Beijing residents stock up on cabbages in uncertain times

November 8, 2021 - 6:11 PM
A woman buys cabbage at a street stall, an annual tradition in winter that has taken on extra importance after the government advised people to keep enough basic goods at home in case of emergencies, following outbreaks of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China, November 4, 2021. Picture taken November 4, 2021. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

BEIJING — Older residents in Beijing recently stocked up on cabbage, giving a tradition a new lease of life after the government advised people to keep enough basic goods at home in case of emergencies.

People have for years bought up dozens of large cabbages, which can be kept fresh for months and are widely used in local cuisine, in early November to see them through freezing winters.

A government notice issued last Monday advising households to stock up on daily necessities and a snow forecast reinforced the rush this year, with long early morning queues forming outside supermarkets in downtown Beijing last week.

“Every year at this time the (cabbage) sales volume is high. But after the report came out, everyone rushed to buy even more,” said Jia Jinzhi, a grower who sells cabbage at Beijing’s Xinfadi wholesale market.

Supermarkets capped sales at three cabbages per person, but even then, shoppers arriving after 9 am (1 am GMT) left empty-handed.

The bright green cabbages, known as Chinese cabbage or Napa cabbage, used to be piled high in backyards, in apartment block hallways or even in homemade shelters dug underground, with neighbors striving to outdo each other on the size of their cabbage stocks.

Freezing temperatures and the tough outer leaves kept the two-kilogram brassicas fresh for months.

The cabbage piles have shrunk over the years as sophisticated logistics transport fresh vegetables across China all-year round and as families increasingly live in small high-rise apartments rather than houses, but the tradition lives on.

“This is a Beijing custom,” said a woman surnamed Zhao, leaving a Wumart supermarket with three cabbages.

Wumart customers said they were paying about three times what they paid last year, or 1 yuan per half kilo.

But if they didn’t buy now, prices would double further into winter, said another shopper surnamed Sun.

“You can keep it for two or three months. You put it outside, find a cotton blanket to cover it,” he said.

Wrapping the cabbage in newspaper also helps to keep it fresh, said Zhao, who stores it on her balcony.

The shopping spree comes as Beijing residents bought a series of staples last week after the government’s advice on stocking up on basic supplies prompted some confusion.

It was part of a seasonal notice put out by the Ministry of Commerce encouraging authorities to secure food supplies and stable prices ahead of winter, following a recent spike in vegetable prices and a growing COVID-19 outbreak.

Retirees, who don’t use China’s ubiquitous shopping apps, were the ones predominantly willing to stand in line for the cabbages.

“If it rains or snows and you can’t go out, you have some vegetables at home,” said a 62-year-old woman, waiting in a long line outside Wumart. “Anyway, what else am I doing?” —Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa