The first time I walked into a grocery store in Beijing, I had two thoughts. The first was “I’m going to die,” the second was “I’m definitely going to die.” It was not the smell that evoked such feelings, but the lack of recognition. Many of us arrive with the preconceived notion that you can get anything and everything in China, but that did not seem to apply to the fruits and vegetables I had so often taken for granted back home.
I lived, of course, and now happily explore Beijing’s varied produce, often challenging my taste buds in the process. Beijing’s temperate climate is characterized by an arid spring, hot and rainy summer, sunny autumn, and a cold and dry winter. These seasonal features are responsible for a bounty of local fruits and vegetables. Eating locally is an environmentally-friendly choice, since it causes less air pollution from transporting foods over long distances and supports small-scale farms. In Beijing, the bulk of these are located in Miyun, Shunyi, and Changping.
In the process of discovering local foods, I aso learned that many of them are tied to concepts in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM theorizes that different foods should be consumed each season to maintain the body’s vital energy, or qi. If you are intimidated by the often unfamiliar items on offer at local supermarkets, do not worry; we put together a roundup of Beijing’s seasonal calendar to ease you into your own journey of culinary discovery.
TCM says that the liver should be the focus of your diet in spring because the body requires cleansing to adapt to changing climatic conditions and keep ailments at bay.
Rhubarb (大黄, dàhuáng)
Rhubarb will be familiar to many westerners, as its slight tartness makes it a common ingredient in pie fillings and jams outside of China. This perennial vegetable is easily recognized by its bright pink stalks and dark green leaves. The latter are mildly poisonous and should not be consumed.
Uses: The roots can be used to make herbal medicine to treat constipation, while the stalks are delicious in rhubarb and plum jam (大黄李子酱, dahuang lizi jiang).
Celtuce (莴笋, wōsǔn)
This odd-looking Chinese vegetable features a thick stem with a celery-like flavor. Its English name is a portmanteau of the words “celery” and “lettuce.” It can be eaten raw, sliced and used in soups or with meat dishes.
Uses: Stir-fried celtuce (清炒莴笋, qīngchăo wōsǔn) is a simple Sichuanese dish that features the crunchy vegetable, celery, and mushroom-infused water.
Taro (芋头, yùtou)
Taro is a native to southern India and Southeast Asia. This root vegetable has a large pear-shaped tuber that looks similar to cassava. Taro cannot be eaten raw because the vegetable contains calcium oxalate, which can contribute to the formation of kidney stones.
Uses: Taro is widely used in dishes that call for a starchy vegetable. The “big harvest” (大丰收, dafengshou), for example, is a plate of steamed grains and vegetables with taro.
Ginger (姜, jiāng)
Originally from southeast Asia, this root has knobbly brown skin that must be peeled to get to the aromatic insides. A freshly harvested plant is juicy but one that has stayed on the shelf for some time is nearly dry and rubbery.
Uses: Prized in China for its fragrant and medicinal properties, ginger is used extensively as a kitchen spice and cold remedy. It can also be candied and eaten as a sweet.
Loquat (芦橘, lújú)
Native to south-central China, this is a small, pear-shaped fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. It has light orange or yellow flesh, with a sweet and slight tangy flavor.
Uses: Loquat syrup is a common ingredient in Chinese cough medicine such as pipa gao (枇杷膏). It can also be used to make wine.
The vigorous activities that take place in summer make the heart the focal point of TCM prescriptions.
Lychee (荔枝, lìzhī)
Lychee is native to Guangdong and Fujian. Covered in a dark, leathery peel, the fruit itself is soft, sweet, and hides a large pit.
Uses: Eaten on its own, lychee is a popular summer snack. It can also be distilled into lychee wine, which is served cold and goes well with meat dishes and shellfish.
Dragon fruit (火龙果, huǒlóng guǒ)
Also known as pitaya, dragon fruit is a flamboyant-looking fruit with a spiked pink and green peel. The sweet flesh is white or sometimes pinkish red, sweet and many edible black seeds. The fruit is associated with strength in Chinese culture.
Uses: Dragon fruit is usually eaten by itself and features prominently in fruit platters.
Bitter Melon (苦瓜, kǔguā)
Bitter melon is a polarizing vegetable; you either love it or hate it. Originating from southeast Asia, it can be instantly recognized by its pebbly, ridged peel. As its name might suggest, the flesh is quite bitter.
Uses: Bitter melon is usually pickled or stir-fried.
Longan (龙眼, lóngyǎn)
Somewhat similar in appearance to lychee (but with a smoother peel), longan grows in bunches and has sweet, translucent flesh. It is native to southern China.
Uses: The dried version is known as guiyuan (桂圆) and is used in dessert soups. As a TCM ingredient, it should be avoided by those who suffer from excessive internal heat.
Japanese Eggplant (茄子, qiézi)
Asian eggplant is longer and thinner-skinned than its western cousins, which are often round and bulbous. China is the largest eggplant consumer in the world, with countless dishes featuring the nutrient-packed vegetable.
Uses: One of the most common dishes featuring this purple vegetable is “fish-fragrant eggplant” (鱼香茄子, yuxiang qiezi), which does not actually contain fish.
Apricot (杏, xìng)
Often confused with nectarines, apricots have a soft, fuzzy skin ranging in color from deep orange to pale yellow.
Uses: Apricots can be enjoyed fresh or dried. They are closely associated with medicine and learning in China, as the pit has wide applications in TCM and Confucius was said to have taught his students in an apricot grove.
The body is in transition in autumn due to temperature changes, making us more susceptible to colds and flus. TCM recommends eating foods that aid the lungs and skin.
Peaches (桃, táo)
Native to northwestern China, peaches have a huge symbolic significance here. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, was said to have gained immortality after stealing peaches from heaven.
Uses: Usually eaten on their own. Peach kernels (桃仁, taoren) are also used in TCM to reduce inflammation.
Chinese Broccoli (芥蓝, jiè lán)
Also known as Chinese kale or kai-lan (its Cantonese name), Chinese broccoli does not in fact look anything like western broccoli. It has longer stalks with wide and flat leaves.
Uses: Chinese broccoli holds up well to a variety of cooking methods. The most common dish is the simple, stir-fried baizhuo jielan (白灼芥蓝).
Asian Pear (梨, lí)
Unlike their western counterparts, Asian pears are round, crispy, and juicy. It is said that couples should not share pears because it will cause disunity.
Uses: Pears are eaten on their own, or candied and added to desserts.
Golden Needle Mushrooms (金针菇, jīnzhēngū)
These mushrooms are easily distinguishable by their long, thin stalks and tendency to grow in clumps. They have a slightly sweet flavor and are sold in bundles in supermarkets.
Uses: These feature mainly in dry and wet hot pot dishes, but cannot be cooked for very long due to their delicate nature.
Butternut Squash (南瓜, nánguā)
Known in Chinese as “pumpkin,” butternut squash is a large pear-shaped vegetable with orange or yellow flesh. Squash is associated with the fall and recommended by dieticians for managing cholesterol levels.
Uses: Butternut squash features prominently in soups and stews in the north. A sweet southern specialty, the steamed sponge cake (南瓜发糕, nangua fagao) can also be found in local bakeries and supermarkets.
Winter (December to March)
According to TCM, the kidneys are the source of all qi. Foods that benefit kidney function are emphasized during the winter months in order to conserve energy and fend off illness. The focus is on rest, reflection, and mindfulness.
Mandarins (桔子, júzi)
Also marketed as tangerines in the West, mandarins are thought to have originated from China and southeast Asia. These little citrus fruits possibly gained the name “mandarin” when they were introduced to England from China in 1805. China is currently the largest producer of mandarin oranges, with an annual yield in the tens of thousands of tonnes. They are small, sweet, and easy to peel.
Uses: Eaten by itself and given as a gift during Spring Festival for its association with good luck.
Kumquat (金桔, jīnjú)
These olive-sized citrus fruits are characterized by their edible peel. Kumquat trees can be bought at flowers market and make popular gifts during Chinese New Year to be used for house decorations.
Uses: Kumquat tea (金桔茶, jīnjú cha) is good for fighting off colds and can be enjoyed hot or cold. In addition, kumquat is often candied or used in preserves.
Bok Choy (油菜, youcai)
Youcai has dark green leaves and smooth white stalks that hold up well during cooking.
Uses: Bok choy can be found in a variety of Chinese dishes, stir-fried bok choy with shiitake mushrooms (香菇油菜, xianggu youcai) being one of the most common.
Napa Cabbage (大白菜, dà báicài)
Also known rather vaguely as “Chinese cabbage” in the West, da baicai is one of the popular vegetables in mainland China and is prized for its ability to keep well in cold weather. It was said that learning how to cook napa cabbage was an essential skill for all good Beijing housewives. The vegetable has large, rippled leaves that take on sauce well.
Uses: Napa cabbage is often pickled, stir-fried, and used in hotpots or soups.
Daikon (白萝卜, bái luóbo)
Also known as white radish or Japanese radish, daikon is a large root vegetable with a very mild flavor. Not to be confused with hu luobo, or carrot.
Uses: Daikon is excellent in soups. A common dish is daikon lamb soup (萝卜羊肉汤, luobo yangrou tang), which can be found in most Chinese restaurants.
Chestnuts (栗子, lìzi)
Chestnuts are nuts with glossy dark brown shells. They are usually roasted to reveal a starchy, golden kernel. Chestnuts are native to the hilly forests of China, Japan, Europe, and North America.
Uses: In addition to being roasted, chestnuts are often used in savory dishes like chestnut chicken (栗子鸡, lizi ji) in winter.
Persimmons (柿子, shìzi)
Native to China, this fruit varies in color from light yellow-orange to dark orange-red. Persimmons come in many shapes, including round or flattened. They are soft (almost mushy), with a thin skin that comes off easily.
Uses: Fried persimmon cake (柿子饼, shìzibǐng) is a popular street snack in Xi’an. In Beijing, it is more common to find packaged dried persimmons.
Bonus: Where to Buy Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Though popular with expats, Sanyuanli Market is not the be-all and end-all of food markets. Here are four other places to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables in the capital.
Chaonei Nanxiaojie Vegetable Market 朝内南小街菜市场
Located within East Second Ring Road, this two-storey market stocks everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to spices, dried fruits, drinks, cooked food, meat, and eggs. Grains can be delivered to home if you purchase them in bulk. There is also a pharmacy on the second floor.
Daily 7am-7pm. Gate 14, Bldg 12, Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie, Dongcheng District (8402 4788) 东城区朝阳门南小街12号楼14门
Chongwenmen Market 崇文门市场
This popular local market is known for its quality meat, reasonable prices, and many stalls selling Muslim products and desserts. There is also a Wu Mart and Daoxiangcun bakery, where you can get lao Beijing snacks.
Daily 8am-9pm. 1 Guangqumenwai Dajie, Chaoyang district (6701 8014) 朝阳区广渠门外大街1号
Wangjing Comprehensive Market 望京街道综合菜市场
Now the biggest market in Wangjing, this market combines the former Nanhu Market and another open-air market. From kimchi to Korean coffee, this is the place to buy Korean products.
Daily 7am-6pm. Intersection of Hongchang Lu and Hongtai Xilu (exit A of Wangjing Station), Chaoyang District (5127 6265) 朝阳区望京宏昌路与宏泰西街交叉处 (地铁望京站A口)
Xinfadi Wholesale Market 北京新发地农产品批发市场
Located in Fengtai District, Xinfadi is the biggest wholesale food market in the city and one of the key fruit and vegetable trading centers in Beijing. The 24-hour market contains about 5,000 stalls and is not the place for a quick visit. The market is big enough to be divided into areas that sell specific products, such as mushrooms and bananas. Update: Xinfadi is scheduled to be moved outside of Beijing in the future, so go while you still can!
Daily 24 hours. Nanyuan Xilu, west of Xinfadi Bridge on the Jingkai Expressway, Fengtai District (8372 2689) 丰台区京开高速公路花乡新发地桥西侧
Opening photo: Kent Wang via Flickr
This article originally appeared on p56-61 of the beijingkids March 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com