In 2016, Sandor Katz and Mara King led an expedition through southwestern China in search of fermentation traditions. They found a mind-boggling diversity of techniques for tea, rice, cheese, meat, fish, and a galaxy of bean products ranging from silky curds to the gnarliest doubanjiang. Their award-winning video series, The People's Republic of Fermentation, describes how age-old flavors and rhythms of life survive and evolve in one of the most rapidly changing places on earth. The story behind the series, told here by Katz and King, allows a backstage glimpse at the serendipity of life on the road to funkytown for this intrepid pair of pickleteers.
SANDOR KATZ In the decades since I first became obsessed with all things fermented, I’ve been able to learn a good deal about Eastern European, Japanese, and Korean fermentation traditions, and those of many other parts of the world. But for most of this time, I was unable to learn much at all about fermentation in a place with some of the most ancient and varied traditions, which have influenced practices around the world: China. All the historical mythography about sauerkraut points to China as its inspiration; the oldest evidence of alcohol fermentation comes from China; Asian markets around the world are filled with fermented products from China, including soy sauce, vinegars, fermented black beans, and fermented tofu. But with a dearth of practical how-to literature in English, I was unable to learn much at all about Chinese fermentation methods.
That changed when I joined my friend Mara King and her mother, Judy, on a fermentation expedition to southwestern China. I first met Mara when she was a student in one of my residency programs. She’s an adventurous culinary explorer, who has experimented broadly with fermentation and runs a fermented vegetable business in Colorado. Before moving to the US at age 20, Mara grew up in Hong Kong, where her mother, Judy King, has lived all her life, traveling widely around China. Judy had a longstanding relationship with people in a Dong ethnic minority village called Qinfen in Guizhou province, which she has visited regularly for two decades. Judy had often told Mara about life in the village, including all the fermentation going on there; although Mara had long wanted to visit, she was busy raising kids, starting a business, and living her life.
Lucky for me, I met Mara at a time when she felt like she could take some time away from her family and her business (hence her presence at my residency program). My interest in learning about Chinese fermentation became a catalyst for her to make time to travel with her mother to Qinfen. Judy graciously agreed to Mara inviting me along.
It would be impossible for a foreigner visiting China for the first time to find this village. There is no public transportation there, and no hotel to stay in. The doors to Qinfen opened for me purely because of my friendship with Mara, as Judy’s family and friends were automatically honored guests in the village. Knowing of our interest in food preservation, villagers started fermentation projects to show us their techniques. One day we were literally led from house to house to see the different projects underway. I feel incredibly privileged to have had this experience, and eager to share what I saw and learned.
MARA KING My mom has been travelling to Guizhou since before I graduated from high school. Over the years I’ve marveled at the beautiful textiles, intricate silverwork, and samplings of delicious rice liquor that made their way from the villages back to Hong Kong. I was so excited to finally be asked along. Back when mom first started going to these villages, it would take a week for her to travel there, with slow-moving trains, bumpy mini-buses on dangerous winding mountain roads, and day-long hikes. For us, it was a much easier trip with modern high-speed rail and friends with minivans.
Initially we planned our entire trip around the visit to Qinfen, but as we started to flesh out our itinerary we thought it would be great to visit other locales in China’s southwest that are famous for interesting fermented foods. Chengdu in Sichuan province, known as the culinary capital of China, seemed like a perfect place to begin. Sichuan’s food is famous for its spicy dishes, legendary bean paste, and complex flavors from brine-fermented vegetables. I didn’t have any friends in Chengdu but I did know that there was a famous culinary school there, as well as artisans making fermented broad bean paste, and a vibrant street food and restaurant scene.
We added Yunnan to the roster, as we had read about their famous hams. I had also met a Fulbright scholar who studied there and was connected to its burgeoning farm-to-table movement. As our itinerary grew, Sandor recognized that it would be a full and exciting adventure, and he had the bright idea to invite his friend Mattia Sacco Botto along with us to document our discoveries on video.
SANDOR KATZ On our first day in Chengdu, we had no particular plans. We went for a meandering walk, during which I noticed sausages hanging to cure from a window grating at street level. As I stopped to take a picture of them, Mattia videotaped me. The woman who had made the sausages saw us and came outside to chat with us. Her name was Mrs. Ding. Not only did she end up inviting us in, but she and her family prepared an elaborate feast for us, including the delicious home-cured sausages. Later, Mrs. Ding showed us how she ferments vegetables, chilli peppers, tofu, and more. This was really my first introduction to Chinese fermented vegetables (泡菜 paocai), with its dazzling diversity of styles.
In Chengdu we also met up with Jordan Porter, a Canadian expat who runs Chengdu Food Tours. Jordan and his Chinese wife Chi-chi took us on an expedition into the mountainous Sichuan countryside to visit the farm of the Zhang family, where we were greeted by fresh still-warm soft tofu, and spent the day foraging, harvesting, slaughtering, pickling, cooking, and feasting with the Zhangs.
Our final day in Sichuan we spent in Pixian County learning about doubanjiang 豆瓣酱, the paste made from fermented broad beans and chilli peppers. This was my introduction to doubanjiang, and I loved it! It resembles the more widely known Korean gochujang, but it is less sweet, more spicy, and coarser. The broad beans and the chillis are fermented separately first, then mixed together and further fermented. Sadly, they were unable to show us the most mysterious (and potentially the most vulnerable) part of the process: the room where the broad beans are initially grown with fungi. What we learned is that the beans are soaked, dehulled, and flash-boiled for only about 15 seconds, then coated with wheat flour, and left in a warm humid spot to mold. Generally, no starter is used, except for batches over 80 tons!
MARA KING The bean paste factory was government-owned and mind-boggling in its scale: several football fields in length, with towering adjustable greenhouse ceilings, and long vats of bean paste open to the controlled elements around them. Every day for two years, the fermenting paste in these vats is stirred – by machine augers driven slowly up and down the long rows – then smoothed over. On the roof of one building, they had an artisanal version of the large-scale fermentation happening in the greenhouses below. Ceramic pots were lined up like soldiers, and one very buff and sweaty young man systematically pushed a long wooden pestle through the thick paste, turning the bean paste from the bottoms of the pots up, exposing it to light, humidity, and oxygen. Sandor and I each took a turn pressing the pestle and turning the paste. It was definitely vigorous physical labor. I was quite impressed at the dedication it must have taken on a day-to-day basis to develop and maintain this method of preservation.
After a short flight and an hour and a half on a high-speed train, we arrived at Rongjiang train station in southeastern Guizhou. My mom’s dear friend of many years, Xiao Luo, was there to greet us with her nephew and his van. The road to Qinfen was steep and precarious. On certain sections, we witnessed giant rocks and rubble pushed to one side to allow for vehicles to pass, areas where mudslides had been bulldozed to create a path through to the paved road. Xiao Luo had been born in Qinfen but now mostly lives in Beijing, where she operates a business selling the very distinctive fabric handiwork made in this and neighboring villages by friends and family. We were to stay in her family home where her younger brother and his wife now lived. I was instructed immediately by my mom to call Xiao Luo “gu ma” which is something like “number one auntie” and we called her brother’s wife “ersao,” or “number two auntie.” It impressed upon me the familial nature of this visit – adopting the honorific terms as I had done within the confines of my own prodigious Chinese family as a child.
This became even more apparent on our arrival. The whole town appeared to have stopped what it was doing and converged upon the centrally located house of Mrs. Wang, the village’s preschool teacher. A cacophony of children appeared, along with an abundance of food from Mrs. Wang’s kitchen and the many houses surrounding us, placed on low semi-circular tables. Stools were produced, a long serpentine table assembled out of half-circles for the children, and giant gallon jugs of rice alcohol poured into ceramic bowls. The food kept showing up until there was no room left on the table. Dishes and baskets – laden with preserved fish, tofu, pork stir-fried with yam cakes, sticky rice and sautéed crickets – were balanced on the rims of the dishes around them or propped carefully on the floor surrounding the table. As I began to eat, I noticed that when one dish would empty, another would be magically refilled. This massive feast appeared to have no end in sight. Having been raised by my father with his post-war mentality of waste-not-want-not and the “clean plate club,” I looked over at my mom with a bit of confusion at how to deal with my neverending bowl of food and drink. She instructed me that I should simply put down my full bowl to signal that I was finished.
SANDOR KATZ Word had spread in the village that we were interested in fermentation, and we were invited into home after home to observe and help with fermentation projects. People in Qinfen produce virtually all of the food they eat, and fermentation is everywhere. More than any single food we saw or tasted, what I found most awe-inspiring was the degree to which fermentation is part of every family’s routine in the village – and simply how they are able to make effective use of the food resources they produce. We witnessed and documented the fermentation of fish and meat, the fermentation and distillation of rice into alcohol, and the production and fermentation of tofu.
The most exciting surprise came when we were watching and helping make douchi, or fermented black beans. As it is described in the English-language literature, as I have seen it in the US, and as I have made it at home, douchi is whole soybeans that are grown with fungi (primarily Aspergillus molds that are associated with soy sauces and pastes, rice alcohol, and much more), then brined for months, and finally dried. In this form, they are used in stir-fries found at almost all Chinese restaurants throughout North America.
In Qinfen, what they called douchi were small, dry, cookie-size cakes, formed from a mash of fermented soybeans, chilli peppers, and other spices, then dried into stable cookies. They were very funky and it was surprising to see a small child sneak one while his mother wasn’t looking – as I might I have snuck a chocolate chip cookie in my own mother’s kitchen. We sampled the douchi as a dipping sauce (the cakes had been crumbled and then crushed into water and soy sauce), which we found delicious and still quite funky – deep and complex and edgy.
I imagined these to have been fermented primarily by Aspergillus molds, because that was what I understood douchi to be. But when we were invited into a Qinfen home to help mash freshly fermented soybeans with salt and crushed chilli pepper and form them into the douchi cakes, I realized that this mixture was fermented primarily by Bacillus subtilis, a very different organism. B. subtilis is unmistakable for the gluey film it produces, and its strong ammonia-like aroma, most famously found in Japanese natto, but also in many other ferments around the world. As soon as I saw, smelled, and tasted the fermented soybeans, it was obvious that this was a natto-like fermentation by B. subtilis, suggesting that the word douchi actually describes a broader range of soybean fermentations than I had previously understood. That holds true of everything we saw. None of these fermentation traditions is a singular tradition. They all have been adapted in many varied understandings and manifestations, with all the mutation inevitable in the diffusion and transmission of cultural information.
MARA KING B. subtilis is a famously robust bacteria, present on the beans that can survive the prolonged heat involved in steaming soybeans until they are soft. The Qinfen douchi method involves steaming soaked soybeans in tall wooden steamers. The whole steamer – beans and all – is left in a corner of the kitchen at room temperature to ferment for about a week. The season helps determine the length of the process. During our wintertime visit, the temperatures inside the Dong wooden houses were much the same as the temperatures outside (aside from the area right around the wood stove). During midsummer, however, this same fermentation process would probably take about 24-48 hours.
After being fermented, the beans are pounded. We witnessed two pounding devices on our visit. One was a very simple and labor-intensive version that Sandor and I had the chance to try firsthand: a giant pot as mortar, a large wooden pestle, and plenty of elbow grease. We pounded the beans for well over an hour, until the individual pulses had broken down into a thick and stringy paste. We also saw a clever wooden device that combines a foot pedal, a simple fulcrum and a wooden mallet that beats up and down upon a large stone mortar. Once the douchi is pounded into thick slime, other ingredients are mixed in: dried chillis, flower peppercorns and salt. Next, the whole mixture is transferred onto a mesh grill and dehydrated over low coals over several days. The final step was to moisten the dehydrated mass just enough to shape into cookies for storage and use.
It was amazing for me to see the many cultural similarities between Dong traditions and Japanese traditions. Fish preserved in fermented rice, indigo-dyeing, rice alcohol, yam cakes that were a rustic version of konjac, and natto … as Sandor mentions, it really is easy to see how cultural traditions travel from region to region and speak to us in a practical language that transcends historical record.
SANDOR KATZ After Qinfen, we headed to Yunnan province. In Dunchuan, one of the small villages near the city of Dali, we observed Chinese cheesemaking. We had heard of various Yunnan cheeses made from the milk of goats as well as cows, and had the chance to watch cow milk being turned into a cheese called rushan.
Whey is left for about a month to sour; then it is heated, and fresh milk is added until it curdles. The curd is gathered and worked until it develops a smooth and stretchy mozzarella-like consistency, then stretched around bamboo poles until it’s so thin it becomes translucent. The cheese is dried into a shelf-stable form, and eaten fried or grilled.
One of the widespread ideas about Chinese cuisine is that it has traditionally not used dairy. This is no doubt true of most places in China, but given the vastness of the country, its varied topography and climate, and the enthusiastic openness of its people to eating every available food resource, there were bound to be exceptions. Here we were in Yunnan, eating a traditional local cheese – which, incidentally, wasn’t half as cheesy (in a funky fermentation way) as the fermented tofu we had been served wherever we went.
Prior to our visit, I knew of Yunnan primarily for its tea production – in particular its famed fermented Pu’er tea. We did sample variations of Pu’er in Dali, and learned about it in the context of a traditional tea ritual. But Dali is not just about tradition; it is also a place of outsiders, of reinvention, and of free thinking, possibly because the city sits along an ancient trade route where cultural cross-fertilization has been going on for literally thousands of years. During our brief visit there, we pickled vegetables with Chinese back-to-the-landers, tasted excellent homebrews from the kegs of a bilingual Louisiana expatriate living there with his Chinese family, and even visited a small community organized around fermented fruit “enzyme teas,” and their belief in the potential of these teas to solve many of humanity’s worst problems via their use as soil amendments, beverages, and nutritional supplements.
MARA KING On our last day in Yunnan, we visited our new friend Li Fen at her farm-to-table restaurant Tusheng Shiguan 土生食馆, located in the capital city of Kunming. Li Fen had just returned from a trip to Slow Food’s Terra Madre gathering and a Yunnanese pop-up restaurant project she had spearheaded in Switzerland with her brother as sous-chef. We were excited to work together. Li Fen invited along some fellow students from a film program she was attending at the local university, and we spent the whole morning together, talking, eating, cooking, and filming one another, as her husband minded her young son in front of the restaurant.
I was excited by the prospect of cooking again. Having been so far from home for so long, I was missing my kitchen. And because this was the very end of our trip, we started to empty our backpacks of all the fun foodstuffs we had collected along the way. There were bottles of dark and light soy sauce from a visit to Yuan’s Soy Sauce factory in Hong Kong, rushan cheese, dingding candy (a malt sugar taffy that Mrs. Ding claimed to be the secret to a perfect pickle brine), different kinds of furu (fermented tofu), and the funky, spicy dried douchi biscuits from Qinfen.
We put all of our ingredients on the table to size them up, along with some items from Li Fen’s pantry. She wanted to make gnocchi as a tribute to her trip to Italy. She also wanted to make something with red beetroots; because these vegetables are not used in the local cuisine, her parents had taken to feeding the beets to the pigs. The gnocchi were fun to make, as we didn’t have a potato masher, and everyone had to pitch in to figure out how to get our potatoes smooshed enough to craft pasta from them. As we crushed and ground and chopped, we mixed some beets in to make one of our gnocchi doughs pinkish-red. Sandor made a great salad out of mint and lettuce, sweetened the dressing with the malt sugar taffy, and topped the salad with boiled beets and fried rushan “croutons.” Finally, I got schooled in the kitchen as everyone stepped aside to watch me prepare a pork, cabbage, and Qinfen douchi stir-fry, as well as the gnocchi dish. Unaccustomed to working with a 3,000-degree wok, I produced a stir-fry that was somewhat well-done; the gnocchi turned out a bit clumpy. The restaurant’s chef de cuisine gave me some on-the-fly pointers, and I made her promise to teach me more about proper wok techniques the next time I visited. We all gathered in the center of the restaurant to dig into this eclectic meal together, and everybody ate with gusto.
It was interesting to see all the various fermented ingredients from our trip come together with fresh farm-grown produce in such a spontaneous and fun manner. I feel very lucky to have been on the road with Sandor, Mattia, and my mom. Truly, I couldn’t have asked for a kinder, gentler, more intelligent, or more adventurous crew with whom to dig my hands and teeth into the varied foods and funky fermentations of southwest China.
text by Sandor Katz & Mara King, photos by Mattia Sacco Botto
Sandor Ellix Katz is a fermentation revivalist. His books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, along with the hundreds of fermentation workshops he has taught around the world, have helped to catalyze a broad revival of the fermentation arts. For more information, check out wildfermentation.com. Mara King is a native of Hong Kong, a chef, and the co-founder and COO of Ozuke, where she nurtures good microbes all day long. Mattia Sacco Botto is an Italian filmmaker and cultural producer based in Malta. He loves to tell stories about food and people, especially ones that involve indigenous and migrant communities around the world. He has lived and eaten his way through China, India, Sri Lanka, and the Netherlands.