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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E13): Clarissa Wei on the Pickle Jar, 6.24.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E13): Clarissa Wei on the Pickle Jar, 6.24.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China. This episode was also part of our Food & Ideas Festival.

Season 3, Episode 13 was a fermented finale to our Food & Ideas Festival exploring modern China through food! Pickles are a Chinese staple and the Chinese pickle jar is a simple, yet ingenious tool used to make these naturally fermented vegetables. Food expert Clarissa Wei shares the secrets of the jar and explain why this tradition matters in a rapidly modernizing country.

Clarissa Wei (CW) is a journalist and award-winning video producer whose work focuses on Chinese food. Her writing has been published on VICE, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Eater, Bon Appetit, Nikkei Asian Review, CNN, NPR, Saveur Magazine, and Food and Wine, among others.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 13:

CW: Growing up in Los Angeles, I did not know pickles were such a big thing until I traveled through China. [The pickle jar] is very ubiquitous but at the same time under-represented.

Pickles are mostly eaten as an appetizer and served in a small plate or ramekin. You do not get that in big restaurants in America, sometimes you’ll get it in China, but they are house pickles that are the specialty of the family or restaurant making the food.

Pickles are a microcosm for regional food in China; Northern China has really salty food…so they use a lot of salt and black vinegar, Szechuan cuisine is known for being spicy so they will use Szechuan pepper corn and chili peppers, and Southern Chinese food near Fujian is known for being sweet, so their pickles have a bit of sugar in it. So, it is a really interesting way to tell a story of regional Chinese food, in a pickle.

Dinda Elliott (moderator): Why did you go to Sichuan looking for pickles?

CW: Szechuan is really interesting because it specializes in a lacto-fermented pickles, which just means it is in a salt brine. Here it is just salt and water boiled together with spices. Szechuan is in a really fertile region…and pickles are used there as a counter-balance to the spicy, heavy food [that is a staple] of their cuisine.

Picking wild vegetables is very common in Southwestern China because it is so lush and people have a connection to the land. …It is not a trendy thing, it is just how it has been for generations.

What is special about this jar is the shape. You see this in German sauerkraut but this shape originated in China with a wide mouth and narrow neck. That really helps submerge the vegetables underneath…because if the pickles touch air they can spoil. She pours water around the mouth to make a water seal. She will replenish the water seal when it evaporates, like once every month or every two weeks. The design is ingenious.

The lid is a bowl you can use to ladle [and serve]. The clay has a unique microprosity to it which absorbs flavors like a cast-iron pot and infuses the pickles with a flavor you develop. This woman had that jar for 20 years and was maintaining a brine for that long too.

DE: The Chinese tradition of pickle making goes back to roughly 1100 B.C. but you see the pickle jar in the homes of people in cities. Does that say something about tradition and being connected to the past?

CW: There is not much of a disconnect between agrarian life and [city life in China, their grandparents were most likely farmers]. People just have the pickle jar- not as a conscious way to connect them with their homes- but they want a taste of home in the city. You order take out but you want a little bit of pickles to break up the fat.

DE: In terms of China’s wealth, 40 years is a blink of an eye. The speed of change [must] make it feel fragmented for older folks. And now there is a trend to return to simplicity and authenticity. There is a longing to get back to nature and traditions.

CW: Even though they have spent most of their lives in the cities and they are not peasant women, there is a romanticization of the past and that is a response to the [rapidity] of China’s development. That is why this type of content is popular…like people spending the weekend out in the country, connect to their roots, and slow down.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Clarissa Wei

This program is part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, a month-long exploration of modern China through food. See past programs:

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