Nothing else in Beijing declares winter like the arrival of the city’s piles ‘o cabbage. My first year here, I thought snowfall on Old Hallow’s Eve heralded the dreaded Beijing winter; my second, no snow in November, but wretchedly freezing winds told me it was time to haul out my down jackets; this year, it’s mid-November, and – dare I say it? – it’s still relatively mild (i.e. I am not clamouring for government heating yet). What has yet to fail me though, as a marker of the season, is the sight, and smell, of the city’s hoard of government-subsidized cabbage.
We all have our complaints about this city, especially during it’s most brutal season*, but I find it rather heart-warming that even in this age of Chinese prosperity, where anyone can walk into a plain old chaoshi and buy an assortment of fresh vegetables throughout the winter, that this tradition of storing a season’s worth of da baicai still remains. You first see them in huge, two-ton piles on the street, many stacked as tall as the people who sold them. Then, as the weeks of November go by, they disappear off the sidewalks, and start appearing in clusters by doorways, on rooftops, against windowsills. Then, you start to smell the history of old Beijing and the not-so-good good old days in the sweet stench of households pickling and preserving their cabbagey treasure, and my hallways are ripe with the oniony reminder that leeks, as well as cabbages, are a winter mainstay.
I read that a mere 25 years ago, 95% of produce sold during wintertime here consisted of this pale-green leafy friend. The reason was two-fold – there was no other vegetable to be had, and if there was, no one could afford to buy them anyways. The government also subsidizes these veg for residents – everyone registered here can get a ticketed allotment to use as they will. And use they do. It’s cooked in soups, used in hotpot, stir-fried, boiled, and around Chinese New Year, chopped up and mixed with pork for dumplings.
I like the sight of cabbage hoarding. I like seeing leaves of cabbage being hung out to dry like laundry. I like the smell of onions in my elevator. In short, I like this November tradition. In America, I got used to looking forward to November as the month where tradition dictates that you get to be seriously overindulgent in the culinary department and partake of the gluttony that is Thanksgiving. Here, despite the plethora of other options, I like knowing that many families still keep it old-school. Sure, there is a McDonald’s across the street, and yes, you can get imported asparagus for 2 bucks. But still – you take your cabbage dammit, and you eat it. And you love it. Because folks, it’s November in Beijing and Winter (with a capital W) is upon us all.
(This post was about cabbage. Obviously. As as aside, though, there is also evidence that we Beijingers can enjoy other fruits of winter. Radishes the size of your head for instance, and the curious green turnips are out in full force, and the roasty toasty smells of chestnuts and sweet potatoes and corn. The corn-roasting bikes, in particular, are a joy and spotting the little one-ear-only corn cremation coffins (CCC?) make tromping around my neighborhood a pleasure right now, even if I need to break out my mittens.)
* I bet some would say that the scorching summers, with the rancid pollution and skin-puckering dryness is the worst of Beijing’s two seasons, but I declare those folks weak. Weak! At least in the summers we have agency to join our fellow city-zens outside with lukewarm beers, and bitch in communal misery. In winter, we bitch alone.