posts to make your own pickled vegetables! For more information on how to make vegetables, I thought that this  was a great step-by-step guide (this particular recipe is for sauerkraut), as well as a good explanation of some of the health benefits of eating lacto-fermented vegetables.

As always, email me at lillian.g.childress@yale.edu with any further questions, concerns, etcetera!

How to make 咸菜: Pickled mustard greens

I’m hoping for this blog to be not only a chronicle of my research, but a catalog of the recipes I find, which hopefully can serve as a resource of sorts to those of you reading it at home. Today I went to the market with the grandmother I am staying with to speak with the woman who sells pickled vegetables. Although a much of the pickled vegetables she sells are from a factory, a few of her vats are filled with veggies that are made in her home.

One of the main home-fermented veggies she sells is 雪里蕻, known as brassica juncea, a species of mustard green specific to China. These type of mustard greens are generally not eaten fresh, but rather commonly eaten only after fermenting.

Pickled Mustard Greens

Making them is relatively easy, and the process is transferable to a variety of different types of vegetables.

The first step is to wash your vegetable, and without drying it, roll it in salt. After that, you should put it in a clean jar or crock, preferably full to the top, and seal it up. The woman at the market said that the mustard greens took around two weeks to ferment, but when the weather is hot, the process is much faster—less than a week.

While the greens were displayed out in the open air, the vendor said that they were best eaten today or tomorrow, or else they should be put inside the refrigerator. They can stay a while in the jar that they are being fermented in, but once they’re exposed to the air, they should be quickly eaten or stored in a cold place. This is somewhat specific to this type of veggie, though. I was also introduced to another type of pickled veggie today at the market called 榨菜, which takes an entire year to ferment, and can be kept out in the open air for much longer.

At first I balked at the idea of refrigeration after eating— I’m here doing research because I want to find ways to circumvent refrigeration! But then I was thinking— can wilted greens be fermented as a means to stave off food waste? This may be my next my next experiment in Professor Shen’s laboratory.

I encourage you to try making this recipe at home! It’s simple and delicious. American mustard greens will do just as well. Since the greens are so salty, they are usually used as a condiment or sprinkled within a dish rather than eaten on their own.

Happy pickle making!