From the Stretch-A-Leg Blog

Winter Rituals in Beijing

With the recently passing Winter Solstice and official beginning of winter, Tony wanted to share one of the most distinctive traditional winter rituals you see around Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods signaling the coming of winter.

Stocking up on Dabaicai

Dabaicai 大白菜 (Big Chinese Cabbage) season definitely marks the beginning of the winter for Beijingers.

Since Beijing is situated very far north in China (approx. 40 degrees latitude), before modern refrigerators, there were not a whole lot of choices of green vegetables once winter started.

Cabbage then became the so called dangjiacai 当家菜 (vegetable that dominated the household) for Beijing throughout the winter months for centuries and even today.


Dabaicai Cabbage Markets

A sight that you can't miss in the late autumn and early winter is truckloads of cabbage being unloaded on the sidewalk around the hutong neighborhoods like small hills waiting for people to pick them up (as a kid, we used to go out to climb those cabbage hills at night).

Normally, each dabacai weighs around 5-6 kgs (11-13 lbs) and up until the 1980s an average family would purchase approximately 200-250kgs of dabaicai for the family to consume for the winter.

During the beginning of winter, mini “pop-up” winter dabaicai markets become a hubbub of local seasonal activity--similar to what a Christmas tree market might be like in countries that celebrate Christmas.


Storing Dabaicai During the Winter

The most common way for families to store their winter stock of dabaicai is to keep them in a shed outside of the house.  When wandering the hutongs in the winter, if you look carefully you will see these sheds in the hutong.

People normally let the outside layer of leaves act as the natural protection of the cabbage although some families prefer to have each cabbage wrapped up with old newspaper to absorb the condensation.

Even though nowadays most hutong families have refrigerators, and you can buy green vegetables grown in greenhouses or shipped from warmer parts of China year round, many hutong residents continue this winter ritual and tradition of stockpiling and storing dabaicai outside their homes.


Beijing Winter Dabaicai Dishes

There are some of the most quintessential Beijing dishes in the winter that use dabaicai, such as jiemedui'er 芥末堆儿 (cabbaged preserved in mustard) and culiubaicai 醋溜白菜 (fried cabbage with vinegar source).

Most commonly, people would make pickled cabbage, stewed cabbage, hotpot and dumplings with cabbage, and salad with it.

Explore Beijing’s Hutong Neighborhoods in the Winter

Next time you are in Beijing in the winter doing a walking tour with Stretch-a-Leg in the Hutongs, see if you can spot the dabaicai storage sheds and please make sure you order some of the seasonal specialty dishes cooked with cabbage.

To book a hutong walking tour with an expert Stretch-a-leg Travel guide click here.

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