A quiet afternoon in Tusheng, where food is being prepared.
Food

An organic restaurant's struggles to grab mainstream eaters in China

Aug 21, 2018

The menu of Tusheng Shiguan (土生食馆), an organic restaurant in China, comes with a warning.

“There are holes in the vegetables,” it says, pointing out that organic produce often comes less aesthetically perfect as commercial varieties.

That the restaurant has to warn its customers probably explains why it’s struggling to get by.

Tusheng has been around for six years in Kunming, a second-tier city in Yunnan. The city has a thriving population of over six million people, but Tusheng’s owner, Cui Changjian, says locals aren’t into his food.

“There are a lot of foreigners who know about us, but it’s not enough. We only get one or two of them a day,” he said.

Tusheng Shiguan's exterior.
Tusheng Shiguan's exterior. / Photo: Clarissa Wei/Goldthread

Indeed, Tusheng is a favorite among expatriates, who value his insistence on locavorism. But the clientele that really matters from a financial standpoint are the masses, who are turned off by the lack of consistency at Tusheng. While the food is priced competitively, at about $5 a plate, and ingredients are fresh, people aren’t so sure what’s on the menu on any given day.

It’s hard to control the menu if you insist on relying on seasonal ingredients. So Tusheng’s menu is in a constant state of flux, especially on the vegetable side.

And the humble atmosphere and dishes reminiscent of home-cooking aren’t as visually attractive as large restaurant varieties.

“Business has been tough these last two years,” Cui sighs.

Stir-fried cabbage at Tusheng.
Stir-fried cabbage at Tusheng. / Photo: Clarissa Wei/Goldthread

Chasing freshness in the countryside

“Chinese people are aware that our food system is [plagued] by scandals and food safety issues. But when it comes to choosing what they eat on the daily, people don’t always make the best decisions,” he says. “People will go into the countryside to eat fresh vegetables at these farm guesthouses, but they don’t realize that these restaurateurs are buying in their vegetables. People are [swayed] by the atmosphere.”

A former documentary maker from Shandong, Cui was inspired to open Tusheng after shooting multiple films about Chinese ethnic minorities and their agroforestry models. He saw how self-sufficient these indigenous groups were and felt compelled to bring that spirit to the city.

Tusheng’s owner, Cui Changjian, says locals aren’t into his food.
Tusheng’s owner, Cui Changjian, says locals aren’t into his food.

So when possible, he goes hyperlocal when he sources for ingredients. Tusheng has its own farm—a modest one of just under three acres, managed by Cui himself.

They raise their own pigs (50 of them) and grow a motley of vegetables. Production-wise, the farm isn’t enough to sustain the restaurant, and so Cui has a roster of four local farms that he relies on.

And for the ingredients that are from outside the province—like heirloom rice from Guangxi and whole wheat flour from the northeast—Cui is insistent on buying from small producers.

“Small farmers are declining. Everyone is going out to work and earn money,” Cui says. There are some constants though. Homemade mantou is a favorite, made with a sourdough starter and steamed fresh to order. And there’s the grilled er kuai—a  savory rice cake that’s pounded until it’s as thin as a card, then sautéed with pickled vegetables and bok choy.

Er kuai, a stir-fried thin rice cake.
Er kuai, a stir-fried thin rice cake. / Photo: Clarissa Wei/Goldthread

Tofu is folded in with wood ear mushrooms and tomatoes. The tofu is made in-house with soy beans.

And if you look closely, the entire restaurant is an experimental food lab. There’s fruit wine brewing in the corners and fermented pickles by the jars.

They even make their own dishwashing soap.

 

Tusheng Shiguan 土生食馆; Area B, inside the Loft Jinding 1919 complex, 15 Jindingshan Lu, Kunming 昆明B区金鼎山路15号