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, 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, with its population of more than 20 million by some estimates, is starting to see things slow down. Instead, chefs, restaurants and consumers are developing an interest in good, clean and fair food, said Rene van Camp, one of the steering committee members for Slow Food Shanghai. These values have some history in China, though these changed quickly along with China’s modernization and economic rise.
“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, who studied Chinese cooking in the Shanghai Cooking School 19 years ago. “Things changed a lot,” he said. “We used to have bikes, but now everyone has cars.”
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 cooking [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, said he is considering his cooking approach more than he did 10 years ago when he started in the kitchen. In terms of sustainability, he focuses mostly on the purity and cleanliness of water “as this affects the taste and quality of the final dishes I cook.”
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.
Aiming to bring a modern interpretation of Shanghai food to the market, 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.
The company is cutting back on printing recipes and, when they do print them out, it’s double-sided to save paper. They also try to recycle their delivery boxes, and when possible, use glass instead of plastic. The kitchen seeks suppliers selling “green” food, even if it’s more expensive.
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. In one famous case, the discovery of melamine in baby milk powder, hundreds of thousands of children became ill, and scores died.
“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,” Van Camp said.
Add to that a distrust of China’s health-care system. Many people seek ways to avoid going to the hospital and they see food as a big part of that, said Frank Steffen, general manager of a vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai.
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.
At Kush, Steffen 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.
“That is what sustainability means to me,” he said.
His all-Chinese team tries every new dish that is added to the menu, and “though they’re not yet vegetarian,” they 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.
“People are thinking about habits,” he said. “And they know that habits have to change.”
He predicts that “younger generations can grow up with these tastes, and for them it will be classic.”
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photos, from top:
Spring rolls from Kush.
Shredded chicken, ham and bamboo served in broth at LeSheng.
Slow Food Shanhai participants, from left: Rene van Camp, Kimberly Ashton, Amena Schlaikjer, Alice Giusto, Allison van Camp, Mark Laabs, Paul Bergman.
Credits: Manuela Zoninsein