Eat more fruit…
One of the most amazing things about Chengdu is the incredible agricultural capacity of its surrounding area. It is effectively self sufficient in food production and people here are passionate about eating fresh, local and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Chengdu citizens generally shop everyday, and seek out the freshest in the ever-changing selections of seasonal produce.
It’s not all at the table
Generally, most people learn about Sichuan food at restaurants. While there are lots of fresh vegetables used in the kitchen you won’t usually see fruit on the menu. Fruit is rarely put into baking, or made into jams or sauces. It is not incorporated into dishes, and rarely into desserts. Fruit is just fruit, and served as such, but it plays an incredibly important role in local food culture. It is eaten at breakfast, as a snack, after dinner, and given as gifts of well being, but it is almost exclusively consumed as is. That’s how it is most desired and most valuable. An orange is best as an orange.
Home of the Kiwi
In fact the Sichuan basin is famous for its fruit, and produce here gets shipped across the country. The area is also the native home to many species like citrus and persimmons as wellas kiwis, which are originally from the hills west of the city. Other types of fruit such as plums, peaches, apricots, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, pomegranates and cherries are big business here too. The constantly changing fruitstands are live with color and flavor throughout the year, thanks to four growing seasons. Keeping up with what is freshest and best tasting is a fun and healthy pursuit.
Ugly and Delicious
In North America, a lot of the fruit we eat has been bred for aesthetics or the practical logistics of shipping to regions where they can’t be grown. But in a city surrounded by lush agricultural land, freshness and flavor trump looks and travel ability and produce comes in a greater varieties. For example, there are dozens of types of plums here, big ugly (but delicious) citrus I’ve never seen in NA, and certain fruits like persimmons, which just taste best if they don’t have to travel.
Some fruits like figs and mulberries are rarely cultivated but grow readily on trees at people’s homes and around the city. When it’s the season, people pick/forage them and bring them to market, though they are often in very limited supply.
Head to the farm
In fact, part of the search for freshness as a main leisure activity of Chengdu people includes trips to the agriculturally abundant countryside around the city where people pick their own produce, or sit among the blossoms and play majiang, drink tea, and snooze (or gamble) away afternoons, basking in the wealth of agriculture.
Fruit also plays a role in ‘gentrifying’ farm land, as crops like cherries and peaches can fetch much higher prices than local produce. Areas like Hanyaun, famous in China for growing Sichuan peppercorns, have been partially taken over by fruit farms. The climate needed to grow both is similar, and crops like huajiao are very labor intensive and produce less volume each year. Cherries on the other hand make tons of money and can be planted alongside peach trees which are harvested later in the year. As a result, the Sichuan peppercorn farms get pushed to more and more rural and marginalized areas.
No Bananas, Go Bananas
Almost all of the produce you see at markets in Chengdu is fresh and local and coming from around the city. Areas in southern Sichuan are also sub-tropical and can grown mangos, pineapple and papaya. Pretty much the only fruits that get brought in regularly are bananas and coconuts. I mean, hey, people want bananas.
Fruit Makes the Season
Right now, in early June we are in the heart of fruit season. Loquats, bay berries, plums and apricots are still around, while cherries are everywhere, and peaches and lychees are coming into their time. Grapes peak in late summer and the fall holds more pears, apples, kiwis, pomegranates and persimmons. Winter is full of amazing citrus…. ooh those pomelos!
And while spring still has great fruit (loquat, sakura cherries etc), it is the blossoms of the cherries and peaches that color the hills and countryside valleys around the city that draw tourists. The rural areas become flooded with city-folk searching for that freshness and blossomy-beauty.
The moral of the story is, some of the most amazing things here happen outside restaurants, and fruit tastes better when its closer to where it came from. Go to a market, or a farm, and eat more fruit. Also, its pretty good for you, or so I hear.
For more amazing produce pics check out this series on fruitty vendors by our close friend and Chengdu-based photographer Jake Homovich.