From the Kitchen or the Factory?

Yesterday I paid a visit to Jing Yang Guan Pickle Shop, which has a historical reputation as one of the “Four Great Pickle Shops in China.” Walking inside, I was greeted with the salty smell of dozens of vats of different types of pickled vegetables. From long, black cucumbers to fiery red pepper-covered cabbage, this store is a veritable pickle mecca.

Da Suan: Recipe post forthcoming
Da Suan: Recipe post forthcoming

However, as soon as I started chatting with the shopkeepers, I was surprised to hear that all of the beautiful pickled vegetables laid out en plein air throughout the shop were actually from a factory! Not only that, but the shopkeepers had no idea about any of the details of the factory– they said that the truck came with the veggies every morning, and that’s all they knew. I got the phone number of the factory from them and left the shop, but not before buying a little sample of my own. IMG_6255

I’m not sure what they are, but the texture was crunchy, and the flavor a mix of salt and a hint of molasses. I asked the shopkeeper if they were insects, but she insisted that they are vegetables. A quick google search has not yielded me the name, but I’ll keep on the lookout for it.

An interesting trend has been popping up that I’d like to investigate– are almost all pickled vegetables on the market here from a factory? Today I went to the outdoor market with the Chinese grandmother I am staying in the home of. Again, the pickled vegetables were displayed in open air pots that made them look home made, but when we asked the woman working at the stand, she said that almost all of the vegetables were from a factory. And indeed, behind here were cardboard boxes from the factory she spoke of filled with vegetables. They were actually all from the Hubei province, far west of the Zhejiang province where Hangzhou (the city I am in) is located.

The grandmother I am staying with told me that she usually does not make her own fermented vegetables, but rather buys some if she wants them. Are factories supplying the vast majority of pickled veggies in China? How are they repeating these processes once specific to the home kitchen on a mass scale?

Today I met with Shen Lirong, the professor who has given me access to his laboratory and the resources of Zhejiang University. Turns out he is friends with the owner of the pickle shop I visited! He said that he will arrange a factory visit for me next week.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt for more small-scale, mom and pop-type pickle operations. Do they exist? Do people want them to exist?

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!