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How a Chinese-Italian chef hopes to foster a slow-food revolution in China

It’s a hot September day in Turin, northern Italy and Qi Jiangui, a chef at Beijing restaurant Mei Zhou Dongpo, is making spicy dumplings filled with tender chicken, pork and Sichuan pepper in a busy temporary kitchen.

The pop-up restaurant is part of Terra Madre, a food festival organised by the Italy-based Slow Food headquarters. It runs every two years in Turin and its aim is promoting and preserving culinary biodiversity and species facing extinction. In this year’s festival, which took place last week, some 7,000 delegates from 143 countries attended to present their country’s most interesting and underrated natural foods.

At China’s stand, about 60 products from around the country are on display. Wei Yugui from Guangxi has come to Turin with noodles made from rice she tends the traditional way by rearing ducks among the rice paddies as a natural form of pest control (they eat the weeds and insects). Zhang Xiuyun from Lijiang in Yunnan province has brought a local rice wine, while a farmer from Inner Mongolia is showcasing his jerky made from air-dried donkey meat and his Sanhe cows.

Elsewhere on the stand, wild tea from the forests of Yunnan provinceis being handed out and steamed buns made from wheat grown in the arid lands of Huanghua in Hebei province – in handmade wooden moulds shaped to resemble fish and hedgehogs – are catching the crowd’s attention.

“The only woman still making these sweet rice biscuits is 80 now,” says Ling Kuang Sung, one of the three founders of Slow Food Great China in 2015, and involved with the promotion of safe and ethically grown artisan food since the late 1990s. “Now we are going to ensure some young people are going to learn from her.”

All these products have been entered into China’s so-called Ark of Taste, a catalogue of endangered foods that risk disappearing if knowledge about how to grow orproduce them isn’t passed on.

“Until recently the Chinese didn’t really think about their food and where it was coming from,” says Ling, “which is absurd given how important food is to us culturally and the way we consider food to be medicine. But given that the Chinese have endured hunger from the late 19th century until just about 20 years ago, the focus has understandably been just on getting food on the table.”

Now things are starting to change. A burgeoning middle class and the country’s new rich are becoming increasingly lifestyle- and health-conscious and seeking out pesticide-free or organic food. The very serious (and dangerous) pollution in China “has not only forced individuals to do something, but the government, too,” says Ling. “They are starting to understand that unbridled capitalism and these levels of pollution can’t go on.

“When Slow Food was launched almost 30 years ago just outside Turin, it asked, ‘Where does that steak I am eating come from and what was that cow fed?’ Now, in Europe, every menu tells you what breed of animal you are eating or where your food was grown,” says Ling.

By contrast, in many restaurants in China, even in five-star hotels, the food ordering is done by the purchasing department and not the chefs, he says. “The provenance revolution needs to come to China.”

Ling emigrated to Italy with his parents when he was four, but travels to China several times a year. He owns a restaurant in Turin that espouses Slow Food principles by creating rare Chinese dishes or by using less common ingredients, such as the river fish that are becoming increasingly unpopular in Italy due to their many bones. Starting Slow Food Great China took some time, he says. “Unlike the Hong Kong Chinese, the Chinese from the mainland don’t really understand clubs and associations. They always think there is some sort of scam behind it.”

With the help of his co-founders – Vittorio Sun, managing director of Beijing Design Week, and Francesco Sisci, a respected Italian journalist who lives in Beijing, Slow Food Great China has gained the blessing of the Chinese government and is now registered under the umbrella of the Ministry of Agriculture. Being under the wing of the ministry allows the latter to monitor the group, admits Ling, but in return the association is getting “access to invaluable information about the agricultural situation in the 31 provinces of China”.

The vast size and population of the country could make this a long process. “In China, a place with one million inhabitants is a village,” Ling says, laughing.

Slow Food Great China now has 500 members and that number is growing steadily. Next year, the group plans to open a centre near Beijing to educate urban dwellers about chemical-free food, and a training centre for farmers in collaboration with Renmin University of China and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Soon, the “chef alliance” project will also take off, under which certain restaurants in Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing will commit to purchasing and using products from the Ark of Taste.

In autumn 2017, the association will host a Terra Madre food festival of its own in China. “We are not going to do it in Beijing, however,” says Ling. “This revolution needs to start in the smaller cities.” The association plans to bring international Slow Food groups to China for the occasion. “China shouldn’t close itself off from the world any longer,” he adds. “And foreigners need to understand what the situation is really like in China, too.”

One little-known facet of the situation in China is that young people are returning to the countryside and setting up farming cooperatives and communities. “They are no longer thinking only about money but also about their quality of life,” says Ling.

One such person is Stephanie Zhu, who was also in Turin last week, and manages four farms, including Yue Feng Island organic farm between the cities of Kunshan and Suzhou. The 20-hectare site serves the restaurants of a nearby Fairmont hotel and sells direct to members. “Half of the growers are over 60 but the other half are aged between 20 and 40,” says Zhu. They move to the country because “the pace in cities is too pressured”.

Ling agrees: “I always say, there are 1.4 billion of us. We aren’t all competitive or motivated by money.”