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Maison Boulud has held its ground as one of the best-regarded high-end dining destinations in Beijing since opening a couple of months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At its helm sits Brian Reimer, the executive chef and director of operations in Asia for Dinex, also known as the Daniel Boulud Restaurant Group. Having lived in Beijing for six years, after working for three years as executive sous chef at Restaurant Daniel in New York, I wanted to learn about how these experiences have impacted him.
Reimer and I moved to Beijing about the same time. I first met him when I was dining editor for Time Out Beijing, when the city was in a building craze and citizens waited with bated breath (and grumbling stomachs) to see which of the newly-arrived fancy restaurants would survive the test of time.
What brought you to Beijing originally?
The opportunity to continue my time with Chef Daniel Boulud was one of the driving factors. For us both the idea of having the chance to open a French restaurant in Beijing at the old American Legation was incredibly exciting. Through the continued cooperation we still have to this day with Chef Daniel (a Frenchman) and myself (an American), it simply made sense to take full advantage of this unique venture.
What kept you in Beijing all these years?
As you grow in this craft of cooking and hospitality, you focus more on the larger picture. Of course the cuisine and aspects of service continue to be the most important factors.
The ability to see a space such as ours filled with such history and to now add our small mark on its importance it’s priceless. Coupled with the ability to see our staff grow as individuals and as a team — it’s the most wonderful feeling to be a part of this.
What challenges has Maison Boulud faced serving foreign food to a Chinese clientele?
We have of course run into a few occasions where the guests do not fully understand some of the cuisine. But the education of the guests with the experience of traveling abroad is fantastic.
What changes have you seen amongst your clientele over the years?
Even within just these past six years the knowledge of our guests at Maison Boulud continues to coincide with the growth of the city. It is being brought to the point where the product and supplies now available here are on par with other top cities in Asia.
What trends are you noticing in fine dining in Beijing?
The attention to detail of so many of the restaurants in Beijing and their offering a wide selection of cuisines. It is the diversity that makes Beijing, well, Beijing.
What makes the kitchen culture at Maison Boulud unique, given you have a mixed foreign-local team?
When interviewing new staff we search for them to have a predispostion to serve. It’s what makes our staff stand out in the market. We want to be able to read the guest and anticipate what they will require before they have to ask for it.
Name a culinary lesson you learned working in China?
Coach Your Team. We use the acronym CYT. It means to have to continue to instill what we are trying to serve our guests and reiterate this point time and time again.
What is the best-selling dish at Maison Boulud?
Our menus here at Maison Boulud are very seasonally focused. It’s a cornerstone of everything Daniel Boulud stands for. In the spring time, we have white asparagus from France on the menu and morel mushrooms from Yunnan with hand-rolled potato gnocchi. Our chilled tomato soup comes in the summer. Squash soup is served in the autumn which turns into a celery-chestnut soup in the winter time. We have people who look forward to the harbingers of the upcoming season. Of course we always look forward to welcoming in the bounty of each changing season.
To photo: Brian Reimer. Credit: Courtesy of Mason Boulud
Communist writing tends to be dry and not food-inspired literature. So it is surprising that Lu Xun, one of China’s most famed 20th-century authors who counted Mao Zedong among his fans, used it as a central element of his popular short story, “Kong Yiji.” (孔乙己).
Words and food have been cultural dancing partners throughout China’s history. Confucius used culinary themes thousands of years ago, for example. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), artists, poets, scholars and other literati gathered to discuss their work in teahouses and over intricate meals. Using seasonal ingredients was valued, as were balanced delicate meals. Even locavorism had an early heyday, as foods focused on nearby regions were preferred to showcase local styles.
Shaoxing’s unique food traditions
Lu was born and raised in Shaoxing not far from an epicenter of Song Dynastic literary and culinary experimentation based in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Lu’s integration of food in his short story, however, is used uniquely as a tool to demonstrate class differences rather than as an extended form of embellishment.
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Whereas nearby Shanghai is known for soy sauce just to the north, Shaoxing is famous internationally for its wine (as recently featured in the popular documentary series, “A Bite of China“) and its stinky fermented tofu. Zhejiang generally is notable within Chinese cuisine as one of the famed “Eight Culinary Traditions” for its light, fresh flavors that are less greasy than Shanghainese cuisine. It is also respected for tea production, especially the green varietal called Longjing that is produced around Hangzhou. Dishes featuring local freshwater fish and a braised chicken dish known as “drunken chicken” similarly focus on local ingredients.
The story, and its historic setting, inspired the creation of a successful chain of restaurants also named Kong Yiji. There are four locations in Beijing and one in Shanghai. These are perennially packed and generally well-respected by locals and expats alike for their food. While a bit pricier than your average dinner spot, they are considered a good bargain for your renminbi. My friend and I decided to check it out and see what parts of Lu’s story made it onto the menu, and if it’s any good.
Dishes from food-inspired literature
Lu Xun never reveals Kong Yiji’s real name. Instead, Kong Yiji is the nickname given to the character by bar-goers and bartenders to poke fun at his educated airs, referencing the name of common Chinese characters used to teach children Chinese calligraphy. Kong himself never passed the Imperial Examinations to become a true scholar, yet he wears the long robes expected of such a position.
When he orders his warmed wine scooped out of the earthen bowl where it is fermented, he uses high-brow language, attracting the ridicule of other customers. I tried the Shaoxing wine at the restaurant and it was dark and savory, an unexpected surprise in a regional cuisine that integrates sweetness in unexpected places.
For example, the stinky deep-fried tofu (zhao chou doufu) was smoky as usual, though less pungent than other varieties I’ve tried in Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. It was accompanied by a sweet “sour berry” (suan mei) sauce like a chutney in both flavor and consistency. I have never seen such an extreme a gap between the savory and sweet elements in Chinese food. It was also unusual for the dish to include something in jelly-like form spread atop the main ingredient. It worked well, like a stinky cheese would if paired with quince paste.
In Lu’s story, Kong often orders a plate of aniseed-flavored broad beans (huixiang dou) as his bar snack, so when I ordered it at Kong Yiji as an appetizer, I expected something lowbrow and simple, suitable for pairing with booze as with the salty, deep-friend version sold nationally at convenience shops and offered for free at bars today. Instead, the beans had been steamed and were soft and giving. The flavor was simultaneously smoky and sweet, unfurling slowly so my mouth was entertained as can be expected of sophisticated restaurant food.
I don’t eat meat or fish so I didn’t try the seafood or drunken chicken but my dining partner shared a dish with me mixing chopped bits of steamed shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, green beans and niangao, a chewy glutinous rice cake. We chose it mainly to test the boiled bamboo component, which is the other bar food Kong orders (zhusun) because, Lu stresses in his writing, it costs merely an extra penny when ordered alongside the broad beans (and Kong must be frugal with his money). The dish cleverly balanced the many textures and flavors, but as far as bamboo goes it was bland and slightly overcooked. It was no match for the tofu or broad bean dishes.
Kong Yiji’s restaurant owners took inspiration from Lu Xun to replicate a period and place in Chinese culinary history when high-end food was appreciated by high society. The outlet we went to, near Chaoyang Park’s west gate, has a cultivated river flowing through the dark wood floor, which is separated into island sections where tables and booths provide some privacy. The male waiters run around wearing black suit pants and vests, and the women wear long red qipao dresses, the female version of the floor-length robes scholars wore during Lu Xun’s era. Today, even the servers have a right to dress in refinery. Even more modern, they take your order on electronic handheld devices and wear earpieces used by the kitchen to inform them when food is ready for pickup.
Lu wrote during a period of dramatic societal upheaval in China, often exploring anxieties related to his educated background at a time when shifting class conditions prioritized the masses instead. He most likely would not have been pleased by my Kong Yiji dining experience, but Kong Yiji the literary figure would probably have felt proud.
Top photo: Diners at Kong Yiji restaurant in Chaoyang Park, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Chinese meat demand overtook that of the United States in 1992, and according to the Earth Policy Institute, the Chinese were eating more than double the amount of meat that Americans were consuming last April.
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Traditionally, Chinese cuisine demanded far less meat than today’s Western diets as it was often used sparingly for stocks and sauces, as flavoring or as garnish to add texture to veggie-based dishes. Meat, especially pork, has always signified wealth and thus, with rising incomes, Mainlanders in China have wholeheartedly embraced a meat-heavy diet to demonstrate success. Pork and also fish are particularly important at business meals, as conspicuous consumption is said to “give face,” or demonstrate prestige and respect, to guests.
Chefs teaching classic Chinese vegetarian recipes
Not all Chinese are moving in this direction, though. I recently attended a monthly cooking class hosted at Tianchu Miaoxiang organized by Sixth Step Buddhist Retreat, a program that invites Beijing residents to spend a weekend in nature, meditating and learning about the Buddhist lifestyle.
Each month, free classes are organized to help residents learn how to cook non-meat dishes using seasonal ingredients. This time, Chef Tian, a Sichuanese chef, taught us to cook with mushrooms, eggplant and Chinese yam, known in Mandarin as “shanyao” 山药 This tuber is grown in areas surrounding Beijing and throughout northern China.
Before winter comes to an end, head to your local Chinatown or Asian specialty food shops and take advantage of these two (translated) recipes.
I included the Chinese ingredient names for rare items so you can show this to the shopkeeper, assuming s/he can read Chinese characters.
Faux Coral Fish Rolls (珊瑚鱼卷)
The original recipe suggests imitation fish 素鱼一条 but I don’t like to cook with imitation meats and moreover this will be hard to find outside of Greater China.
For the fish rolls:
1 package tofu skins 豆腐皮
1 kilogram shitake mushrooms 鲜香菇
1 kilogram winter bamboo 冬笋
1 medium-sized carrot 胡萝卜
1 kilogram eryngii mushrooms 杏鲍菇 (or any other type of mushroom you enjoy)
1 bunch coriander 香菜
½ green and red bell pepper each 青红椒
1 celery stalk 芹菜(for garnish)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder (non-meat bullion works) 蘑菇精
Optional: 1 can of imitation ham 素火腿 (can be bought at Chinese shops)
1. Cut the tofu skins into squares about 3×3 inches (these will be used like taco shells).
2. Julienne the shitake, bamboo, carrot and eryngii.
3. Separate the coriander leaves from the stems and save both.
4. Thinly slice the bell peppers and if you’d like, the imitation ham.
5. Take the celery and slice thinly length-wise; flute the tail.
6. Steep all ingredients in water until ready to use (the celery tails will curl).
7. Take all ingredients out of the water and layer atop the tofu skins. Roll the tofu skins up (like a soft taco or burrito), then tie closed with the coriander stems; set aside.
8. Microwave the tofu rolls for 1 minute.
For the sauce:
3 grams oil
Minced ginger to taste
10 grams ketchup
5 grams tomato sauce
10 grams sugar
8 grams white vinegar 白醋
½ cup of water
1. In a wok, heat the oil and cook the ginger until fragrant, then add the ketchup, tomato sauce until bubbling then add sugar and white vinegar; cook until the sugar melts and add a ½ cup of water until it boils.
2. Take the boiled tomato sauce and pour atop the micro-waved rolls; use the bell pepper strips and fluted celery to garnish.
XO Sauce Eggplant Sticks (XO 茄条)
Serves 8 to 10 as an amuse-bouche, canapé or appetizer
2 Asian eggplants (the long variety not the round one), sliced into sticks (the size of French fries will do)
2grams minced ginger
XO sauce (a fermented and flavorful fish paste available at any Asian goods food shop; as it’s usually made with shrimp or fish, if you are vegan ask for 素XO浆)
2 grams garlic oil (you can make this by adding a few garlic heads to vegetable oil and letting it sit)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder
8 to 10 narrow cocktail glasses
1. Place the eggplant on a microwave-safe plate and cover with plastic wrap; microwave for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, place the cooked eggplant, ginger, garlic oil, salt, and mushroom powder together and mix together until ingredients are distributed evenly.
3. Spoon the eggplant mixture into the cocktail glasses and press down.
4. Spoon XO sauce atop the mixture, garnish with the coriander leaves leftover from the tofu rolls.
Crispy Chinese Yam (酥山药)
200 grams Chinese yam
Tempura powder (to coat)
Spiced salt (a dash)
Green and red bell pepper, minced (for garnish)
1. Cut the yam into ½-inch slices and blanch in boiling water briefly before dropping into cold water and leaving until ready to use again.
2. Pour oil into a wok until it is about 2 inches deep and heat until 250 F (or the surface is starting to undulate).
3. Take the yam slices and drop into the tempura powder until evenly coated, then drop into the oil and deep fry until the exterior turns a golden yellow; remove with chopsticks or a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to let dry.
4. Drop the minced red and green pepper and drop into the wok with the remaining oil, fry until fragrant and then add the fried yam slices, turning over in the oil until evenly cooked. 5. Sprinkle with spiced salt.
6. Remove with slotted spoon onto plate; eat immediately.
Top photo: Eggplants in cups. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
A slew of recent news means we can no longer ignore that the planet is groaning under the weight of 7 billion-plus humans. The good news is that one of the most effective ways to minimize our personal negative effect on the environment is with our food choices. Going meatless is helpful anywhere in the world, but eating vegetarian in China can also be surprisingly easy and satisfying.
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The evidence of human impact on the globe is everywhere. Two years of drought in Texas forced legislators to focus their attention on the water supply, and a report released in January by the United Kingdom’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers showed 30% to 50% of all food produced globally gets wasted because of systemic inefficiencies, never making it to people’s plates.
In Beijing, you may have heard that air quality readings from the U.S. embassy broke all past records since figures were first released in 2008, skyrocketing to averages up to 22.7 times the standard the World Health Organization considers healthy. The Beijing city government recently closed more than 100 nearby factories and ordered one-third all government cars off the road.
The change can start with your dinner plate
We all know we should do our part in minimizing environmental impact, but the recommendations are confusing, conflicting, misleading or just plain inconclusive. Except for one very obvious habit that is part of our daily lives and over which we all have control: the way we eat. By reducing the amount of meat each individual consumes, especially beef, we can immediately reduce our impact in terms of water, land, air and energy, to name but a few key issues.
Regarding water, here’s an amazing tidbit: If you gave up showering for one year, you’d still save less water than what’s required to make a single pound of beef. One pound of beef consumes more than three times the water a pound of pork does, and six times more than chicken.
In terms of land use, it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. That’s 94% more land. And 94% more pesticides, which, along with fertilizers, are responsible for using 40% of the energy expended for agriculture purposes. All told, livestock eat 70% of all the grain we produce.
As for greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide agriculture is responsible for 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions, with about 18% attributed to livestock alone, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. That doesn’t include carbon wastes attendant to meat production, such as cutting down forest to start a farm, fertilizer and diesel fuel to grow the corn, and truck exhaust from shipping cows.
Beyond carbon, livestock produces about 50% and 70%, respectively, of overall anthropogenic CH4 (methane) and N2O (nitrous oxide) emissions. Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-CO2 GHGs put together.
Meat production contributes disproportionately to energy consumption, in part because feeding grain to livestock to produce meat instead of feeding it directly to humans involves a huge energy loss. The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated our system necessitates 3 calories of energy to create 1 calorie of edible food. Other foods require more, for instance grain-fed beef, requiring 35 calories to produce 1 calorie.
AAs Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said of cutting down meat consumption: In terms of “immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.” Every small step is valuable. Simply start with one meat-free day a week. I started with Meat Free Mondays, the movement begun by Paul McCartney.
Where to start eating vegetarian in China
Despite all the dirt on Beijing, there are plenty vegetarian options in the Chinese capital — a whopping 30, according to the list compiled by Tianchu Miaoxiang (click the tab “Beijing Veg Map”). Here’s a quick list of my personal favorites from least to most expensive, so when you visit you too can savor the incredible flavors, creativity and breadth of Chinese vegetarian cuisine.
- Xu Xiang Zhai: This cozy eatery is nestled behind the Confucius Temple on charming Guozijian Road, which is across the street from the must-see Lama Temple. Daily all-you-can eat buffet lunch (68 Chinese Yuan Renminbi or about $11 per person) spans a mind-boggling variety of classic Chinese dishes, including top-notch cold dishes.
- SuHu: Located across from the East Gate of Tsinghua University in the Wudaokou student district, this is popular with students, professors and the tech community who work in Zhongguancun, which is China’s Silicon Valley. Vegetarian lion, as the restaurant’s name means, sells a great selection of vegetarian products to take-away.
- Tianchu Miaoxiang: Like the two aforementioned, its classic home-style Chinese dishes are entirely re-imagined or re-created using meat substitutes. But what makes the two locations of “Heaven’s Chef Fantasy” so special is the restaurants’ focus on seasonality, reflected in rotating specials. Cold dishes, soups and iron skillet eggplant are my regular go-to’s.
- Pure Lotus: This is perhaps the most famous veggie eatery in town, even among carnivores. It is known for its evocative and imperial setting, attentive and knowledge service, and encyclopedic, yet poetic, menu descriptions of delicious dishes that are plated carefully to recall misty mountains and romantic dalliances.
- King’s Joy: The newest addition to Beijing’s non-meat eating scene is also the most upscale, located in a beautifully renovated courtyard setting (ie: traditional Ming Dynasty style aristocratic home) with modern, but minimal, interiors and posh, hushed environs best for impressing guests.
King’s Joy restaurant in Dongcheng District. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
The most widely-viewed food film of this year is probably one you’ve never heard of. Called “Shejianshang de Zhongguo” in Mandarin — variously translated into “A Bite of China,” “Tasting China,” “Taste of China” or “China on the Tongue” — it deserves your immediate attention. Although it has Mandarin narration and subtitles, the language barrier is slowly lifting thanks to the efforts of Chinese-speaking foodies who crowd-sourced English subtitles. Now you have no excuse not to hunker down this winter and learn about the magic of Chinese cuisine. Salivate at your own risk.
A food TV hit
For a sense of the documentary’s popularity, consider that the week in May that it aired on the national documentary channel China Central Television (CCTV) 9, viewer ratings spiked 30% to new highs for that time period. The film beat the popular drama series that normally aired during that prime-time slot, according to China Daily.
Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, counted 2 million updates in reference to “Bite of China” and China’s behemoth online shopping portal Taobao.com had searches for food on the site double at that time. Five days after the series went on air, nearly 6 million shoppers searched on Taobao for local food specialties mentioned in the documentary, resulting in 7.2 million purchases. Sales of smoked ham produced by a family featured in the film grew 17-fold during that time period. The series has since been licensed and aired on national television in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
‘A Bite of China’ a technical marvel
Filming and editing techniques are astounding: the sounds and sights are captured with such precision and highlighted in so detailed and intimate a manner viewers can’t help but feel as though they are a part of the action. The first episode, “Gifts from Nature,” focuses on matsutake mushrooms (called songrong in Chinese).These are the bounty of an early-morning foraging excursion in Shangri-La, based in Yunnan province, and they sizzle and pop so vivaciously they may as well be atop one’s own frying pan.
“Bite of China” is the country’s first food film made with hi-definition video filming equipment. It took 13 months to shoot starting in March 2011 under the direction of Chen Xiaoqing. The sheer manpower, determination and perseverance it took is evident, requiring three researchers, eight directors, 15 cameramen and three editors to capture footage from 70 locations throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Only that kind of time and effort could have produced such an intimate look into people’s lives, which is what most stands out long after watching the documentary, more so even than the breathtaking landscapes and mouth-watering delicacies depicted. The food purveyors and producers become such larger-than-life characters, they begin to approach idealized archetypes. Viewers learn about the intricate and other-wordly process by which lotus roots are extricated from holes dug several feet deep into desolate muddy swampland. They see up-close the fingers of a little girl learning how to mix flour for noodles with her grandmother in the second episode. These segments give an insight into the intricate history, culture, pride and workmanship that each bite of Chinese cooking can embody and inspire.
Skepticism and criticism
Nevertheless, one must view any work produced by state-run CCTV with a critical eye. The Asia Society blog has a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of the myriad Chinese netizen responses to the series. There is undeniably a strong push to rouse Chinese people’s national pride. China’s reality is often much rockier and inequitable than the idealized, peacefully diverse country portrayed in the film. Environmental issues and urbanization are hardly mentioned, nor is the disenfranchisement of a massive rural population who is actually responsible for growing and gathering the crops required to feed the nation. Episode 3, “Conversion of Inspiration,” focuses on time-tested food-processing techniques like fermentation, curing and steeping. Oddly, it never mentions China’s head-long rush into modernization and industrialization over the past 30 years, which are in part to blame for a haphazard food safety regulatory system and a focus on quantity over quality that permitted recent food safety crises to repeatedly arise.
Second installment on deck
Whether this is your first foray into Chinese cuisine or a return to familiar territory, it’s hard not to fall in love with “Bite of China,” or at least to walk away hungry. I’m excited to watch the second installment of the documentary, set to be released in 2013.
In the meantime, Mandarin speakers can watch the original on CCTV’s website. Otherwise, I was able to find translations of all “Bite of China” episodes on YouTube, though I can’t vouch for their complete accuracy. To view the Chinese version, carefully cut and paste this text into your search browser: 舌尖上的中国，英文字母
Top image: Food documentary “A Bite of China.” Credit: CCTV
My friends abroad hear about the food safety crises that erupt either in China or from food products grown and manufactured in China, and they assume all food in China is toxic. So they’re always surprised when they learn it’s not all exploding watermelons, milk infused with melamine or dumplings stuffed with cardboard here in Beijing. I eat organic-grown and locally sourced food nearly every day. Brought to my door on a weekly basis, I have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization called Shared Harvest (or Fenxiang Shouhuo, in Chinese) to rely upon this fall season.
Organic food is growing in popularity in China, so it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that I can eat food grown without chemicals. According to the state-run China Daily, Lohao, a leading retailer of organic food, sales revenue increased by about 30% during 2011. A story in TriplePundit indicates that, “in 2010 alone, 345 companies obtained a certification from the China Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC),” which was an increase of 18% year on year. In June 2008, Greenpeace commissioned Ipsos Marketing to conduct a survey of consumers in Beijing. The study found that 68% of consumers buy organic food and 80% “state that they definitely would buy organic food in the future.”
Hurdles for China’s organic farmers
What is unique about Shared Harvest, the CSA I trust to deliver me 4 kilos (8.8 pounds) of fresh veggies every Wednesday afternoon, is that the organization is training farmers, on their own land, to cultivate crops using organic methods. This is unusual in Beijing, where organic food suppliers, like these 60 identified by Greenpeace in 2008, typically either purchase or rent private arable land and then hire farmhands to work the land with organic methods. With Shared Harvest, farmers retain control of their land, receive organic training, and then are assured a steady income through the community of Beijing-based consumers who commit to long-term delivery schemes.
Note that “organic” differs from “organic-grown.” These farmers do not yet meet the rigorous organic certification standards because the lands haven’t spent three years sans chemicals. As such, we CSA participants are not only educating the farmers and giving them reliable income; we are also helping them through the choppy learning and financial transition phase leading to organic farming.
During my master’s dissertation field research in Yunnan province in southern China, I learned that one of the biggest factors keeping farmers from turning away from the use of chemical pesticides during food production is the need for certainty. That is, “certainty” that crops will grow regularly, regardless of weather or pests; and “certainty,” therefore, that they will be able to make money when selling products on the market.
Farmers know that organic goods can fetch a higher price, which is an incentive to grow them, but the lack of reliable methods to ensure consistent yields means they can’t confidently sell every season. Moreover, as there is complete lack of trust that labels on products made in China are actually what they claim to be, organic produce often is overlooked by consumers who would rather not spend up to 300% the price of regular produce just to get duped. In turn, the organic market is only growing in fits and starts and won’t necessarily ensure steady income for farmers.
There are reliable organic methods for growing produce, but the Chinese government, for various reasons, doesn’t provide the training needed to help these farmers learn best practices nor to purchase or implement new sustainable technologies. Of course, it is a long, complicated and paperwork-laden process to attain any official organic certification (be it from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, or China’s homegrown bodies China Organic Food Certification Center and the China Green Food Development Center).
A personal connection with China’s organic farmers
While my 12-week package with Shared Harvest is two to three times more expensive than what I would pay at the local market, it is absolutely worth the cost. For one, I have the opportunity to support and build a relationship with local producers: I receive updates in Chinese and English on how things are going on the farm, and there are regular trips to work and cook with the farmers and to observe farming practices myself. Perhaps more important, at least to me as consumer, I am confident that what I’m getting is actually organic-grown, which can’t be overstated because mislabeling is rampant.
Last week, tucked alongside my produce I found a browned piece of paper, the weekly “Shared Harvest Newsletter” outlining the produce I received: “sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin [squash], beets, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, coriander, choy sum, bok choy, shallot, and a selection of green leaves.” The newsletter also provided useful tips on how to store vegetables and an explanation that the chickens are not laying eggs as regularly during the cold months and so customers who also order eggs might need to be patient.
The newsletter thanks readers for trusting in Shared Harvest as it develops, explaining, “It seems like we are families rather than just business and customers.” I can’t imagine a better message for Thanksgiving.
Top photo: Farmers learning organic techniques in Beijing. Credit: Shared Harvest