SEEDS OF AU­TUMN

Gor­gon nuts, freshly peeled af­ter har­vest­ing in Jiangsu prov­ince, are a sea­sonal del­i­cacy with grow­ing ap­peal across China, Xu Jun­qian reports from Suzhou.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | DINING - Con­tact the writer at xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

By 9 o’clock every morn­ing, 55-year-old Hu Xi­uxia has been sit­ting onas­mall­stooland­peel­ing off white seeds from a pome­gran­ate-like­plant­foral­most­three­hours.

The plant inHu’s hands is called gor­gon fruit or nut, or “rice from chicken head” among lo­cals, be­cause the fruit looks like chicken head. The aquatic plant has been grown and en­joyed in Suzhou for cen­turies, a land that is be­lieved by many Chi­nese to be flow­ing with milk and honey, or paved with fish and rice in Chi­nese slang.

Hu works near a dim green tea shop at the en­trance of the big­gest and old­est wet mar­ket in Suzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince. Be­hind her, the muddy pink shucks are piled waist-high. But in front of her, the starchy white seeds are pearl-sized and sur­pris­ingly skimpy — just enough to blan­ket the bot­tom of a salad bowl. It takes 10 kilo­grams of the fruits to pro­duce 1 kilo of seeds.

From late Au­gust to mid-Oc­to­ber every year, when the plant’s seeds be­come ed­i­ble, hun­dreds of mid­dle-aged and more el­derly women gather at the en­trance of lo­cal­wet­mar­ket­sand­pu­ton­apopup show, strip­ping the fruit down to the del­i­cately fla­vored seeds.

Men wouldn’t have the pa­tience for the job, the women say, but an ex­pe­ri­enced woman can peel 2 to 3 kilo­grams of seeds every day, de­spite wear­ing iron fin­ger­tip pro­tec­tors that pre­serve their fin­ger­nails as they work.

Suzhouis­perche­do­nTai­huLake, China’s sec­ond-largest fresh­wa­ter lake, and farm­ers there whole­sale the fruit at less than $2 per kilo. At the wet mar­kets, the seeds sell for $35 per kilo. To rent a space at bustling lo­ca­tions like Feng­men Mar­ket, it costsabout$10ev­ery­day. The mar­gin in-be­tween is the profit for Hu, a re­tired shop as­sis­tant.

Every au­tumn, sea­sonal gor­gon­fruit peel­ers like Hu are so nu­mer­ous that con­flicts can erupt be­tween long-term stalls and the tem­po­rary shuck­ers and sell­ers. This year, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fice of Feng­men Mar­ket opened a bas­ket­ball-court-size space for them to do busi­ness.

For Suzhou na­tives, gor­gon seeds are like truf­fles for Ital­ian or mas­tu­take for the Ja­panese. The seed is clas­si­fied among the “eight wa­ter trea­sures” to­gether with lo­tus roots, wa­ter celeries and wa­ter chest­nuts — con­sid­ered the sig­na­ture in­gre­di­ents that char­ac­ter­ize the cui­sine of Suzhou, fa­mous for be­ing del­i­cate and adapt­ing to the change of sea­sons.

The weeks when gor­gon seeds are on that mar­ket are as im­por­tant as Chi­nese New Year on the lo­cal culi­nary cal­en­dar, says Ye Ting, a prom­i­nent lo­cal food critic.

The gor­gon seed has no spe­cial fla­vor or fra­grance, ex­cept a sub­tle sweet­ness. Peo­ple who are fond of it say it’s the spe­cial tex­ture that they are pay­ing for, five times more than coix (Job’s tears) seeds, which have a sim­i­lar tex­ture.

The­way lo­cals sa­vor it is sim­ple: boiled in wa­ter, prefer­ably wa­ter from Taihu, and sprin­kled with a hand­ful of os­man­thus flow­ers and a spoon­ful of honey as a fin­ish­ing touch. Restau­rants of­ten use scooped-out pump­kins or pa­paya as bowls, but it­makesnod­if­fer­ence to the taste of the dessert. Oc­ca­sion­ally, gor­gon seeds are stir-fried with peeled shrimps, also from Taihu Lake, as a fancy hot dish.

Fas­tid­i­ous Suzhou na­tives count the life­span of these seeds from the shucks to the bowls, by the hour. At Hu’s stall, a two-hour-old bowl of seeds can be bought 10 yuan ($1.5) cheaper than the fresh-peeled ones. Older seeds go to tourists or to mar­kets out­side Suzhou.

In­creas­ing de­mand from both within Suzhou and out­side is push­ing up the price of the seeds.

Ac­cord­ing to Bao Zhongzhou, a se­nior re­search agron­o­mist in Suzhou, it was not un­til late in the 1980s that gor­gon fruit cul­ti­va­tion spread to low­land ponds out­side Suzhou. The plant has a ta­ble-size green leaf and light pur­ple flow­ers that­bloom­late in­sum­mer. Nowthe to­tal area in whichChina grows the gor­gon fruit is es­ti­mated to be around 67,000 square kilo­me­ters.

But vet­eran food­ies in­sist that the wa­ter of Taihu Lake breeds the best gor­gon seeds. Le­an­dro Rolon,

de­signer

PHO­TOS BY XU JUN­QIAN / CHINA DAILY

From left: Farm­ers har­vest gor­gon fruits from a pond in Suzhou; a peeler wears iron fin­ger­tip pro­tec­tors that pre­serve her fin­ger­nails as she works; gor­gon-fruit peel­ers sell the newly stripped seeds at a wet mar­ket in Suzhou.

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