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)
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2 thoughts on “Finding meaning in a Xiaoshan pickle factory

  1. Fascinating! Maybe one day they will call it “Ma’s Paradox”.
    Just the other I read this on the Zero-Waste-Chef blog: http://zerowastechef.com/2015/01/21/7-tips-for-a-zero-waste-kitchen/
    It is worlds apart.
    Then again, the real challenge you set out to explore is how to scale up the benefits of food preservation.
    In my opinion it’ll require a slow, growing movement, not a marketing stunt or a business plan to break into “the XYZ market”.

    Like

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