Xinjiang is a big place, with a land mass the size of Western Europe. It occupies 1/6th of Chinaâ€™s territory, yet contributes only 1.5% of its population. I think I now know why itâ€™s so empty. All that space must be devoted to growing Hami Melons.
This fruit is Xinjiangâ€™s most popular export to the rest of China. Itâ€™s high season now. Even here in Shenzhen, as far as one can travel from the melon-growing precints near the Gobi Desert in Xinjiang, the large Hami melons are pervasive â€“ in fruit stores, supermarkets, pushcarts. You can also find them piled high on many streets all over the city, with each Hami hoard minded by a guy from Xinjiang with a long sharp knife and a small scale.
The melons are generally oval-shaped and weigh about 10 pounds each. Iâ€™ve bought segments of ones weighing twice that. The most popular way to eat the melon is as a snack on the street. A tall thin slice on a wooden skewer sells for Rmb 1.
For those who havenâ€™t had the pleasure, a Hami tastes a lot like cantaloupe, but the flesh is much crunchier, almost like an appleâ€™s.
This time of year, across China, Hami crowds every other fruit out of the marketplace. I canâ€™t find any statistics on Xinjiangâ€™s total production, but my guess would be it runs to the millions of tons. Imagine the logistics: a market of 1.4 billion all simultaneously ravenous for your perishable product, grown on the fringe of a desert in one of the most distant, infrastructure-starved corners of the country.
Just to supply the Chinese market must occupy the full-time summertime efforts of tens of thousands of farmers, packers, and shippers. The melons are grown, boxed and then shipped by road and rail to every corner of China. It seems like for every 100 melons exported from Xinjiang, one local Uighur must accompany the shipment, to run the impromptu sidewalk stalls selling the fruit.
If other parts of China also grow the melon, Iâ€™m not aware of it. To find buyers, they would probably have to falsely label their melons as coming from Xinjiang. In China, Hami belongs to Xinjiang the way champagne belongs to the Champagne region of northern France.
Shenzhen probably has a larger market for Hami, on average, than many other parts of China. Itâ€™s a rich city, and Hami melon is not cheap. Bought by the kilo, the price runs to around Rmb8 to Rmb 12, or about 70-90 cents a pound. I’m buying around 10 kilos a week.
You can also find Hami this time of year in Los Angeles, usually at Persian grocery stores. Parts of Southern Californiaâ€™s desert are similar to Xinjiangâ€™s Hami growing region. But, the fruit is very much a minority taste in the US. Itâ€™s likely to remain that way. As big as it is, Xinjiang will never be able produce enough Hami to satisfy fully Chinese tastes, let alone an export market.