Thursday, 19 March 2009

Hao Bao Qing Organic Farm

Earlier this year, Cam and I were in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and craving to get out of the city. Having talked for ages about jumping on a random bus and seeing where it took us, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to actually do it. From the town centre we boarded the number 2 in high spirits; yet 45 minutes later, instead of ending up in some pastoral idyll, the last stop turned out to be just another grim suburb.

With our time in Kunming rapidly slipping away from us, we realised we needed some local expertise, and so called our friend Joe, a Norweigan who is currently living in the city. Trying not to sound too desperate, I explained our predicament, and asked Joe if he could recommend anywhere we could go.

“Yes!” he said straight away, “you should go to Hao Bao!” And so it was that a couple of hours later we were in a mini-van, on a road snaking through thickly-wooded hills, to a destination more perfect than we could have imagined.

Kunming Hao Bao Qing Organic farm (昆明好宝箐生态农业园), 35 km north-west of the city, is, we were told, the oldest organic farm in China, established in 2002 and receiving organic status in 2005. The 110-mu (96 hectare) farm, nestled in a peaceful narrow valley, employs around forty people, growing vegetables and raising pigs, ducks, sheep, rabbit, turkeys and chickens – all to organic standards that are inspected every year. In addition, the farm also runs a restaurant and a small hotel, whose rooms are spilt between the main building and several cave-like rooms set into a hillside.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and before dinner I was given a quick tour of the main greenhouse by farm manager Li Gang. Everything at Hao Bao, Li Gang explained, takes much longer to grow than on a conventional farm, where fertilisers and pesticides are used to speed up the growing process; the pigs at Hao Bao, for example, are slaughtered at eight months old, as opposed to the normal four. Some of these are kept in a pen next to the restaurant, and munched away nosily on their dinner as we spoke.

It was soon time to eat our own dinner, the ordering of which turned out to be one of the highlights of our stay. The ordering of one's dinner at Hao Bao is perhaps the most lovely way of ordering food I've ever experienced. Instead of any sort of menu, we were led around the greenhouse, between beds thick with countless varieties of vegetables. Next, we decided what took our fancy, and pointed it out to a member of staff. As we returned to our table, our choices were dug up and cooked not ten metres away from where they were grown; five minutes later, the vegetables we'd chosen had been transformed into a simple but mouth-watering meal: fried egg and tomato, a cabbage soup, stir-fried fennel and stir-fried cauliflower. I'm not sure if I've ever eaten such fresh food, nor eaten a meal that was so delicious.

The next day after breakfast, farmhand Zhao Zhongming treated us to a full tour of the farm. In the smiting cold, we saw the main animal sheds, more greenhouses, and countless fields planted with spring onions, radishes, red cabbages and many more. Zhao Zhongming echoed Li Gang's emphasis on the slowness of their methods, and explained that vegetables, like the pigs, are only ready to eat after twice as long as those grown using fertilisers and pesticides.

With this approach in mind, and the comparative expensiveness of their products, I found it slightly hard to imagine how commercially successful projects such as Hao Bao can be; yet it seems that the awareness and popularity of organic food in China is growing. Hao Bao's vegetables are now being distributed through Green Kunming, a veg-box scheme, and it is now common to find an organic section in most major supermarkets. Furthermore, the widespread public outrage in response to last year's baby milk fiasco (and many other recent food safety scandals), seem to point towards an increasing realisation of the problems inherent in the current food industry.

Though I often revel in the cheapness of food in China, I also know that that cheapness must surely come at a price. While more natural methods of farming, like those at Hao Bao, are undoubtedly more expensive for the consumer, it is clear to me that these methods make the cost to both the environment and our health considerably less. As such, I sincerely hope that organic food will continue to spread in popularity in China, and that farms like Hao Bao continue to prosper.

(Additional information gathered from

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Chilli-munching motorists and poo-shaped ice-cream: two articles from today's Guardian

I often find some great food-related pieces on The Guardian's website, and today I got a double-whammy. The first is on a subject close to my heart, chillis, and how they're being used to fight road accidents in Chongqing; and if you thought that wasn't strange enough, the second is a photo gallery by the brilliant Dan Chung, taken at some of Taiwan's utterly bizarre themed restaurants (I didn't know anything about these before but am now desperate to find out more!).

Friday, 6 March 2009

Black Bean and Butternut Squash Dip

Though nowadays it's somewhat hard to believe, I was, as a child, a fussy eater. I wouldn't touch salad; I wasn't keen on much fruit; but the foods I disliked most of all were peas and beans in all their varieties. I HATED the mushy peas sold at fish 'n' chip shops, and I despised, despised baked beans, just the merest whiff of which would make me retch.

Eventually though, I was won over (though the baked bean thing continues still), and by the time I went to university, I was a bean addict. In my first year, I cooked an enormous vat of chickpea tagine to raise money for charity; in my second year, the communal house I lived in bought 20 kg sacks of dried beans (and yes, we did get through them all). Here in China, although beans aren't a stereotypically Asian foodstuff, I am nonetheless spoilt for choice: vegetable stalls abound with fresh green peas and plump broad beans, while the dried goods stores are filled with butter, aduki and black beans. These last (whose Chinese name, 黑豆, also means 'black bean') have become a regular ingredient for Cam and I, and here is one dish that we've particularly enjoyed recently. Though in the picture the beans are still a bit crunchy (I was impatient and didn't let them cook for long enough), I do think it would be better if they were completely soft, and so have indicated this in the recipe.

P.S. If you're worried about the errr, gaseous effects of eating beans, I've heard that if you use a fresh panful of water after bringing the beans to the boil for the first time, this can lesson their impact.

Black Bean and Butternut Squash Dip

About 3 handfuls of dried black beans
500kg of butternut squash
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 teaspoons of cumin seeds, roasted and then roughly ground
2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons of Thai-style chilli sauce
A handful of fresh coriander leaf, roughly chopped.
Salt to taste

1. Soak the black beans in plenty of cold, fresh water for at least 6 hours; once hydrated, change the water and then boil until soft and buttery (about 2 hours).
2. Peel the squash and discard the seeds, cut into even chunks and then boil until cooked, about 10-15 minutes.
3. Mash the cooked beans and squash together until smooth.
4. Add the garlic, cumin seeds, soy sauce, chilli sauce, salt and almost all of the coriander leaf and mix well.
5. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the rest of the coriander leaf and serve. This dish is particularly tasty when eaten with fresh and crusty wholegrain bread.