Food & Beverage

As winter nears, China is blanketed in green

Andrew Jacobs
A man sells cabbages at a market in Linyi, China.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

Sooty skies are not the only reliable indicator that winter has finally descended on the Chinese capital. Vendors selling roasted sweet potatoes occupy street corners with their repurposed oil-drum ovens. To ward off the sniffles, Beijing cabdrivers nibble on cloves of raw garlic, making taxi rides especially trying.

Then there are the piles of cabbage that accrue in communal courtyards, high-rise hallways and window ledges across the city.

The vegetal escarpments sometimes tower waist-high in public stairwells, competing for space with rusting bicycles and neatly stacked piles of the honeycomb coal briquettes that still heat countless homes here.

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"When you see a mound of cabbage outside your front door, you feel confident that you won't starve to death during the winter," said Wang Jianrong, 62, a retired government worker standing proudly beside a heap of white-and-jade roughage.

In a city crowded with BMWs, upscale malls and produce-packed supermarkets, the stockpiling of cabbage is a vestigial impulse that speaks to an era of scarcity that still haunts Chinese of a certain age.

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Older Beijingers vividly recall the hungry winters of the 1950s and '60s, especially after Mao Zedong's disastrous attempt to industrialize the nation during the Great Leap Forward, when state-rationed turnips, leeks and cabbage sustained millions. "Back when I was a kid, you never saw a fat person," said Yang Renzhi, 60, a retired math teacher who was buying three dozen heads for her parents.

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The hoarding begins in earnest each November, when farmers from the outskirts of the capital deliver tons of newly harvested cabbage to city sidewalks for a state-sanctioned sale. The green mountains draw armies of gray-haired bargain hunters, who squeeze and prod the vegetables with the intensity of a wizened diamond trader.

"Give me 200 jin of your crispest heads," Zhang Libao, a 72-year-old former factory worker, barked one recent morning as Li Xueqing, a cabbage grower, loaded up the equivalent of 220 pounds on the back of a flatbed tricycle.

Mr. Li, 46, a no-nonsense man who has been growing cabbage for two decades and sleeps on the sidewalk beside his wares, said he sold just under a ton each day during the capital's two-week run on cabbage.

But he bemoaned an inexorable decline in business. He noted that the average purchase was less than 100 pounds, down from 500 pounds in the early 1980s, when market changes began transforming the nation's communal agriculture system, making food supplies more plentiful.

Mr. Li and other sellers say chronically low prices — the result of modern farming practices and overplanting — have made the decline in winter stockpiling more painful. Although 30 percent higher than last year, according to Beijing Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, the seasonal price of cabbage is still a meager 8 cents a pound. "Once it starts snowing, it could triple," he said.

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Even as they scoff at the hoarding, younger Beijingers are often forced to indulge their elders, many of whom rarely get through their cabbage reserves and are forced to throw out the moldering, mushy remains come spring.

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"My 90-year-old mother sent me out today to see if the cabbage is good and cheap," said a 68-year-old woman who would give only her last name, Xia. "She won't stop sending me out until we have bought enough. She can't live without it."

Mrs. Xia sighed when describing her family's annual cabbage-storing ritual. To protect them from rot, the heads are individually wrapped in newspaper. Every two weeks, she checks the cache for signs of decay and reshuffles the pile, moving those on the bottom to the top.

But it would be unfair to view the annual hunt for cheap cabbage as simply a hard-wired, existential quest for sustenance.

As they circled Mr. Li's beauties, buyers shared storage tips (drape them in old blankets) and traded recipes to ensure relatives maintained their ardor for a vegetable that traditionalists insist is the key to a healthy heart.

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"Who can resist stir-fried cabbage, with eggs, pork and a dash of vinegar and hot pepper?" one retired engineer exclaimed with relish.

A woman stepped forward to boast that she kept a file of 500 cabbage dishes in her head. "In soups, in dumplings, you name it: Cabbage goes with everything," she said.

But Ms. Yang, the retired math teacher, said the cabbage hoarding was more than just about food.

"It's about nostalgia for a simpler time, perhaps one that these old people romanticize," she said, tying cabbage heads to her bike rack. "When my father sees cabbage piled on our 16th-floor balcony, he smiles and knows everything is going to be O.K."