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Cuihua, serve the suancai!

12-14-2010 15:15 BJT

The taste of suancai is unforgettable. And when winter arrives, it’s a Chinese mainstay.

东北人对酸菜有特殊的感情。在物质匮乏的年代,酸菜就成了漫长冬季里主要的蔬菜了。

BY CHLOE CHEN (陈洁) Photographs by LJ (刘姜)

Before greenhouses, the Chinese cabbage known as baicai was a mainstay of Chinese dinner tables. Especially in the north, where most areas are covered with thick snow or a light coat of frost much of the year, Chinese cabbage remains popular because it’s often the only local vegetable left. Plus, it’s cheap.

“I had a ‘four dishes and one soup’(四菜一汤) style lunch this afternoon,” said a man to his colleague, aiming to show off his high standard of living. (“Four dishes and one soup” is a popular expression in China.)

“What were they?” asked his colleague, jealously.

“Fried baicai with dry red pepper, sweet and sour baicai, baicai salad, stewed tofu with baicai, and a baicai soup. You see, not too much and not too little, just four dishes and one soup. ”

It may be funnier in Chinese. But it’s easy to see why baicai rules dinner tables nationwide: it’s easy to grow, cheap, and you can cook it with anything.

Not so long ago, October was an important month across China’s northeast. As the weather turned, every family stored away a winter’s worth of baicai. They’d store it in the courtyards, or between windows and the window bars, or under their beds, peeling off the slowly-rotting layers to reveal untouched leaves underneath.

Li Wenzhong, the manager of Liaoning Provincial Restaurant in Beijing, remembers the process he’d go through every winter. “My parents would buy more than a half-ton of baicai at a time. The truck driver helped deliver it to our door, but the rest was up to us young boys. We dug a deep ditch in advance, maybe one meter across. Then we planted the baicai by the roots, and covered them with a think layer of soil. This way, we could store the baicai for the whole winter. It was a kind of natural refrigerator.”

That’s the way we did it in my hometown. Back when most Chinese people still lived in one-story houses, almost everyone had a little vegetable cellar in their courtyard. Our cellar was very deep, deep enough for an adult to stand upright. It was so cold in the winter that my mother never allowed me to go in—she would lock it from the outside to make sure. Every winter, we’d fill it with sacks of baicai. They were the staple of our meals, and winters wouldn’t have felt like winters without them.

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