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Sweet Past, Sour Future for China's 'Patriotic' Cabbage

Vegetable traditionally helped feed the nation in winter. But sales fell sharply once consumers could choose from an array of produce.

November 16, 2003|Ted Anthony | Associated Press Writer

BEIJING — To the Chinese capital, the dawn of November long meant one thing -- the invasion of winter cabbage, the government-subsidized, not-too-tasty "patriotic vegetable" that sustained the masses through the icy months.

Rickety trucks from one-horse towns streamed into the city, laden with heads of da baicai -- big cabbage, known to most Americans as nappa cabbage. Folks queued their donkey carts and wheelbarrows, anxiously stocking up. Refrigeratorless families by the millions lined gray rooftops with edible green shingles.

This month, the cabbages are coming, right on schedule. But it's not like it used to be.

With each November's passing, the fuel of the proletarian revolution is becoming simply another lifestyle choice in a shiny city of dizzying selections. And therein lies a tale -- of economic progress, increasing affluence and a generation of pickier palates weaned on Pizza Hut.

"Old grandpas still fondly remember da baicai. But for people my age, it's just like any other vegetable," said Dong Yue, 34. He oversees marketing for Dayanglu, one of Beijing's largest wholesale produce markets. Its inventory recently included 109 varieties of vegetables.

In recent days, vendors from all corners of the land have brought their perishable harvests to Dayanglu for the pre-winter rush. Color is splashed everywhere: scarlet bell peppers, emerald hot peppers, eggplants in deep purple.

Armed with the inventory of available vegetables, Dong ticks off those that many farmers hadn't heard of a decade ago. When he's done, 50 of the 109 items are checked -- everything from iceberg lettuce to celery to the more exotic "monkey-head mushrooms."

"Lines for da baicai? You won't see that anymore," said Gao Zhanmin, laughing as his half-full truck of cabbages loomed behind him. "They want one bunch; they just go out and buy it. They don't need to fill their homes with it anymore."

Twenty years ago, 95% of sales at Beijing's wholesale produce markets came from da baicai. Ten years ago, it was between 50% and 70%. This year, Dong expects just 9% of Dayanglu's sales to come from the cabbage.

Recently, the government's Xinhua News Agency said demand for da baicai was expected to plummet yet again, this time by 8.3% from 2002.

"The house vegetable of Beijing has lost its vaunted position," Xinhua lamented.

It's hardly disappearing. In 2001, the average Beijing resident consumed 77 pounds of the cabbage. But China's two-decade experiment in capitalism has brought extraordinary changes to everyday life -- even to cabbage.

When economic reform began in the late 1970s, Beijing was emerging from Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution. Restaurants, scorned for years as bourgeois, were rare. Among winter's few certainties were the odor of burning coal, the wizened men on streetcorners selling sunflower seeds from burlap sacks and the cabbage.

Da baicai became Beijing's culinary canvas. There was cabbage in sour sauce. Cabbage soup. Cabbage and bean curd. Braised cabbage over rice. And, on special days, cabbage dumplings -- sometimes with a bit of minced pork.

"There were no other vegetables. And no one could have afforded them anyway," said Ma Laicang, owner of the Old Beijing Zhajiang Noodle King, a restaurant offering several cabbage dishes.

A 1988 shortage caused panic buying, and a glut the following year left 80,000 tons of cabbage piled in the streets. The mayor invoked patriotism and ordered public offices, schools, factories and army units to stock up. The cabbage crisis ebbed.

In 1992, the government cut its cabbage subsidy. Five years later, it deregulated the price. Popularity plummeted. Why hoard cabbage when so many other delicacies were available?

In today's Beijing, the French superstore Carrefour sells fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, nine varieties of mushrooms and an entire aisle of canned vegetables -- a sharp contrast to Beijing of 1980, when an average Chinese couldn't buy a Coca-Cola without knowing a foreigner.

And, in an indication of the way that China is going, many truckloads of da baicai are headed south: It seems that diners in Guangdong province are hungry for a taste of old Beijing.

"It's a delicacy there," said Hou Li, a vegetable seller. "Now southern vegetables come north and northern vegetables go south.

"City kids today, they have no idea where the things in their bowl come from," he said. "One day, they'll think watermelons come from trees."

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