Travel

The boom of rural farm-to-table dining in China

Aug 22, 2018

On an April afternoon, I convince the team to hop in a car and head out of the comfortable  urban confines of Chengdu into the jungle. We drive to a small village of Hongzhi in Jiulong Gou Scenic Area, a series of residential homes tucked away on mountainous winding roads surrounded by a deep green where wild giant pandas have been known to reside.

A cherub-faced man named Zhang Wenjun greets us, flanked by his wife and grandmother.

Immediately, we are given lunch—a wonderful spread of home-cured pork and chili-laced bamboo shoots. The bamboo has been freshly macheted, shucked, and harvested by Zhang himself.

Zhang's grandmother (left), with Dolly and Clarissa from the Goldthread team.
Zhang's grandmother (left), with Dolly and Clarissa from the Goldthread team.

Borders in remote China are more conceptual than they are physical.

Bamboo grows abundantly in the Zhang family’s backyard, which conveniently happens to double as the jungle. There are no walls dividing their property and the rest of the forest; borders in remote China are more conceptual than they are physical.

All around, bamboo clusters together in tall elegant bundles. And because it is spring, shoots poke out of the ground like conical swords. If you slash them at the right angle, about 45 degrees, they cut like butter—soft, with very little resistance.

The bamboo has a distinct bite to them, almost springy and naturally sweet. It is the complete textural opposite of the stale canned bamboo shoots typical of gloopy stir-fries in American Chinatowns.

The "happy farmer home" phenomenon

There’s something to be said about growing and harvesting your own food and the irreplaceable meals that follow. And although we had been eating finely in Chengdu—Asia’s first official Unesco-designated City of Gastronomy, no less—this meal stands out from all the others.

Mr. Zhang preparing a meal.
Mr. Zhang preparing a meal. / Photo: Goldthread

“Here, it is natural. The family is together and I can live very simply,” Zhang says. “If I moved to the city, I would feel completely out of place. I like that customers come to me instead.”

Zhang is part of a growing sector of small business owners who cater to urban tourists looking for fresh cuisine. Their businesses, which often doubles as their own homes, are called nongjiales 农家乐,or happy farmer homes.

Nongjiales are the Chinese equivalent of a farm-to-table restaurant.

They are rural guest houses where mostly urban customers can unwind from the pressures of the city. Mahjong, drinking, foraging, and eating fresh food are all part of the experience. One can also opt to stay overnight.

Nongjiales are the Chinese equivalent of a farm-to-table restaurant. In the West, farm-to-table applies to socially conscious restaurants with direct relationships with their supplier.

But in China, the concept applies to eateries surrounded by nature. It’s more focused on the atmosphere and environment than the origins of the ingredients.

After all, the term farm-to-table is virtually useless, since nearly every item of produce comes from farms. The term is more philosophical than it is technical and has come to encapsulate a doctrine of locavorism and purity.

People yearning for simpler times

The farm-to-table movement in the States started in the 1970s as a push-back against conventional agriculture. Nongjiales were also born out of a desire for simpler times.

The phenomenon supposedly began in 1986 in Sichuan, by a man named Xu Jiyuan, who opened a place called Xujia Courtyard on the outskirts of Chengdu. He started off with less than an acre of land, and would often hosts guests for dinner on a donation basis.

A travel agent guest encouraged him to start charging more and promoting his business and the rest is history.

Today Xujia Courtyard alone has grown to span across six acres of land, and hosts around a million guests a year.

It’s the idea of being in the countryside, rather than actually partaking in the countryside, that’s most appealing.

“Xujia Courtyard inspired a wave of nongjiales across the country.  And it started here around Chengdu, ” says Zhanghao, the owner of  Shui Yun Jian, another popular upscale nongjiale on the outskirts of Chengdu.

According to a survey that only counted business in the greater Beijing area, there were more than 300 villages and 24,000 registered households in the nongjiale guesthouse business in 2003. That number, of course, has continued to soar over the years.

“Back then, the nongjiales were pretty basic and just served food,” Zhanghao says. “But now society is constantly developing, people have more money, and they are prioritizing a place with a good atmosphere, good service, and fresh food. They especially want a place without pollution. People are very conscious about pollution now. When you come up to the mountains, the air is much better.”

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Photo: Goldthread

Shui Yun Jian is located in the hills of Longquan County, where fruit-picking is a popular past time.

“During the peach blossom festival, there’s around 300 nongjiales that open in this area,” he says.

Unlike the cozy nongjiale in the jungle, Shui Yun Jian is much more commercial. It’s nestled on hills overdeveloped with fruit trees, flanked with nutcracker decorations and stone Chinese dragons. They frequently host weddings and lavish group gatherings. There are open-air private dining rooms available and dedicated mahjong tables. Manicured walkways grace the entire area and guests can pick fruit directly off the estate.

Most of the core ingredients used in the meals at Shui Yun Jian aren’t grown on the property. But that tiny detail doesn’t matter all that much to people.

It’s the idea of being in the countryside, rather than actually partaking in the countryside, that’s most appealing.

It’s helping rural areas win urban tourists

The Chinese government was quick to realise that the nongjiale phenomenon was one way to inject economic opportunity to rural parts of the vast country.

From early on, the government has promoted nongjiales as a way to address the income inequality between rural parts and big cities, an ongoing issue in China.

According to the OECD  (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), in 2012 the per capita income of urban households in China was about three times that of the rural households. That’s in contrast with 1978, where it was two-and-a-half times higher.

“We must vigorously develop village tourism, putting into force the guiding principle of ‘using tourism to help the farmers,’ to push the development of the new socialist countryside,”  Shao Qiwei, the then-head of the National Tourism Administration, wrote in 2007.

Bridging the gap between the impoverished rural population and the thriving urban centers has been a long-time government agenda. In fact, the big seven-day national holiday in China, Golden Week, was established in 2000 for the very purpose of injecting life into the domestic agrotourism market.

According to Xinhua, the official state-run paper of China, a total of 80 billion dollars was pumped into the rural tourism industry in 2017, benefiting nine million rural households.

The pursuit of freshness

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And people like Zhang are among the many who have benefited.

“I’ve been here for 20 years already,” Zhang says. “In the beginning, we were getting about [$2] a day. Now I’m making more than [$15] a day. I could never live in the city.”

Back in the jungle, we follow Zhang up the hill, past his vegetable garden, and into the thick understory of the forest to harvest the ingredients for tomorrow.

“Look at my beans and potatoes,” he says. “My eggplants and hot peppers are starting right now. And the cucumbers too. In the mountains, I can eat all of my own vegetables.”

We stumble around awkwardly with all of our camera equipment, mesmerized his self-sufficiency. He picks up a handful of qinghao 青蒿, a wormwood in the Artemisia family which is slightly bitter but works great as a gentle stir-fry with garlic.

And for dinner, we indulge in a platter of qinghao along with foraged fish mint, bamboo shoots, and freshly-slaughtered chicken.

A vast contrast to the city, where all of the dishes seemed like repetitive playlists.

The meal at Zhang’s is a vast contrast to the offerings in Chengdu, where all of the dishes seemed like repetitive playlists, drowned in mala chili oils, and curated to appease people’s expectations. His flavors are much more subtle and you can taste the intricacies of the raw ingredients.

True to its name, the fish mint has a fishy aroma and we eat it raw, paired with boiled fava beans from the garden and a bit of vinegar. The chicken is roasted over an open fire and rubbed with mild chili paste.

Unlike the more commercial nongjiales, Zhang is insistent on serving food from his own backyard. His business is nowhere as glamorous or polished as Shui Yun Jian. Both the food and the atmosphere are more rustic.

But as a result, he attracts a clientele base perhaps more puritanical in their pursuit of freshness. The food here is truly grown and cooked locally.  

“These two years, business has been really good,” he says. “We have a good water source. We have no pollution. We live in the wilderness. No one uses pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It’s all natural.”

He repeats, without a beat: “Everything is natural.”