The cov­eted seed from Suzhou

Gor­gon seeds are a must-have au­tumn food for the peo­ple of Suzhou and they don't mind pay­ing top dol­lar for it

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Since nine o’clock in the morn­ing, Hu Xi­uxia has been sit­ting on a small stool out­side a green tea shop at the en­trance to Feng­men Mar­ket, the old­est wet mar­ket in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

Here, she tire­lessly ex­tracts seeds from a pome­gran­ate-like plant called the gor­gon fruit, an aquatic plant that has for cen­turies been grown and con­sumed ex­clu­sively in Suzhou. The gor­gon plant has a huge ta­ble-sized green leaf and light pur­ple flow­ers that bloom late in sum­mer.

Be­hind her is a pile of pink shucks that have been piled to waist height. In front of her are white seeds the size and shape of pearls.

From late Au­gust to mid Oc­to­ber ev­ery year, the time when gor­gon seeds be­come ed­i­ble, hun­dreds of mid­dle aged or el­derly women would gather at the en­trances of local wet mar­kets and put up a “per­for­mance” — peel­ing the seeds off the fruit. The only props they have are wooden stools and thumb cots made of iron.

The lo­cals at times re­fer to this ac­tiv­ity as “peel­ing rice from the chicken head” be­cause of the fruit’s re­sem­blance to the lat­ter.

It has al­ready been three hours, but the 55-year-old Hu barely looks ex­hausted. An ex­pe­ri­enced per­son could peel an av­er­age of 2 to 3 kilo­grams of seeds ev­ery day. It takes 10 kg of fruits to pro­duce just 1 kg of seeds.

The job of peel­ing the seeds from the gor­gon is done al­most ex­clu­sively by women, who ex­plained that men don’t have the pa­tience for such a job.

Ev­ery au­tumn, droves of pop-up gor­gon fruit peel­ers like Hu ar­rive at Feng­men Mar­ket to sell the seeds. This year, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fice of Feng­men Mar­ket has de­cided to set aside a space the size of a basketball court for them to do busi­ness in a bid to pre­vent con­flicts from aris­ing be­tween them and the reg­u­lar mar­ket ven­dors.

Gor­gon seeds are as cov­eted to a Suzhou na­tive as truf­fles are to an Ital­ian. The in­creas­ing de­mand from both within Suzhou and other cities has also been push­ing the price of the seeds up.

While farm­ers at Suzhou’s Taihu Lake, China’s sec­ond largest fresh­wa­ter lake, sell the fruit at a whole­sale price of less than $2 per kilo­gram, the seeds re­tail for $35 per kilo­gram at the wet mar­kets.

Rent­ing a space at lo­ca­tions like Feng­men Mar­ket, the busiest and most cen­tral one in the city, costs about $10 ev­ery day.

Ac­cord­ing to Bao Zhongzhou, a se­nior agronomist with Jiangsu Shengyuan Aquatic Veg­etable Re­search Cen­ter in Suzhou, it was not un­til late in the 1980s that the gor­gon fruit be­came pop­u­lar and was grown in the low­land ponds out­side Suzhou.

Due to ur­ban­iza­tion, farm­ers had to move from Suzhou to the more re­mote ar­eas to grow the plant. The to­tal farm­ing area in China for the gor­gon fruit is es­ti­mated to be around 67,000 square kilo­me­ters.

Vet­eran food­ies in­sist that the gor­gon fruit grow best in the wa­ters of Taihu Lake, and that they are best han­dled by the hands of Suzhou women.

The seeds are clas­si­fied as among the eight “wa­ter trea­sures” in China, along­side lo­tus roots, wa­ter cel­ery and wa­ter chest­nuts, all of which are sig­na­ture in­gre­di­ents in Suzhou cui­sine.

Chef Zhao Bangyin from Shang Palace, the Chi­nese restau­rant at Shangri-La Suzhou, noted that the change in sea­sonal veg­eta­bles and in­gre­di­ents is so fre­quent that chefs here are ac­tu­ally in­spired, if not forced to, up­date their menus on a monthly ba­sis.

Ye Ting, a prom­i­nent local food critic, said that the pe­riod dur­ing which gor­gon seeds are sold is so im­por­tant in the local culi­nary cal­en­dar that the oc­ca­sion is akin to the Chi­nese New Year.

Gor­gon seeds don’t ac­tu­ally have a par­tic­u­larly unique fla­vor ex­cept for a sub­tle sweet­ness. Peo­ple fond of con­sum­ing these seeds of­ten say that it is the spe­cial tex­ture, one sim­i­lar to coix seeds, they are pay­ing for.

Most lo­cals con­sume the seed as a dessert and the prepa­ra­tion method is ut­terly sim­ple. The seeds are boiled — wa­ter from Taihu Lake is sup­pos­edly the best — be­fore a hand­ful of os­man­thus flow­ers are sprin­kled over and a spoon­ful of honey added. Restau­rants of­ten serve this dessert in pump­kins or pa­payas in­stead of bowls.

“When you have the best in­gre­di­ents, it would be a dis­as­ter to spoil it with any more fla­vor­ing,” said Zhao.

Other din­ing es­tab­lish­ments have also been known to serve gor­gon seeds with stir-fried shrimps.

Suzhou na­tives are so fas­tid­i­ous about the gor­gons that a bowl of seeds that has been in the open for two hours fetches 10 yuan less than freshly peeled ones. The fresh­est are al­ways snapped up by the lo­cals.

Any­one from out­side Suzhou gets the rest.

The pe­riod dur­ing which gor­gon seeds are sold is so im­por­tant in the local culi­nary cal­en­dar that the oc­ca­sion is akin to the Chi­nese New Year.” a prom­i­nent local food critic

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Be­sides be­ing con­sumed as a dessert, gor­gon seeds are at times served with shrimps, as seen above.

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