EVERY year, as a rite of winter, Beijing residents haul home pounds of Chinese cabbages for drying, storing, and eating in the cold months ahead.
Da bai cai, or big white vegetable, has long been the winter staple of Beijing's 11 million people and heavily subsidized by the government to keep food on the table.
This year, however, as freezing winds bear down on the Chinese capital, residents are eating less cabbage and more meat, eggs, milk, and different vegetables - a sign of shifting eating habits resulting from economic reform.
"Business isn't as good as it was in the past," says Zhang Jianwen, a vegetable seller, as he sits atop a green mountain of cabbages at Beijing's Big Bell Temple Market. "Then, people were not as rich as they are now so the Chinese cabbage was their main vegetable."
Economic freedom and growing prosperity are altering the palates of the Chinese. The government has recently lifted price controls on grain, meat, eggs, rice, noodles, cooking oil, and other commodities in many cities and provinces, Chinese press reports and observers say.
Decontrolling grain prices in Sichuan, China's most populous province, and freeing prices for meat and eggs in Beijing were seen as barometers of Chinese willingness to bear the brunt of higher prices. Although government workers received a higher monthly subsidy to compensate for the new prices, nongovernment workers were not buffered.
The moves triggered complaints but no protests. Blunting the urban anger was the success of efforts to restructure the economy along market lines, bringing a measure of prosperity and better, more diverse commodities.
The current prosperity contrasts with 1988 when higher prices and shortages fueled political protests that culminated in the brutal military crackdown in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Now, amid signs that the government will soon free commodity prices and phase out costly subsidies and food-coupon programs nationwide, Chinese in cities say they are no longer happy with the same old fare. "Urban residents don't want to eat rice or wheat flour that is old," says a Beijing journalist. "We buy fresh rice and are eating more meat and better vegetables."
When it comes to cabbages, however, some traditions die hard. Fu Shuyuan, a deputy manager at the Big Bell Temple Market, says cabbages are still popular for making jiaozi, a special dumpling prepared on the eve of the Chinese New Year, China's most important festival.
In fact the vegetable is so important for Beijing, Mr. Fu says, that the municipality sponsored a seminar last year to discuss what would become of the Chinese cabbage under China's economic reform and opening.
Every year, Beijing-area farms produce 880 million pounds of cabbages for the winter. Although there was no consensus at the seminar, Fu said, "I have found that the Beijing citizen cannot do without the Chinese cabbage because it is inexpensive and can be stored."
Li Shijing trudges along a Beijing street, her arms full of cabbages that will be part of the 330 pounds she will store this winter. This year, Beijing municipal officials cut the city's annual cabbage subsidy of $5.5 million by $1.8 million, resulting in a 40 percent increase in the cost of cabbage. But compared to other vegetables, Mrs. Li adds, cabbages are still cheap.
Li, Fu, and other Beijing residents admit that the cabbage is on the wane. Families have moved from traditional houses with courtyards where cabbages were dried in the sun to high-rises with balconies and little space for sunning cabbages. During the winter, a visitor to a Chinese home often has to navigate clumps of cabbages piled in stairwells and hallways.
Convenience foods are spreading in Chinese food markets and even jiaozi are now available in frozen food sections of supermarkets.
Before economic reforms were launched 15 years ago, Beijing had to rely on whatever was grown on the outskirts of the capital, limiting the variety of produce available.
Fu, the wholesale market official, says that now, with economic change and the free movement of farm produce, a variety of vegetables come to China's capital from all over the country: ginger and garlic from Shandong Province; bean noodle, sweet potatoes, and taro from Hebei Province; bananas from Guangdong and Guanxi provinces; and lotus roots from Hubei Province.
Bundled against the winter cold, Beijing's residents may still line up to buy cheap cabbages. But those lines are getting shorter.
"Years ago, people had to get up very early in the morning to line up for Chinese cabbages. Not now," says Fu. "This is the free market."