Grapes of wealth – Boxi Vineyard in Pengshui

The life of a farmer is not usually regarded in terms of wealth creation. Even though farmers can be regarded as mankind’s first entrepreneurs, tilling the soil and tending to plants seven days a week until fruits or vegetables can be harvested is hard work that rarely leads to high profits. However, trading traditional crops for plants with a higher added value can mean a lot for a poor farmer or backward farming region. This applies even more to many of China’s national minorities.

Most ethnic minorities in China inhabit the less fertile regions, like deserts, or mountains whose slopes are not easy to tend. Farmers in those regions have been living on the verge of poverty for generations. The governments of various levels have been generous in providing all kind of subsidies or aid to alleviate the worst problems, but these measures are often more like a medicine to battle the symptoms, rather than a cure for the disease.

Fortunately, a number of minority farmers with an entrepreneurial spirit have taken the initiative to learn about more interesting crops and techniques to grow them on their own land. One such farmer-entrepreneur is Mr. Wang Minggang. In modern Chinese parlance, Mr Wang is a ‘rural migrant worker returned to the countryside (fanxiang chuangye nongmingong)’. He went to the big city at an early age to find his fortune. However, he found something much more valuable: techniques to make a fortune for himself and his fellow villagers. He learned about grape growing and developed the idea to grow grapes in his home region, Pengshui county of Chongqing, a minority region inhabited by Miao and Tujia people. Although Pengshui’s soil is fertile, it is a mountainous region that until recently was a few days travelling away from the nearest city. The government has greatly improved Pengshui’s accessibility by building an impressive web of roads, but that did not provide the minority farmers with a higher income.

boxigrapes

Wang Minggang started growing grapes and strawberries in his home region, the Ayi River Region of Pengshui. However, his own plot was insufficient to yield a substantial crop. He then proposed to all his neighbours to lease their land, thus increasing his vineyard considerably. In that way, his fellow villagers had a steady income and he could reach a profitable volume.

Another great idea was to start growing ecologically from the beginning. Biological fruits can be sold for a higher price, now that the urban Chinese are starting to recognise biological produce. Wang had some problems with adapting the things he had learned in northern China to the climate of his home region, but now the grapes are hanging proudly on the vines, when the harvest time is nearing. I personally visited Boxi Vineyard on September 27. The grapes were already gone, but the sight of the vines was impressive.

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Many villagers rebuilt their homes, adding guest rooms that can be rented to city people who like to experience rural life for a few days. Those that choose the Ayi River Area at the time the grapes are ripe can pick a certain quantity of grapes themselves and take them home. While having fun, those urbanites can get an idea how the fruits that only knew from the way they were sold in supermarkets are actually grown by the farmers. Even though the project is still relatively young, its effect on the villagers’ lives is evident.

An interesting side effect of this enterprise is that it has introduced crops to the Pengshui region that have never been grown there before. It has contributed to the biodiversity of the region. This story so interesting, that I will post of more these stories on this blog.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

The pick of Chinese pickles: zhacai

If we were to pinpoint a vegetable as THE most representative of Chinese pickled vegetables, it would be zhacai. The Latin name of zhacai is Brassica juncea tumida. It is a peculiarly looking pickled vegetable, resembling the shape of a fist. It is the stem of a variety of mustard. It is therefore also marketed as ‘preserved Chinese mustard stem’.

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This special pickle originates from Sichuan (the Chongqing region, which is now a separate administrative region) and was first created in 1898. Another region with substantial production is Yuyao, near Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province.

The name zhacai, literally meaning pressed vegetable, was inspired by the process employed to press out the salt water using a bean curd press. Zhacai is flavoured with salt, chilli, pepper and a mix of typical local spices like star aniseed, kaempferia galanga, glycyrrhiza, etc. The exact composition of the spice mix is the secret of the manufacturer.

Though covered in chilli, it is not hot but extremely salty and is usually cut to size and soaked to remove the salt before cooking. When only a small amount is used as a seasoning, no soaking is necessary. It should be cooked only briefly to retain the crunchy texture.

The total turnover of the zhacai industry was RMB 6.7 billion in 2019. Roughly two thirds of this turnover are realised in the Chongqing region and one third in the Yuyao region.

Have a look at a Chinese video showing the processing of zhacai. Although it is in Chinese, experts should be able to understand the gist.

Zhacai is an essential ingredient in the famous Hot and Sour Soup. Entire tubers available in glass or stone jars, or cans. Shreds are sold in plastic bags Some manufacturers combine zhacai shreds with shredded mushrooms or other vegetables.

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In recent years, the market for zhacai has expanded considerably, after it had become a kind of leisure food. It is shredded and packed in small aluminium sachets. The shreds can be used to spice up dishes, in particular the more bland convenience foods like instant noodles, or instant congee. Many Chinese even nibble on zhacai shreds in front of the TV.

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On average, 100 gr. of zhacai has the following composition.

 

Substance Content
Water 67.3 gr
Protein 4.4 gr
Fat 1.2 gr
Carbohydrates 5.6 gr
Crude fibre 3.1 gr
Ash 18.4 gr
Calcium 224 mg
Phosphorus 125 mg
Iron 8.1 mg

 

Zhacai: – the pillar of Fuling economy

The Fuling region of Chongqing has always been famous for its zhacai. The local authorities are supporting the development of growing and processing of this vegetable. Zhacai is regarded as the symbol of Fuling and vice versa. The region produced 1.28 million MT of zhacai in 2012. Almost 90% of this was processed into ‘convenience zhacai’. They also intend to promote export. Zhacai is currently the highest valued of the ‘Chinese Local Brands’, with an estimated value of RMB 12.532 billion. Zhacai is often refered to as another name for Fuling. Fuling has given its name to the Fuling Group, China’s largest processor of zhacai. Fuling Group generated a turnover of RMB 1,989,593,123.12 in 2019, up 3.93%.

Fuling is also the home of China’s only research institute specialised in zhacai: the Yudongnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, with a separate Zhacai Research Department.

The importance of the Fuling region is reflected in the fact that China’s top 3 brands of pickled vegetables (so not exclusively zhacai) are all located in there.

Wujiang

Wujiang brand (Fuling Zhacai Group)

Yuquan

Yuquan brand (Yuquan Zhacai Group)

This is the brand we use at home, so I will use the ingredients list of Yuquan zhacai as reference:

zhacai (88%), salt, sugar, sesame oil, rape seed oil, MSG, disodium isonate, citric acid, spices.

Lameizi

Fuliing Lameizi (Lameizi (Hot Sister) Group)

Fuling Zhacai Group announced in August 2017 that a new 40,000 cubic metre production tank will be constructed, involving an investment of RMB 162 mln.

Automation

The Baiheliang Zhacai Factory of the Fuling Zhaicai Group has installed a completely automated production line in 2015.

ZhacaiAuto

From zhacai to soy sauce – an innovative process

An interesting development is the use of the affluent of zhacai processing to produce soy sauce. The Fuling Group, China’s largest manufacturer of zhacai (capacity in 2014: 64,800 mt/p.a.), listed at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, has developed that technology. Moreover, the new soy sauce process no longer includes steps that require manual labour. Work that before required 500 workers, now only needs 30 – 40 people to complete. This is a fine example of how a traditional product can inspire industrial innovation.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.