Preserving Culture

LILLIAN CHILDRESS explores the fading tradition of Chinese pickling.

The pungent smell of pickles pervaded the air of the shop, piercing to the point of producing tears of the sort that chopping an onion might unleash. The customers seemed able to go about their business unhindered by the aromas, bustling from vat to vat of pickles of every type, occasionally turning to large urns with dried plants inside. It was 2 pm on a Tuesday and the pickle shop—Jing Guan Pickle Store of Hangzhou, one of the “four great pickle stores in China,” as a stone plaque outside of the shop proudly proclaims—was packed with the kind of activity one might see at a midwestern Wal-Mart before a snowstorm.

I took my place near the cool ventilation of the windows, observing my fellow pickle-shoppers. My mind danced with questions. Is that a pickle or an insect? Is it okay that that vat of yellow pickles is being swarmed by flies or should I alert somebody? Is it weird that I am just standing here watching everybody or should I feign activity by moving about? And inevitably, the pressing, ever-pervasive: why am I here?

The ostensible reason for my presence was my  investigation of the sustainability of traditional Chinese pickles through a fellowship dispensed by the Yale Sustainable Food Program. I wanted to see if the traditional culture of eating and making pickles in China was being lost to the advent of refrigeration and mechanization, and, were that to be the case, if I could collect the recipes of great-grandmothers and grandmothers that would very soon be lost to time.

Pickles were a critical cornerstone of Chinese culture, and the decline of pickle eating, especially among younger generations, was a symbol of a much larger cultural collapse.

In the spirit of such objective, I approached one of the workers in the shop, who was sitting on a pile of burlap sacks and eating a bowl of rice. “Where in the shop do you make all of these pickles?” I asked.

He stared at me with the wide eyes of someone who is not expecting a foreigner to ask a question in Chinese, much less one about pickles. “We don’t make them here. They come from a factory,” he finally answered.

“Do you have any of the recipes?” I ventured.

“No recipes. A truck brings the pickles here in the mornings,” he sternly replied.

I asked if the factory had a phone number that I could call, to which the answer was also a firm no. Finally, I managed to convince another worker to fish out a cardboard box from the closet with a phone number printed on it that may be a phone number I could use to call the factory.

I walked out of the shop, having completed my first research expedition of the month-long journey I had just embarked on. I had yet another question in mind: are people really this disconnected from where their pickles are coming from?

Back in July 2014, an article called “What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming?” caught my eye in the New York Times Magazine. In the article, author Nicola Twilley expertly chronicles the history of modern refrigeration in China and its associated environmental implications. Over the last two decades, Chinese domestic refrigerator ownership has grown exponentially. In 1995, around 7 percent of Chinese urban families owned refrigerators. By 2007, that number had jumped to over 95 percent.

Twilley makes clear, however, that these advancements have come at a cost. The natural corollary to this shift towards modern food storage methods is that more traditional procedures like fermentation will be lost.

For thousands of years, the Chinese have relied on traditional fermentation practices to preserve foods, such as the production of tofu, the salting of meat and fish, and ground storage of salted fruits and vegetables. In fact, it was not until the 1970s—around the time of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform and opening up initiative—that the first refrigerators appeared in Chinese homes. Now with the total number of Chinese households owning refrigerators standing around 88 percent, the shift away from traditional fermentation practices truly began to take place.

Combined with the emergence of large supermarkets, this all means that people are now spending much less time on making fermented products. Not only can they preserve things by keeping food cool in a refrigerator, they can also satiate their taste for pickled foods by purchasing such food items in a supermarket. Even my host grandmother during my stay in Hangzhou said that she rarely makes pickles anymore and could only remember the recipes from her childhood.

During one of my first weeks there, she helped me set up a number of home visits with elder friends of hers in the same apartment complex. One family made pickled mustard greens, and another made sun-dried radish. Yet the message they conveyed to me was largely the same: if I wanted to learn about pickles, I should go to the countryside. Their home pickle-making was largely born out of nostalgia. My conversation with a graduate student at Zhejiang University painted an even bleaker picture. He and his peers were seldom consumers of fermented vegetables, and when he did eat them, it was in extremely small quantities, usually mixed in with his morning rice porridge.

At first, a decrease in pickle consumption seems merely another way in which modern Western culture is eroding the traditional cultural practices of the East. Which is a problem in its own right, to be sure. Something larger is at play here, though. The shift from traditional preservation methods to refrigeration comes at great cost to China’s environment. A typical home refrigerator in China accounts for around 16 to 41 percent of annual energy consumption per household.

Fermentation is fundamentally sustainable: fermented food does not require refrigerators to keep it fresh. Fermentation is also a good way to use fruits and vegetables efficiently, because fermented fruit can be kept in jars or pots for years. In recent years, in large part due to the emergence of the home refrigerator and large-scale cold supply chains, fresh fruits and vegetables are thrown away the moment any disfigured spots appear. This contributes to a global food waste problem as the UN estimates that roughly 30 percent of food produced globally is never actually eaten. Additionally, home fermentation reduces greenhouse gases produced by the transportation and packaging associated with large supermarkets. Lastly, eating fermented and pickled foods encourages and enables people to eat locally year-round. Pickled green beans, for example, can be eaten long after green beans have gone out of season in a particular area.

The shift from traditional preservation methods to refrigeration comes at great cost to China’s environment. A typical home refrigerator in China accounts for around 16 to 41 percent of annual energy consumption per household.

Homemade pickles are also very simple to make. The basic procedure is to rub vegetables with salt, pack them in a jar, add extra salt brine if needed so they are completely submerged. The salt-water-vegetable mixture will naturally grow lactic acid bacteria, which lowers the pH level of the mixture to the point that other “bad” bacteria are essentially wiped out. While the pickles can be eaten in a few days, I was told to keep them fermenting for at least twelve days, at which point the sodium nitrite concentration will be almost completely depleted, a compound that some have linked to negative health effects.

While I had braced myself for the discovery that elder members of the community were gradually losing their pickle-making abilities and knowledge, I was much more surprised to learn that the pickle vendors I talked to in the markets and even the well-known Jing Guan Pickle Store got almost all of their pickles from a factory. The only holders of a deep knowledge of recipes and techniques within the community, therefore, were the factories. How were the mechanized techniques of pickle-making different? Were the factories cutting corners to make the fermentation process faster and more cost-efficient? After many phone calls, half-English, half-Chinese conversations with a Zhejiang University professor and an acquaintance with a UC Berkeley food science student, I was granted a visit to a pickle factory in Xiaoshan, an administrative district of Hangzhou.

The Hangzhou Xiaoshan Dangshan Jiangcui Company is one of five pickle factories in Xiaoshan, and according to all involved, was the best pickle factory of the five (When I pressed further about what “best” meant, it was amended to “most sanitary.”). The owner of the factory, Ma Gulong, greeted us with a round belly, a full-toothed smile, and free copies of his recently published book, A Bite of Pickle Culture, which features his smiling face on the maroon cover.

Ma emphasized that that pickles were a critical cornerstone of Chinese culture, and that the decline of pickle eating, especially among younger generations, was a symbol of a much larger cultural collapse. “It’s too easy for them to buy their own pickles,” he said of young people. “There aren’t enough benefits to making them on their own.”

The actual making of pickles, according to Ma, is very easy. All of the techniques used at the factory were in fact the same ones that regular Chinese people employ in their homes. Radishes were still dried in the sun, and pickled mustard greens were still kept in large, salty vats until it was time to package them. Traditional knowledge was not leaving the community; it was just being concentrated into the hands of those who could make a profit from it.

However, the way pickles are made in factories still is not exactly the same as a grandmother would make them in her own kitchen. The pickles made in factories are subject to a narrowing homogenization that is necessary for any standardized product, not to mention the greater environmental cost they accrue through large volumes of plastic packaging and long-distance transport.

Towards the end of our meeting at the factory, Ma asked me the question it seemed he had been burning to all along: how could he expand into the American market?

I ventured, “Well… you could sell the pickles in Chinatowns in different American cities?”

This seemed much too small scale for him. I struggled to explain that the American palate may just not be ready for snack-sized portions of pickled mustard greens or sun-dried radish. I told him that perhaps if he marketed pickles as a health food, particularly playing up the probiotic benefits, he might be able to attract a wider customer base.

Ma’s question was particularly biting since a part of my ultimate vision for the research project was taking the fermentation methods I had learned in China back to the US. In speaking with Ma, though, I realized that there may be more of a reluctance than I had originally supposed among American consumers to branch out into something as pungent and visually striking as Chinese pickles, in addition to a certain untrustworthiness as to whether they are safe to make in the home. While homemade pickles are extremely simple to make, there seems to be great misunderstanding of the chemistry behind the process, which leads to magnification of distinct American fears of germs and bacteria. Pickling with salt is a tried-and-true method that has been used for centuries, yet it seems that both Chinese and American youth alike really are unaware of where our pickles are coming from.

It is time that the knowledge pickling leaves the hands of just the factory owners and re-enters both the American and Chinese kitchens. By pickling in own kitchens, we can eat locally all year long, use less refrigerator space, and reduce food waste. Moreover, we can reap the health benefits of probiotic bacteria and increased bioavailability of certain nutrients that the pickling process brings out. Sometimes, there is hidden wisdom in tradition that we do not fully realize until it is almost lost to us.

Lillian Childress is a junior at Yale University. Contact her at lillian.g.childress@yale.edu.

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