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.
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.
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?