My headline for this post is complete bullshit. True clean eating in China is not going to happen anytime soon. It is a country as toxic as it is beautiful, rich in soil filled with heavy metals from years of unregulated industrial production, and air so smog-filled that at times it can make day seem like dusk. And don’t even think about drinking the water, or worse, using it to grow fruits and vegetables. I remember in my first couple of weeks here asking a friend where the best place to get organic produce was in Shanghai, and she just laughed. “Oh Howard,” she said. “Even if it is labelled organic, there is no such thing as organic in China.”
China has a been a monstrous economic juggernaut for the last 40 years. They single-handedly kept most of the rest of the world afloat during the “great recession” through debt purchase, infrastructure construction around the globe, and mass consumption of natural resources from any country that was selling. That 40 years of non-stop growth and production has led to a land not suited to the production of organic fruits and vegetables, a land so polluted that it will take decades to clean up.
The United States was once in a relatively similar state, with many parts of the country as polluted as China is today, due also to mass industrialization. But America got wise and came to the realization that unchecked production, without corresponding environmental regulation, could have severe negative implications for the health and long-term welfare of the nation and its citizenry. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed to work with businesses and federal agencies to help clean up and protect the environment. At about the same time, an active environmental movement developed in the U.S., driven by concerns for the earth and all who inhabit it, and the country began making environmental conservation a part of everyday life.
Improving the quality of life was the driver for improving environmental conditions in the U.S. In China, the driver is a different beast — social harmony. In a country of 1.4 billion people, when the masses start to complain about pollution, shit starts to happen. So this year, China has allocated 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) to reward cities and regions that make significant progress in controlling air pollution. The Chinese government also has developed a 5-year plan aimed at cleaning up soil and water contamination through remediation, and is even thinking about developing its own environmental “Superfund” program, like the U.S.
So where does all this leave me and my need to feed my family clean, healthy, and occasionally organic food? Surprisingly, not as screwed as I originally anticipated. If you look hard enough you can find some clean and even organic food in China. I recently had the good fortune, along with my friend and fellow blogger Line Fricke (shanghaihabits.com), to spend a couple of hours with Richard Gelber (aka Farmer Richie), the founder of Gusto Fine Foods and proprietor of Kate & Kimi, a food website and purveyor to Shanghai’s expat community (kateandkimi.com).
To say Farmer Richie is passionate about the products he finds and sells is an understatement. Originally from Montreal, he is borderline nuts about the pursuit of good, safe, clean food in China, particularly produce. With his Chinese partner Jojo, he founded Gusto in 2005 with the objective of finding, or growing, high quality vegetables for commercial sale in Shanghai. Soon thereafter, Gusto was selling quality produce to most of the high-end hotels and restaurants in Shanghai. Though not certified organic, Farmer Richie personally visits and inspects the farms he works with. Here’s how he puts it:
“Today, most of our growing operation is working with farmers in Shandong and Yunnan and following the guidelines of Western sustainable agriculture. It all begins with top quality earth, clean water, and specialty seeds.”
So that sounds hopeful and I buy most of my produce from Kate & Kimi. Even more exciting, Farmer Richie says he recently found an organic farm in China that meets his high standards. He has been visiting Haobao Organic Farm in Yunnan province for several months, testing the soil and researching their claims. He has concluded that they are indeed organic. Haobao has been certified by China’s Organic Food Development Center for ten consecutive years and has been awarded The National Organic Food Farm Base by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. But having met Farmer Richie, I’m pretty confident that until he feels righteous about your farm, he is not going to call it organic, no matter what the government may claim.
So there is organic food in China. You just need to look really hard to find it. I began writing this post on healthy eating in Shanghai because it is a passion for me. My friend Line Fricke shares that enthusiasm and, through her pursuit of finding healthy and clean food, she has shown me that we are far from alone in Shanghai in this regard. Line recently introduced me to Kimberly Ashton, Founder and Chief Sprouting Officer for Sprout Lifestyle, a true health food store here in Shanghai (sproutlifestyle.com). Kimberly, originally from Australia, has been in Shanghai for 11 years and has built a mini health food empire that includes two Sprout Lifestyle stores, and a restaurant called Cafe@Eco Village (485 Fenglin Lu).
Sprout Lifestyle’s tagline and founding philosophy is “growing healthy habits.” When I asked Kimberly how hard that is to do in toxic China, her response was that while its harder here than in the West, we all need to “try and live as clean as you can within the circumstances of where you live.” Her belief, which I can totally identify with having lived several years in Shanghai, is that a healthy diet is critical to “undoing” the toxic aspects of life in China that can affect our health. As she so aptly put it, “an unhealthy diet doesn’t undo pollution.”
In researching this post I found that the farther I dug into locating clean food in Shanghai, the more purveyors I encountered. There is Pure & Whole, a very cool, Western-style restaurant concept that, in my opinion, is serving some of the most adventurous vegetarian food I have ever eaten (pureandwhole.com). They have four restaurants in Shanghai and are committed to creating fun, healthy dishes that vegetarians and non-vegetarians can both enjoy.
And speaking of food empires, Kelley Lee, proprietor of my favorite brewpubs in Shanghai, Boxing Cat Breweries, as well as the Cantina Agave restaurants, has recently opened a second Sproutworks restaurant in Xintiandi (the first is in the Super Brands mall in Lujiazui). The menu, which changes daily, has a focus on healthy eating and includes homemade soups and sandwiches, as well as lots of salads and cool side dishes like Sweet Potatoes with Soy Sauce Sesame glaze (sproutworks.com.cn). All good and all healthy.
Another place with a focus on healthy eating is Green & Safe (the Chinese like very literal translations), a deli, grocery store, and restaurant all rolled into one (6 Dongping Lu, Xuihui). Though not vegetarian, Green & Safe produces food with health and sustainability as their guiding principle, and highlight that they get produce from an organic farm in Kunshan. They were the folks that also started Qimin Organic Hot Pot, quite possibly the healthiest hot pot restaurant in Shanghai, but which unfortunately recently closed. But not to fear healthy hot pot lovers, Mahota Hot Pot is now in Shanghai, and they source much of their produce from their own farm in Chongming (mahotafarm.com/en/). I never thought I would use the words healthy and hot pot in the same sentence!
So, despite my original premise, it appears I could go on and on about clean, healthy, or even organic food in China. Further undercutting my premise are places like The Green Vege Cafe, an all vegan restaurant on the far edges of the Former French Concession, which has good food, and an interior that looks like it was modeled after a 1950’s diner (greenvegecafe.com). And it is not just Westerners eating healthy. Vegetarian Lifestyle is a wildly popular restaurant with several locations throughout Shanghai that is as likely to be full of Chinese diners as expats (jujubetree.com). Finally (I promise), Hunter Gatherer, a grocery store and restaurant combined, recently opened on Anfu Lu. They only use organic vegetables from their own farm for the food they sell and serve, which also includes meat products (behuntergatherer.com).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two friends of mine who have taken the leap into Chinese capitalism by undertaking businesses that provide healthy food to expat customers. My good friend, Len Pritchett, is now affectionately known as The Hummus Lady here in Shanghai (thehummuslady-sh.com). He took over the business — and name — from another friend, Jen Ianuzzi, when she repatriated to the U.S. last spring. Len revamped some of the hummus recipes and has been highlighting its healthy attributes as he tries to increase sales. He also donates all Hummus Lady profits to the Baobei foundation, an orphanage here that raises money for children who need serious surgery.
The other friend is Elizabeth Schieffelin, a Holistic Health Coach who founded a company called Lizzy’s All Natural. There, she produces healthy superfood concoctions that promote detoxification, longevity, and immunity, including smoothies, juices, and nut milks (lizzysallnatural.com). She sells her products through Kate & Kimi, as well as her own website. I drink her smoothies regularly and they are both good, and good for you.
Finally, let’s talk proteins. I’m a meat eater, always have been and always will be, and I truly believe you can incorporate meat into a healthy diet as long as you are careful where it comes from. That goes double for China, where I try not to eat meat raised in this country. We eat mostly imported meats and get that from Kate & Kimi, Fields Online grocery (fieldschina.com), and Yasmine’s Butcher Shop and Steakhouse (yasmines.com.cn). All three offer a good selection of imported meats and, when possible, some limited choices of organically-raised meat.
To fend off the negative effects of China’s toxicity, it is critical to maintain as healthy a diet as possible. My journey to implement that diet by finding clean, healthy, and organic food for me and my family has been enlightening and fulfilling, and I’ve met some amazing people along the way. While organic food in China is a crapshoot, these folks show that there are people here who are totally committed to providing their customers with the cleanest, healthiest food products that they can find or make. As the government and industry slowly begin to clean up this otherwise beautiful country, hopefully they will realize that clean, healthy food, which includes organics, is as important for the Chinese as is a healthy economy.