Friday, November 2, 2007

On Produce in General and the Vegetable Market in Particular

Temperatures have recently dropped into the 30s during the day, into the teens at night. While it looks like it’s warming up this weekend (maybe even up to 50?), fall is definitely upon us and the woolen under-things are out in full force. Not that you can see the woolen under-things (except in the marketplaces, of course) but since I have been wearing them myself, I’m pretty sure that the Chinese are too. They may not wear hats (we’ve been told that they only wear hats when it snows) but the Hohhotians (?) have definitely been dressed for the cold since before summer officially gave way to autumn. We were repeatedly warned as the seasons started to change to beware the instability of the weather, citing that it was a prime time to catch a cold. We have caught lots of other things (rashes, eye infections, stomach problems, continuing visits with the Chinese version of Montezuma’s Revenge) but so far no colds. Nevertheless, we cling to our own old wives' tales and wear our hats everywhere.

Despite the drop in temperature—and probably because of those woolen under-things—the streets are just as filled as always with vendors selling everything from candied fruit to vegetables to bicycle repairs.

The aroma from these roasted sweet potatoes is absolutely wonderful. People peel them like a banana and eat them on the go.

Just before it started reaching below freezing at night I noticed donkey wagons and even huge trucks piled sky-high with bags of potatoes. About the same time gigantic mounds of leeks appeared on the streets, formed mammoth piles in front of store fronts, and filled small blue trucks to capacity, long green tails hanging off the backs of the truck beds. I couldn’t figure it out until it finally dawned on me that these were vegetables that live underground—maybe the farmers knew it might either be hard to get them out of frozen ground, or maybe the freeze would just plain ruin them. I’m no farmer, obviously, but it certainly got really cold after the potatoes and leeks appeared en masse. Now everywhere you look, on roof tops, in windows, and lined along doorways, leeks and cabbages are the chief ornament around.

Cabbages in the background, leeks in the foreground. This is the view from the staircase leading to Dave's classroom in the International Exchange College.

Running out of space for your leeks? Try the bicycle cage.

Apples and oranges also abound on every street corner and even in between. We’ve fallen in love all over again with fuji apples and now the oranges are out in record number. We’re particularly fond of the ones without seeds (go figure) and there are also itty bitty oranges, about the size of a golf ball or even as small as a walnut, that the kids just plow through. Easy to peel, no seeds, sweet and juicy, what’s there not to like?

We buy oranges from this lady's cart daily.

And finally, I’ve become completely enamored and fascinated with the vegetable market, about a fifteen minute walk from our apartment. It apparently provides produce for all the restaurants in Hohhot, along with fresh fish, meat, live fowl, spices, and cooking supplies.

Live chickens...

and dead ones.

Spices and other sundries.

Those of us not in the restaurant trade can also shop there, thankfully, and I’ve found all kinds of wonderful vegetables for a fraction of the cost of the ones behind our building. This means, of course, that they are dirt cheap.

There are many, many stands that look just like this one.

This is just one aisle of vendors out of many.

Maybe a type of squash? I can't even imagine trying to lift one of those babies. For a sense of size, I think those are onions on the right and the truck on the left is huge.

The white bags in front of the people are filled with garlic.

Grace said, "Mama, I'm going to take a picture of eggplants for your blog." And she did. Those are garlic shoots in the front right corner.

The tomatoes here are incredible—like Dave’s Grandma’s garden variety—and the cucumbers and carrots are better than you could get in a supermarket at home. The cukes are like “European” cucumbers, long and dark green with thin skins that you eat. The carrots are shorter and fatter than the standard American variety, with a darker and richer flesh. The pumpkins the kids cut up for Halloween were actually so beautiful inside that I barely could stand to give them over to “art”. I’m going to try baking one whole in the oven (a trick I heard about on KCRW’s Good Food podcast). You mostly see small round eggplants that just call out to be eaten (yeah, right, but honestly they are wonderful) and I’m getting better about figuring out how to cook them. I am sure that the beautiful heads of broccoli shipped in from south China come from distances greater than the ideal 100 miles, as do the little tomatoes and edamame (I know, Japanese word, but I have no idea what they’re called in Chinese), but the flavors are full and wonderful—they are not picked before their time so I’m just going to pretend that China is a lot smaller than it is. Ha. In any case, we are lucky to have so much produce at our disposal, and I find it infinitely more exciting to plan a meal around whatever vegetables I have on hand than on whatever piece of meat I can pull out of the freezer.


Haphazardkat said...

the colors of all that raw food is wonderful. I think I'd starve though...I wouldn't even begin to know how to cook all that unprocessed food!!! And spices in large bags that don't come with recipe ideas on the back of their bottles?? ugh. I'm so pathetic!!

Belinda Starkie said...

Yum. I wish Mom could see the pictures. She's been a veggie fanatic since the '80s.

I think olive oil, garlic, pico de gallo, kosher salt, sundried tomatoes and lots of sweet basil for all those vegetables...microwaved... not broccoli, of course.

The oranges of various size look so delicious.

Thanks for sharing, for taking the time.

Arienne Arnold said...

Believe me, without internet and google I wouldn't know what to do with some of the more strange vegetables. And while all those spices look great, I have no idea what they are. The best thing about eating out here, besides the price, is that you have a chance to try some of these veggies, like the garlic shoots which are terrific.

Belinda Starkie said...

I forgot the lemon juice!

Evan Klineman's Good Food (KCRW) has a great Asian idea for Turkey this year. 11/10/07

Evan hangs out in Asian grocery stores. Not being able to read the labels, she still brings home foods she ends up loving.

Long beans? Any there? They sound better than green beans (our variety)