Slow Food in the fastest growing economy – sustainable cooking in China

The news about China in the Western media is dominated by stories of rapid growth and lightening-speed developments. When you return to China after you last visit, that was half a month ago, you will already notice changes, in particular in the country’s first and second tier cities.

This has not been a totally positive development and that is especially evident in the food industry. Plagued by food safety incidents, Chinese consumers, many of whom change cell phones every half year, to keep up with the latest fashion, are getting nostalgic for the days that all food was safe to eat, that you could only buy fresh fruits and vegetables of the season.

In a previous post, I have collated a number of reports on Community Supported Agriculture in China. This week’s post is a continuation of this theme, focussing on Slow Food.

Slow down, Shanghai

In recent decades, speed has been the name of the game in Shanghai, whether for business, buildings, fashion and food. At the launch of Slow Food Shanghai in December 2011, through presentations from more than 20 farms, restaurants and producers, it was clear Shanghai is increasingly making sustainability a priority.

In some ways, the metropolis is starting to see things slow down. ‘When I was in school, my teacher told me, ‘We have a big country, and we can’t waste things,’‘ recalls Frank Wang, the training manager for all chefs at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai.

Once again, however, Wang sees people starting to save resources. In his classes, he teaches students to use resources very carefully. For example, cooks can save parts of ingredients that don’t look good or are too tough to the touch for use in stocks. ‘Whether Chinese or Western cooking, this is common in both,’ he says.

Fang Chao, the chef at Le Sheng, a contemporary Shanghai restaurant that opened in November 2011, said he is considering his cooking approach more than he did 10 years ago. He has become concerned about the conservation of wildlife, and though it is common to sell shark’s fin in a restaurant serving a traditional Shanghai menu, he and David Laris, the chef behind the concept, have eliminated the dish from their menus. Fang tries to produce food that feels ‘lighter, cleaner and in some cases, a bit more delicate,’ while keeping dishes and flavors authentic. He cuts back on oil, salt and sugar, even though these are ingredients that have long-defined the local cuisine.

Vegetarian alternatives, like fake gluten-based crab meat or the rarely-seen vegetarian dumplings, are included on the menu. Braised crab meat and fish belly, a traditional dish, has been re-imagined. The original cooking method called for soaking the ingredients in oil followed by low-temperature frying. ‘I now prefer to soak [them] in water to avoid this dish being too greasy,’ he said.

At the Grand Hyatt, Wang trains staff to be frugal and conservative with energy and materials. ‘If they leave the kitchen, they need to turn off the light, the fire, the water,’ he said.

For the most part, these chefs believe the sudden flood of attention on green food in Shanghai is a response to food safety scares in recent years. ‘This made the average person more aware and caused more people to at least wonder where the food they are eating may come from,’ Fang said.

After the Slow Food Shanghai chapter was organized, initial research showed that the majority of focus group respondents agreed that they would make a real effort to obtain good, clean and fair food. As Chinese disposable incomes increase along with these trends, people are willing to spend more money being picky with what they consume.

China’s globalization has exposed its citizens to concepts already popular in other parts of the world. These chefs work in cosmopolitan environments and are exposed to the growing awareness of sustainability.

Restaurant Kush aims to use this experience as an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and helping people understand that we’re all living on this world and must learn to work together. The all-Chinese team tries every new dish that is added to the menu, and even those that are not vegetarian care less about cooking with meat or not.

In a country that has experienced unheard-of upheaval and change in a short period of time, these chefs face the future with open minds. Fang thinks it’s possible to cook classic Chinese dishes in new ways because the idea of what is ‘classic’ is also always evolving.


Fast food notion under attack

Pushing for more sustainable, healthy, organic food, and pushing away from an imported, urban fast-food culture is not easy in Beijing.

But recently, three events have at least signalled the start of the movement: The setting up of the Beijing chapter of Slow Food, the commemoration of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day and the inclusion of a ‘Best Sustainable Restaurant’ category in city guide magazine Time Out Beijing‘s annual food awards.

Kerstin Bergmann, a co-leader of the Slow Food Convivium in Beijing, says that since milk scandal of 2008, the demand for clean organic food in Beijing has been growing and that more people are interested in what they are putting into their mouths.

Originally from Italy, the Slow Food movement stands for three things – good clean food sold at a fair price for both consumer and producer and a push towards eating local, all of which is finding empathy in China.

Zhang Zhimin, a local legend of organic sustainable food in China, says one of the biggest reasons why she started a farm was her own concern about food safety. ‘I was getting sick from this chemical that was used in produce,’ says Zhang. ‘So I figured I would try to grow some of my own food.’ Zhang started her farm, God’s Grace Garden, in 2001. The original concept was to grow her own food, but she started giving away extra crops to friends and family. Zhang says her friends and family kept prompting her to start selling, telling her she could make money with her vegetables.

Unwilling to convert her project into a business, Zhang decided to turn her farm into a membership co-share model. Members pay monthly dues and get a share of the produce but are required to take an active role in production.

Dannan Hodge, the Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution ambassador in Beijing, also works with the Beijing farmer’s market association. ‘The organic revolution here is in its infancy stage but it’s growing quite quickly. It’s still predominantly marketed to locals, so part of what we’re trying to do here is to bring in farmers and vendors capable of providing an English-speaking service to foreigners.’ The Beijing farmers market association has over 300,000 fans.

The main problem is spreading the message. The proponents of Slow Food all point out that the most important thing in getting people involved is education. In the past, people used to spend 90% of their income on food, but now it’s become 9% on food. When they buy things like cell phones, they are willing to spend. People are willing to pay more when it’s convenient.

To Zhang and Hodge, the most important step moving forward is to continue educating consumers and making them co-producers of their food, holding individuals accountable for what they eat.


Slow and steady, the Chinese way

It is not a strange innovation imported from abroad. It is the natural Chinese way to eat local, eat slow and eat seasonal. What has changed is the recent waves of intra-provincial migration as labor demands and geographical dislocation move people around.

But Chinese chefs are confident that all these will have little impact on the preservation of regional and traditional cuisines.

‘Most Chinese, when they move to work and live in another city, try to locate places where they can get a taste of home,’ says Fu Yang, general manager and executive chef of Le Quai, a Chinese fusion restaurant based in Beijing.

‘In Beijing, for example, there are less and less real ‘local’ Beijingers. But people still look for traditional Beijing foods.’ Fu’s restaurant became a member of the Slow Food Movement in 2004.

He says that while expatriate and foreign customers recognize that status, many Chinese diners do not understand the meaning of the snail logo on the eatery’s facade. He admits, though, that the restaurant’s Slow Food member status has helped create media awareness and good publicity.

Some chefs think the influx of migrants from other provinces help diversify the culinary scene. ‘Restaurants have become increasingly fusion now,’ says Qu Hao, China’s national level cuisine master. ‘In Beijing, for example, there used to be mostly Shandong cuisine, but now there are Sichuan and many other food styles.’

Qu runs a training academy for chefs in China and is schooled in traditional Shandong cuisine, the mother lode for Imperial style dishes. But his experiences include a range of other cuisines, including most of the major culinary styles in China. For example, Qu says, the crisp celery from Shandong’s Majiagou and ‘iron pole’ Chinese yam from Henan province are two vegetables that have caught the attention of chefs in Beijing, and this has helped value and productivity.

Fu says his restaurant buys most ingredients from local producers, and at least a third are organic. ‘Food safety concerns have made me even more determined not to use any dubious ingredients, and trade only with major suppliers,’ says Fu.

At a recent event at the Beijing Organic Farmers’ Market, local gourmet Shu Qiao stressed the importance of preserving heirloom food and produce that face gradual extinction. The media is also playing its part in pushing this awareness.

Qu says the Slow Food Movement may attract a certain target group, but most young Chinese face pressures at work and demands on time. For them, a quick meal is the answer and many eat out instead of taking the time to cook at home. For that reason, the Slow Food Movement as it is interpreted in the West may take longer to establish its foundations here.

Slow Food Festival in Chengdu, September 2017

Chengdu (Sichuan) will host the seventh Slow Food International Congress Meeting this September, expecting to draw the public’s attention to the sustainable food industry and to eating healthily. Lorenzo Berlenghis, vice-president of Slow Food International, said it is the first time the festival, which takes place every four years, has chosen an Asian city for its venue, after careful evaluation. Chinese philosophy says that food is the first essential of human life, and the same rule applies across the world, Berlenghis said. “Slow Food International has always respected the endeavor Chengdu has made in preserving Chinese culinary culture and local ingredients,” he said.

During the event, 600 delegates from over 90 countries and regions, including experts from global enterprises, as well as other leading figures and scholars, will bring their experience to Chengdu, holding mindful conversation and dialogues on slow food and to shed more light into how to push the industry forwards. “Food is a vital part in economic innovation,” said Yin Jianzai, deputy head of Chengdu Commission of Commerce. “We will spare no effort to help the Slow Food International Association to hold this event in Chengdu, and I believe the city will bring new perspectives to the slow food festival.” Yin said at the same time, the city will hold its food and travel festival to give guests a better understanding and experience of the local food and culture.

“I have been to Chengdu twice and I love it very much,” said Huang Yongyue, vice-consul general of the Chinese Consulate General in Milan, Italy. “I remembered when I was there in 1990 and I sat in the tea house with a pot for the whole afternoon. It was really nice.” Huang added that Chengdu has a perfect combination of fast development and a slow lifestyle, and he would love to come back to the city, walk down its streets and try its famous foods. He also wished that Chengdu can play an important role in the Belt and Road Initiative, and lead western China to open up to the rest of the world.

Agreement with China to make way for the red ecolabel

During his current visit to China, Danish Minister for Environment and Food, Esben Lunde Larsen, signed a five-year cooperation agreement in Beijing on control of organic products early May, 2017. The goal of the agreement is to pave the way for the Chinese to recognise the Danish government control and inspection concept. The costs of flying Chinese experts to Denmark and of managing the large numbers of technical certificates are a huge burden on small and medium-sized Danish companies. They represent a barrier to exports to China. However, it is hoped that now that the deal has been signed, Danish organic exports will now meet fewer obstacles. Under the agreement, Denmark and China will also be exchanging knowledge and experience. Furthermore, experts will be training each other’s personnel to establish a mutual understanding of the two countries’ approach to producing organic food products and effective control of organic products to avoid duplicate controls by both Danish and Chinese authorities in the future.

Accelerating new projects

A food tech accelerator hopes to help tackle the new challenges in agriculture in China. Matilda Ho founded of Bits x Bites in Shanghai in 2017. Ho, originally from Taiwan, worked as a consultant for BCG and Ideo on Chinese food projects before launching her own food startup, Yimishiji, in 2015. The startup is an online farmers’ market that connects Shanghai consumers with chemical-free produce delivered by electric bikes.

One as-yet-unnamed startup in the accelerator now is developing noodles and other foods made from silkworm flour. The worms are a byproduct of the silk industry–making a pound of silk can require as many as 3,000 cocoons with insects inside. These are occasionally served in restaurants, but most of them are simply discarded. However, they can also be a healthy source of protein.

Another startup, Frugee, is making cold-pressed, high-pressure pasteurized juice from fruits and vegetables, which it markets as an alternative to eating salad. Chinese prefer prepared food, preferably hot, but at least marinated or pickled, and still find it hard to get used to the Western habit of eating raw vegetables In fact, such juices are currently very popular in Japan, where young busy people seem to drink more vegetables that they eat them. Better to drink vegetables than not getting enough of them. Many Western nutritionist may frown when reading this, but it is a discussion similar to that about public nutrition introduced in another post of this blog.

The third startup, Alesca Life, produces hydroponic farms in shipping containers and the software to run them and is already installing systems in both Beijing and Dubai, focusing first on hotels that want to grow produce for their restaurants. Hydroponic and aeroponic farming is becoming more common in some regions of China, and Ho thinks it will quickly grow–partly because China has to feed around 20% of the world’s population with only 7% of the arable land. Interestingly, this also seems to follow a trend that has started earlier in Japan.

Ho is hoping that as more food tech companies around the world hear about the accelerator, they’ll be interested in bringing their own solutions to China. She also hopes to begin to change the food industry as a whole. Already, major Chinese food companies are visiting the startup each week, exploring ways to start their own food incubators or work on projects in the space. But Ho says that much greater participation is needed.

Slow food in Sichuan

The International Slow Food Movement has signed a partnership agreement with Sichuan University in 2017. It makes a lot of sense for the Movement to use the region of origin of China’s most famous regional cuisine as its foothold in the region. It is the best choice for this type of activity as Sichuan people take food very seriously and eat their meals slowly to increase the time of enjoyment.

1000 ‘Slow Food Villages’ within five years

The head of the China branch of Slow Food International plans for the development of 1000 “Slow Food Villages” across the country over the next five years. “In recent years, China has shifted towards a greener, environmental and ecological model of growth so the conditions are now right for us to get more involved in Slow Food,” Sun Qun, secretary general of Slow Food Great China, said after the close of the annual Slow Food International Congress, which was held in Chengdu, capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, from September 29 to October 1, 2017. As a country, China has been involved in the movement for just two years, but the local branch has big plans for the future. Sun said the concept of the Slow Food Village would be a first for China, and the community of Anren, in Dayi county near Chengdu, had been selected as the pilot for the scheme. Detailed plans for the development of Anren would be released before the end of this year, Sun said.

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