Why Pickles?

And so we begin. I have embarked on a 1 month journey to Hangzhou, China. My purpose here is to study traditional Chinese fermentation techniques, particularly fermented vegetables, which has been generously funded by the Yale Global Food Fellowship.

I tell people here that I’m studying 泡菜 (pickled vegetables), and I receive a snigger or a pair of wide eyes. It’s like someone coming to America to study mayonnaise. How could anyone find interest, meaning, in something so mundane?

So, why am I studying pickled vegetables? I’m here because I believe that fermentation is a fundamentally sustainable method of both storing food and staving off food waste. For centuries, the Chinese have used the process of fermentation to preserve nutrients, enhance flavor, and increase digestibility. However since the rapid rise of refrigerator ownership following Deng Xioping’s economic reforms in the late 1970’s, many Chinese, particularly the urban population, have developed a certain obsession with “fresh-ness” that falls in opposition to the idea of pickled vegetables. Much of the younger generation has forgotten the old recipes for pickled vegetables, and have no interest in relearning them. I want to record these recipes, not only because they may soon be gone, but also because I see fermentation as a glimmer of hope within the sustainable food movement that has long been under-recognized.

My plan is to visit local restaurants and markets in Hangzhou as my primary basis of research, but I’m also planning on paying a few visits to an  ultra-local restaurant outside of Hangzhou , as well as visiting a pickled vegetable factory on the outskirts of the city. I’ve also arranged to study with a professor who specializes in fermentation at a university in Hangzhou, and he has given me full access to his lab and the help of his PhD students. Tomorrow I am making natto with one of the grad students!

While I’ve come here with a plan, executing it has, of course, been more difficult than expected. My Chinese is lacking, and the opportunities to find DIY pickle operations have been more difficult than I expected, especially with the limited contacts I have in this city. Research takes time, but I can’t shake the feeling that I should be discovering everything, right now, in one day.

“For me, fermentation is a health regimen, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one,” writes Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation. 

A pebble for my (and your?) pocket.

Feel free to reach out with any questions/reactions/comments– lillian.g.childress@yale.edu. See you in the next post!




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