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Slow and steady, the Chinese way

By Ye Jun | China Daily | Updated: 2012-05-21 11:00

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.

Shandong cuisine will still be Shandong cuisine, Qu says, and Beijing style will still be Beijing style.

In addition, recent waves of food safety concerns and the prevalent trends of over-processing food have had consumers more aware of eating food that is organic and traceable.

Qu believes that will boost more consumption of seasonal, green and organic foods, and motivate the protection and promotion of heirloom produce.

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.

Other Chinese restaurants, which may not have a snail on their door, are also beginning to offer natural, organic food, sometimes with good music thrown in.

"Food safety concerns have made me even more determined not to use any dubious ingredients, and trade only with major suppliers," says Fu.

Awareness goes beyond restaurants. The organic movement has some passionate advocates.

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.

China's CCTV is currently screening a seven-part documentary, A Bite of China, which spotlights China's great culinary heritage and varieties of heirloom produce.

But there are conflicts that urbanization brings.

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.

Fu Yang agrees that it will be a long, slow process, but argues that Slow Food is here to stay.

"It has to depend on growing awareness of food issues among Chinese diners, and the rising standards of living, and a commensurate rise in spending power," he says.

But in the long run, Fu believes, it will become common knowledge.

"Traditional, seasonal and organic ingredients are already a big part of the way the Chinese eat."

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