Living la Vida Locavore
Where did that piece of fruit you're snacking on right now come from? Did it travel across China, or around the world, before it made its way to your fruit bowl? Perhaps it's time to find out...
Buying and consuming locally-produced food, commonly called the “locavore” movement, makes a lot of sense for Western consumers, not only because of the environmental impact of transporting food long distances, but also due to the health benefits of eating fresh and in-season produce. However, in China, the situation is very different, with unrelenting food safety scandals and availabity both major causes for concern. So just how logical is locavore living in Shanghai?
Since Austin Hu opened his casual, fine-dining restaurant, Madison, back in 2010, he has become something of a poster boy for Shanghai’s fledgling locavore movement. Never before had a top local restaurant served up such an array of top local produce - with everything from the meat, fruit, veg, and even the beer, sourced primarily from within China.
“There are many reasons that I’ve chosen to source local food here at the restaurant. One, and the most obvious, is the environmental benefit of sourcing local food instead of flying in ingredients from all over the world,” he says, adding that there is more to his locavore philosophy than green-leanings, there is also the issue of taste to consider. “I am of the school that fresher is always better - produce, meat and fish that’s never been frozen - the rule applies to nearly everything.”
Despite these considerations, Shanghai’s chefs (particularly those who were, themselves, sourced and/or trained overseas) are still very much in the habit of importing almost everything in the belief that Chinese products can’t make the fine-dining grade, but Hu, a graduate of some of New York’s finest restaurants, is determined to prove them wrong.
“One of the more frustrating things for me to hear when I first moved back to Shanghai was other people lamenting the lack of good product in China. With the thousands of years of culinary history that China has behind it I found it impossible to believe that there wasn’t good product around,” Hu says.
He continues, “I’m of the firm opinion that the menus I design here in Shanghai should be different than ones I would make in New York, cooking, like wine, embodies a sense of terroir, of the land the surrounds you. Plenty of cooks believe otherwise, but I’ve always wanted my cooking to reflect the world around my restaurant.”
This is all fine and well for a professional chef and restaurateur, but just how easy is it for average Joes and Janes to source good local food products? According to Hu, in some ways, sourcing local produce is easier in China than it would be in the US, for example, because the supply chain here is less developed.
“Agriculture in the US is, for the most part, rather frighteningly industrialized. Between distribution centres and centralized food depots, the amount of time that food can take to go from a farm in California to a supermarket in the same state is frightening,” Hu says. “The systems are generally much simpler here with local farms feeding the local markets.”
Paddock to Plate
To find out about the supply chain at the average supermarket or wet market in China, we asked Richard Yao, a Senior Project Manager at Shenzhen Agricultural Products Co. to describe the standard process in China for food to travel from farmer’s paddock to consumer’s plate.
“Food products usually come to supermarkets or wet markets via wholesalers purchasing the products directly from farms or farmers selling and transporting their products directly to wholesale markets or directly to supermarkets,” Yao explains. “Then sub-distributors and retailers from small markets or purchasers from supermarket and restaurants purchase foods inside the wholesale market every day. Through this distribution network, foods come to our tables.”
What this means in daily life is that at places such as Shanghai Agro-products Central Wholesale Market in Pudong - the city’s largest market of its kind - trucks of all sizes are constantly rolling up to deliver produce from all over the country. Inside the market itself, buyers from Shanghai’s supermarkets haggle over huge quantities of fruits, vegetables and grains that are stacked as far as the eye can see.
This process of supplying fresh, local produce is the backbone of traditions such as Shanghai’s wet markets, which were set up all over the city to supply lilong (laneway) dwellers, who until comparatively recently had almost no refrigeration capabilities, with their daily food needs.
Wet markets in Shanghai are often supplied with food from zi liu di farms, which are located on the outskirts of the city. Mom and pop agriculturalists who were awarded small allotments at the end of the cultural revolution when large, communal farms were broken up, grow vegetables and raise animals such as ducks and chickens on their plots. When these veggies, eggs and meats reach maturity, the farmers drive them directly to the wet market where they also act as salespeople, paying a daily rental fee for a table and waiting for customers to scoop up their hard earned produce.
But recent years have seen some changes in China’s fresh food culture, with a number of factors coming into play. The exodus of residents from lanes to high-rises (complete with refrigerators), an increasingly Western-influenced diet, and constant safety scares concerning Chinese-produced food products have conspired to turn Shanghai’s consumers from a city of locavores, to a bunch of locavoid at all costs.
According to Richard Yao, whereas Westerners are increasingly looking locally for environmental and health reasons, Chinese consumers are turning away from their locavore ways, with other considerations - primarily price and safety - taking precedence. “Eating locally-sourced foods doesn’t mean too much anymore (in China). People care more about the safety of foods, they care about the quality and price of foods; and also they care about the diversity of foods,” he explains.
Take for example, the now infamous case of the “exploding watermelons” which hit the headlines in mid-2011. In Zhejiang, a province neighboring Shanghai, watermelon farmers had paddocks full of fruit spontaneously combusting, with many people speculating that the unintended fireworks were due to the melons being overdosed on growth-promoting chemicals.
Although buying fresh watermelon from near Shanghai would seem like a good idea for health and environmental reasons, unscrupulous agricultural practices currently prevailing throughout China means that this might not actually be as good for you or your family as it looks on paper.
Clean Green Options
Those looking for locally-sourced food without the added chemicals need not despair, as Shanghai is blessed with several credible organic farms in close proximity to the city. Many of these farms allow consumers to visit the farm and buy produce direct from the growers.
Alex Zhu is from Shanghai Organics, the first foreign organic farm in Shanghai, known for producing high quality organic vegetables, cereals and chicken. Their products can be found as City Shop, as well as local food markets around the city.
At the farm itself, 45 kilometers south-west of the city, it quickly becomes apparent how seriously this place takes its organic ethos. With nary a chemical in sight, visitors are encouraged to wander through the rows of lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant and more that spring from the dark, fertile soil. The soil is regularly tested to ensure organic standards are being met, and plants thrive with the assistance of specially filtered water.
According to Zhu, the best way to ensure you are buying simultaneously safe and environmentally-sound locavore produce is to purchase directly from certified organic farmers, an initiative possible with membership to Shanghai Organics and other local organic farms, such as Biofarm.
Having said this, the pragmatic Zhu admits that there is not enough locally-produced organic food to go around, and it will be a long time before Shanghai is able to feed all of its citizens with safe, organic, locally-sourced foods.
He explains, “The more local the food, the less pollution is made and the foods will be fresher than the ones from other country-sides. But, unfortunately, mainstream customers like various foods in China and it’s very difficult for farmers to provide the necessary various foods to a super-city like Shanghai because of insufficient land, climates and the lack of experienced farmers.”
Another option for local consumers are online operators, such as Shanghai-based online organic supermarket, Fields, which stocks a combination of Chinese and international organics (including products from Shanghai Organics), but is working hard to make sure they can supply Shanghai consumers with locally-produced food stuffs wherever possible.
According to Fields co-founder, Steve Liang, sourcing locally-produced organic food is about more than just environmental conscientiousness, it’s about improving Chinese agricultural practices in the long term and, maybe, eventually eradicating the food safety concerns that, at the moment, are standing in the way of a significant local locavore movement.
“We want to support local suppliers trying to change and improve China. We see first-hand their ingenuity in growing products in an organic manner by recycling, nurturing the land and soil, cleaning the water supply, using animals to help manage crops,” Liang says.
And although consumers in Shanghai may not be consciously seeking out a locavore diet just yet, Liang sees a time in the future when local pride, as well as environmental concerns and interest in health benefits, will lead China into the heart of the locavore movement.
“People will want more locally-produced products. If we are going to have a sustainable future, keeping the living standards and improving upon them, people will naturally demand locally-produced products,” Liang says. In fact, he contends, the movement towards locally-sourced foods is already underway. “It’s happening in China right now. People want to bring back the flavors of the past and China’s rich food culture. That starts with well-produced local products and organic farming. Fields wants to be part of this movement.”
As chef and restauranteur, Austin Hu, points out, it is going to be difficult to find artichokes produced in China that compare with those farmed in California and Italy, in part because there is no tradition of growing artichokes in China. That said, China has traditionally grown plenty of produce and can compete with the best in the world in some categories. The following is a guide showing the areas in China which produce the best of the best:
This poor, rural province is famed throughout the land for its pork, particularly that sourced from Anhui’s black pigs, which are known for producing wonderfully marbled and tender meat.
This southern province’s unique terrain makes it the perfect place for mushrooms to grow. Mushroom hunters descend on the province every August (following the rainy season) in order to get their hands on numerous varieties, including the much sought-after “chicken taste mushroom.”
Southern China has always been known for its rice production and many of the grains on sale at Shanghai’s supermarkets are still grown in that region, particularly Guangxi province, which devotes 1.52 million hectares of its land area to production of the staple crop.
Dalian, best known for its sea-faring activities, is also home to China’s wagyu beef production. Though the industry is still a small one, some restaurants here in Shanghai are already serving up the Dalian version of the highly prized, heavily marbled cuts of meat.
Among the most famous teas in China, the Long Jing, or Dragon Well, green tea leaves grown in the village of the same name, not far from Hangzhou, holds a special place. Not only renowned for its taste and high price, its health-giving properties and weightloss benefits are also highly touted.