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Buy Local, Eat Slow

By Mary K. Smith | China Daily | Updated: 2012-05-21 10:29

Buy Local, Eat Slow 

Slow Food. Organic produce. Traceable ingredients. Sustainable agriculture. Reducing "food miles". In one of the largest nations on earth, food has always been a top concern, and now both producers and consumers are learning a whole new lexicon of terms. Mary K. Smith files this report from Shanghai.

Austin Hu is chef and owner of Shanghai's New American cuisine restaurant Madison, nestled in the heart of the former French Concession area. When he began his search for quality domestic produce in China, he was repeatedly told that there were none. His best and safest bet was to import everything.

"I'm Chinese-American by descent, so it bothers me when a country is this massive and you tell me you can't find anything," Hu says. "With so many people, with such history - culinary and culturally - the fact that people say there are no good vegetables ... that is impossible and it doesn't make any sense."

As a chef for more than 10 years in the United States working in restaurants that followed "buy local" mantras, Hu was determined to find quality ingredients in and around Shanghai.

He may be among the small minority of chefs in China taking the time to search out quality, local ingredients, but he is part of a growing global movement that has made its way into the country: Slow Food.

The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 by Italian Carlo Petrini, quickly spreading to Europe, US, Australia and New Zealand.

It has made its way to China, and its main motivators are looking to help the Chinese return to the culinary traditions of their ancestors and move away from fast food culture - also recently imported from the West.

The establishment of Slow Food Shanghai, which was launched at the end of last year, has been well received by the target group the founders hoped to attract: a local audience.

One major concern for the founders, mostly expatriates currently, was how not to make it a "foreign" organization.

But ever since the first event, "there was a great local interest in the community", says Allison Van Camp, a nutrition consultant and one of the Slow Food Shanghai pioneers. She says the immediate interest can largely be attributed to China's culinary heritage and history.

"China has one of the richest slow food cultures in the world right now," says Mark Laabs, another Slow Food Shanghai founder. "There is still a lot of small farming, and a deep attachment to the food you're eating when you get out of China's larger cities."

The urbanization spike in the last 20 years has moved people from small hometowns and familiar farms to bigger cities, and these people remember the close proximity they once had with their food, he adds.

The issues and challenges for slow food movements in China are different from those in the US, where culinary traditions were lost decades ago as the agricultural industry drastically changed from the 1960s to the 80s.

China has not yet lost its traditions, although some may argue they are already at risk.

"Here, there's a mix of new generation trends as well as preservation of traditions that aren't all the way gone yet, but are endangered," Labbs says.

Hu, the chef, echoes Laabs' opinion that China is a lot better off than the US in reverting to culinary traditions that recent generations followed.

"There's a growing number that are already going back to their roots, who can still remember what it tastes like to have vegetables grown from their parents' home village," he says.

He says that China has an advantage in preserving culinary heritage as Chinese cuisines are much more oriented to seasonal foods. What he tries to champion are the small farms and businesses trying to hold on to, or revert to time-tested practices.

He says it's a matter of effort on the chef's part to be responsible for sourcing good ingredients. For Hu, this task comes naturally.

"One of the things I enjoy about my job is to challenge myself and make myself work within constraints," he says. "I think it makes you better as a cook and as a chef."

While Hu tries to do his part for the local, regional and domestic farming and food communities, one of the biggest hurdles for the Shanghai Slow Food team has been this: Connecting farmers with consumers.

"When we talk to the producers, the farmers, we find increasing challenges with distribution systems," says Renee Van Camp, also with Slow Food. "If we don't take care of those farmers, they will disappear. If they don't find a way to sell their produce, they'll go under."

It's not just local farmers in need of support. There are many traditional culinary practices that are at risk of elimination.

Qianwanlong Heritage Soy Sauce Factory in Shanghai is one of the last companies to produce soy sauce in the traditional and "slow" way.

Other factories produce the staple food item in some 20 days, but Heritage's process takes anywhere from six months to two years.

While the company has been around for some 130 years and has received awards and recognitions, Zhang Huizhong, the general manager, says it's not easy to compete with companies that are mass-producing sauces quickly.

"The biggest challenge I think our factory faces is money," he says. "With the limitation of the production scale, we cannot produce much soy sauce and support the costs associated with maintaining the factory's development."

He hopes that the company can attract foreign interest, and possibly even foreign capital, so that it can expand production and product range. The future is uncertain as to how long the factory can operate and whether it will be able to expand, yet Zhang is hopeful.

"I really hope we can stick to this method of making soy sauce and even can do it in a more professional way," he says.

Causes like this are what the Slow Food movement is all about, Hu says.

"What is really important is to preserve indigenous practices, like artisan tofu or artisan soy sauce. Those are the things worth preserving in China," Hu says.

"Instead of industrially produced sausages and Chinese pork, it's respecting and honoring the guy who makes it the old school way because that's the way his father taught him, that's the way his grandfather taught his father."

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