September 13, 2008

China's Crops Challenge

found on flickr in snrephoto's photostream

With all of the hype surrounding China's economy and its modernization, it can be easy to forget that China still faces some very basic development challenges, namely, how to feed itself. The problem of feeding a large population is compounded by water shortages, land degradation, rural migration to urban centers, rising costs of inputs such as fertilizer and diesel, lack of technological development of the agriculture sector, and the oftentimes conflicting goals of reducing harm to the environment while boosting agricultural output.

As with many of the challenges facing China, its current leadership seems to have a clear head about the problem and is taking proactive measures to develop solutions. This is in stark contrast to the pre Opening and Reform agricultural policies that were driven by an irrational desire for food independence and marked by crackpot schemes, such as protecting crops from birds by mobilizing the masses nationwide to go out into the fields and simultaneously bang on pots and pans. Even worse were the times when the fickle leadership ignored agricultural policy all together in vainglorious attempts to leap ahead of the West in industrial output.

China has made tremendous progress in feeding itself over the past several decades, and is fortunate enough to now actually have a growing problem with obesity (that's not meant to be callous, imagine how people in sub-Saharan Africa would marvel at the idea of needing to 'exercise' to lose weight). Most of the credit goes to the farmers, but the government should be given its due for getting out of the way economic policy-wise and for providing financial and technological support. The process of finding solutions to large scale problems is never easy, but the government's large cash reserves and its willingness to experiment makes for a pragmatic approach that suits China well.*

One such pragmatic initiative is the soon to be launched USD 3.5 Billion GM crops project, aimed at taking GM crops from the laboratory to the fields. Given the vociferous backlash in Europe, China is wisely taking a cautious approach to the commercialization of GM crops. Quoted in Science magazine,
Dr. Zeng Yawen of the Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Institute of the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences sums up my feelings nicely: "For consumers, the safety of GM crops is the biggest worry. Just like some people are afraid of ghosts, some people are afraid of GM crops."

China's GM efforts have already yielded some significant victories. The 1997 commercialization of GM cotton has led to the various varieties being planted on 70% of China's land area devoted to cotton production. Huang Dafang, former director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, estimates that the spread of GM cotton has reduced China's use of pesticides by 650,000 tons since its introduction.

GM rice is the goal China's crop scientists have set their sites on, and is likely to receive a large share of the GM project funding. The use of GM rice is not only good for farmer's economically, but the reduced, or often eliminated, need for pesticides is beneficial for their health and the environment. Some strains of GM rice might even allow farmers to grow the crop in the eight percent of China's soil which was previously unfit because of a high salt content. If successful, the commercialization of GM rice will never garner as much press attention as China's space program, but I would argue it will do far more to improve China's future.

*In some ways, this willingness to experiment to find practical solutions marks China's leadership out as one of the more progressive governments in the world. This is something that not only other governments, but the people of other nations, would do well to take note of. Before the hate mail starts pouring in, I will concede that the Chinese leadership's progressive streak is not found consistently throughout all government policy.

GM project quotes and figures obtained from 'China Plans $3.5 Billion GM Crops Initiative', Science, 5 September 2008.

GM rice 'good for Chinese farmers' health and wealth, SciDev.Net

Gene for salt tolerance found in rice, SciDev.Net

EurekAlert! Sept. 19, 2008: A study to be published in Science has found that planting GM cotton modified to produce its own insecticide also reduces pest populations in neighboring fields.

EurekAlert!, Oct. 3, 2008: Scientists identify gene that may contribute to improved rice yield

SciDev.Net, Oct. 21, 2008: China's Premier identifies transgenic rice as top priority

Danwei, Oct. 28, 2008: Yu Jianrong: Farmers have the right to keep land for themselves

SciDev.Net, Nov. 23 2008: China's GM ambition raises biosafety concerns

China Daily, Nov. 21 2008: Land erosion 'threat to food supply'

The Green Leap Forward, Nov. 22 2008: Watergy: China's looming national security crisis

EurekAlert!, Jan. 30, 2009: Industrialization of China increases fragility of global food supply

SciDev.Net, Feb. 3, 2009: China urged to rethink water monitoring

WSJ China Journal, Feb. 15, 2009: China's drought could be sign of things to come

Guardian, March 5, 2009: China to plough extra 20& into agricultural production amid fears that climate change will spark food crisis

SciDev.Net, March 5, 2009: Wasted Chinese straw 'could be food and energy source'

SDN:Anti-H5N1 rice could protect poultry, say scientists

SDN:Chinese farmers could cut fertiliser use, keep yields

Help end world hunger

September 4, 2008

Official Chinese Cuisine Wine Pairing Guide

Grape Wall of China introduces the International Congress of Chinese Cuisine & Wine's Official Pairing Guide:

"We ate and drank, ate and drank, ate and drank, then ate and drank some more - all in the name of research. The inaugural International Congress of Chinese Cuisine & Wine met in Beijing in May and put the livers and stomachs of some 100 participants to the test. Two morning and two afternoon sessions saw people from the wine, food, and media sectors face a lineup of about a dozen wines and try them against a succession of foods. Everyone then voted on the pairings."

Visit the Grape Wall of China to download the guide

September 1, 2008

Steak Night in Beijing

I always look forward to the 29th of every month. That's when Entero, a Japanese whisky bar, invites a Japanese butcher to prepare the most tender steaks you've ever tasted. The steak set comes with a side of bean sprouts, vegetable or miso soup and rice, and at only 50 RMB it is one of the best deals in town. Best of all, topping up your steak set with a second steak will only set you back 30 RMB. Beijing Gourmand skipped the butter for his second round on doctor's advice. The butcher cooks the steaks himself in a wok behind the bar in a very straightforward way. One of the secrets to the great flavor seems to be the care he puts into each steak. Beijing Gourmand noticed him removing the steaks part way through the grilling process to slice some of the strips before returning the whole steak to the wok and then reassembling the steak on the plate. I'm guessing this was to ensure perfectly even cooking of the steak. The other secret is the cut of the meat, which had the perfect amount of marbling and outside fat. If you're wondering where you can get your hands on steaks like these, a rare find in Beijing, then you'll have to keep wondering. The butcher will not divulge his secret steak source, so you'll have to wait for the 29th of the month and head over to Entero to enjoy cuts like these.

Entero has a wide selection of Scotch and Japanese single malts as well as bourbon and cocktails. If you normally drink a lighter single malt, like a Macallan, then Beijing Gourmand recommends switching to something with a stronger finish so that the chargrilled flavor of the steak doesn't overpower the whisky. One of the smokier single malts from the Islay region, like Laphroaig, would do the trick nicely. Even better, if you want to have a Japanese single malt then the Taketsuru 17 years is the way to go.

For dessert, coffee flavored flan made with coffee from Uganda Crane Coffee, available for purchase at Entero. Entero serves Uganda Crane Coffee on weekend afternoons.

Simon, Richard and Anuj enjoy their steaks

Rating (out of 5): 串串串串

Dongzhimen, No. 1 Xinyuanli, Chaoyang District
8451 0554


Mengniu Milk Production Tour 中国- -牛!

Update: check out Milk Dreams, my corporate profile of Mengniu in China International Business (also includes a section on the Melamine Nightmare)

China's per capita milk consumption is one of the lowest in the world but is increasing at 10% per year. Despite its low per capita consumption (total consumption is unsurprisingly huge), China is the fifth largest dairy producer in the world, helping to supply a relatively stable global demand. One of the dairy giants meeting the surge in local demand is Mengniu. Beijing Gourmand had the opportunity to visit Mengniu's model farm just outside of Hohhot, billed as the United Nations of dairy farms, although farm hardly seems like the right term for this high tech and innovative showcase.
The nearly 600 hectare farm has capacity for 10,000 cows, all selectively bred in vitro for high milk producing genetics. Surrounding fields provide cattle with forage from 12 different countries, giving them a balanced diet. The considerable amount of animal waste is handled in an ecologically friendly manner, with most of it used to fertilize the fields or to generate power for the facility. The dairy production and packaging facilities integrate cutting-edge automation technology, much of it from technology transfer from Mengniu's Australian partners, Austasia (actually part of Japfa, a large Indonesian agribusiness conglomerate).

Mengniu was established in 1999 by Niu Gusheng, former employee of rival Yili Dairy. At only 9 years old and already with 30,000 employees and 2B USD in annual revenues, Mengniu has grown through building its distribution channels, clever marketing (it's the official milk of China's space program and a major NBA partner in China), great management, and efficient operations. Mengniu currently has the largest market share in the dairy sector, with 16% to Yili's 15%; the next nearest competitor is Sanlu with only 8%.

The following video shows the beginning and end of the milk production process. Notice how few people are required for production. Mengniu even has a prototype milking machine that allows cows to freely walk in to the device when they wish to be relieved of their heavy burden. Infrared sensors detect the cow's presence and a robotic arm attaches suction cups to the udder. Imagine, some day the facility could be nothing but cows and robots.

These pictures capture some of what the video doesn't show

Beijing Gourmand was told that no, he could not try the happy-eating grass

If you're going to be in Hohhot, find out more information on taking the tour.


The Milk and Dairy Market in China
: This 2008 KPMG report is well researched and gives a great snapshot of opportunities for foreign companies in China's dairy market. Key findings pulled straight from the report are: 1. China's dairy market is large and growing but its fragmented nature presents unique challenges; 2. For some categories (e.g. milk powder) China is still import dependent, providing a potential opening for foreign players; 3. Government policy is supportive of the dairy sector (Wen Jiaobao has stated that it's his dream for every Chinese child to have a 1/2 liter of milk per day). Barriers are also relatively low for foreign companies compared to other sectors; and 4. There are opportunities for foreign players to develop the supply chain.

China's Growing Market for Dairy Products
: This slightly out-dated 2004 report from Iowa's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development gives a concise overview of China's dairy industry. It has some interesting market research but too easily dismisses the cultural factors that influence dairy purchases in China.

China Drinks its Milk: A more balanced, but largely anecdotal, article from the BBC.

Innovation Leads to Mengniu's Success: Interesting China Daily article (no, that is not an oxymoron) focusing on Mengniu's innovation.

Mengniu Creates Growth History
: Brief and interesting outline of the Mengniu success story.

Danone-Mengniu Partnership Not Approved
: It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the dairy giant. The failure to get the joint-venture approved led to a 4% dip in Mengniu shares.

Crazy Chef - Beijing Hip-hop

In the previous post on Al Jazeera's street food series I talked about Chinese chef turned rapper Crazy Chef, member of Beijing hip-hop group Dragon Tongue Squad (龙门阵团体), who have interesting samples of traditional Chinese instruments in their tracks.

You can download their songs from Baidu here.

Dragon Tongue Squad and Chinese hip-hop

Street Food Videos from Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera's English channel has a street food series available on YouTube (h/t to noodlepie). The series is a truly international look at what the locals eat from Israel to Penang, London to Nairobi, and many points in between. The introduction to the first of the Beijing episodes made me laugh because Al Jazeera's take on modern China is exactly the same easy paradoxes as you'd expect from CNN or Fox News. They make up for the intro by immediately following it up with the stylings of Chinese chef turned rapper Crazy Chef, who guides the presenter around Wangfujing's snack street. Much of the video will be old news to anyone who has visited Beijing, but it is worth the watch for Crazy Chef alone, and there are some other gems as well, particularly for connoisseurs of Beijing-hua and those interested in glimpses into Beijing's street food past. The second video in the series scratches below the surface a little more to look at China's changing diet. The second video was interesting but gave me an uneasy feeling of deja vu. The tone of the video is almost the same tone as the global media, particularly European media, takes towards the US. Not the blatantly critical kind, but the kind that says, "you may be a superpower, but look at what it's done to you..." Beijing Gourmand wonders how long it will be before there are China sequels to Supersize Me and Fastfood Nation.

Update: Chinese health is trending towards obesity

Making jiaozi from scratch

Like Diana Kuan from Appetite for China, I was not always a fan of the northern style jiaozi (饺子, dumplings) common in Beijing. I found them to be bland and stodgy because of their thick skin. However, after eating proper homemade jiaozi I am now a convert and regularly have cravings for this ideal comfort food. Fortunately, I have my own jiaozi expert to show me how to make jiaozi at home from scratch. This post has a jiaozi recipe along with a photo guide to two different wrapping methods.

Filling (饺子馅儿)

  • 0.5 kg ground beef, a little fatty (一斤牛肉)(lamb and pork are equally good)
  • salt ()
  • 10 oz. water
  • MSG (味精) - Yes, you read right! Don't blame me if you leave this out and end up with bland dumplings.
  • finely ground peppercorn (花椒粉)
  • soy sauce (酱油)
  • 2 leeks (大葱)
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil (清油)
  1. In a large bowl mix the beef and water and set aside while you chop the leeks so that the water has time to penetrate and soften the beef; this will ensure your filling doesn't crumble.
  2. Finely chop the leeks, then chop some more.
  3. After you've finished chopping the leeks (you should be in tears by now), remix the beef and water again briefly. Then, individually mix in salt, ground peppercorn, MSG, soy sauce, leeks, and oil all to taste (适量) in the order listed. The amount of oil added might vary from this recipe, but Western readers should note that your filling should not be the consistency of hamburger meat; that would make for a very dry filling. The filling should look a little slimy. Don't worry, it will taste much better than it looks! You might want to pan fry a small portion of filling to check that the flavor is to your liking.
  4. Cover and set inside the refrigerator.

Wrapper (饺子皮)
  • 8 cups flour (面粉 or 饺子粉)
  • salt or baking powder (盐 or )
  • 16 oz. water
Jiaozi dough can be made from nothing more than flour, water, and a pinch of salt. If you have it, then baking powder can be used in place of salt to give the dough a softer and smoother consistency. Using high quality flour is important to having nice tasting and pleasingly textured dumpling wrappers. We used a flour made specifically for jiaozi (饺子粉) available at most supermarkets in Beijing. Ready-made wrappers are also available and will taste every bit as good, but are not nearly as much fun!
  1. Pour all of the flour into a large bowl and add a generous pinch of salt (or baking powder); then mix.
  2. Add in the water gradually, one pour at a time. After each pour, scoop the wet flour together. The consistency of the dough should be drier than when making bread. Once you have formed a nice ball of dough then remove it from the bowl and set it on the counter or large chopping board (wherever you will knead the dough). Repeat this process until all of the flour has been made into dough.
  3. Now the difficult part. Kneading dough (揉面) can be hard work, but extra effort here will pay off. The video below shows the main part of kneading; once the dough gets down to the diameter of a quarter then fold the ends to the middle and repeat over and over. After the dough has been kneaded into a silky texture, then roll the dough with your fingers like a Playdo snake; the outside should be smooth with no cracks. Be careful not to tear the dough as you're kneading it, that breaks the strands of gluten that are formed as you knead.

  4. Once you have your dough snake, hold the roll in your left hand with a small part, about 3/4 inch, sticking up. Then, use your right hand like the moving blade on a pair of scissors to grab and cut the piece of dough sticking up. The dough should be firm and break off without becoming stretched out; if it stretches then the dough is too soft and you should knead in a little more flour. You could also use a knife to cut the pieces but that's not nearly as fun and robs you of feedback on the consistency of the dough. Repeat this with the rest of the dough.
  5. Place the dough pieces with the cut sides up or down, not on the side. Press down with your palm to flatten the dough pieces into a circle.
  6. Take the pieces in your left hand and turn them as you flatten them with a rolling pin. Don't roll all the way into the middle, leave the middle of the wrapper thicker than the rest. If you roll the pieces correctly then the edge will curl up slightly into a cup shape. This video shows the process nicely, though you can work faster by rolling the pin with your fingers instead of your palm. If you're making a lot of dumpling wrappers then keep the ones you've already made covered so they don't dry out; same goes for after the dumplings have been wrapped.

Wrapping dumplings

There are several different ways to wrap dumplings, but for beginners it's best to start with something simple. Steps 1 and 2 are the same for both methods.

Step 1. Holding a wrapper in your left hand, place an economical amount of filling in the center with chopsticks (or your fingers after dipping them in a bowl of water). At this stage many people brush the edge of the wrapper which is facing up with water so that the edges of the dumpling crimp together better. In Beijing Gourmand's opinion this step is unnecessary with home-made wrappers.

Step 2. Give the wrapper a slight stretch and then crimp the middle of two opposite sides together gently.

Method A
Method A is a lot like tortellinis, you simply crimp the entire edge and then fold the ends together and crimp again.

Method B
This wrapping method is hard to explain, and Beijing Gourmand's attempts have failed miserably. I'm told the trick is folding the edges to the inside.

Other Wrapping Methods

Cooking the jiaozi

With jiaozi made from scratch there is no need to freeze the jiaozi first to harden the skin, your jiaozi will be ready for boiling immediately after you are done wrapping them.

  1. Boil water.
  2. Put in the jiaozi. You do not need to use a very large pan; the jiaozi should be packed tightly, like a public swimming pool in summer. Packing them in tightly helps them cook more quickly.
  3. Constantly and gently stir the jiaozi by pushing them away from you, preferably with the rounded part of a spoon. This method lessens the likelihood that you will break one of the jiaozi.
  4. After a few minutes the jiaozi will float to the top, at this point it is less necessary to stir.
  5. After the jiaozi have been floating for a few minutes you will notice that they have become more swollen and that their skins have a pearly translucence. This means they're ready to eat!
  6. Eating jiaozi with vinegar () is nearly mandatory, and adding thinly sliced peppers (辣椒) is recommended. You might also want to add a drop of soy sauce, cilantro (香菜), and finely chopped garlic (大蒜) to your vinegar.

This recipe was rather simple, Appetite for China has a nice pea and shiitake dumpling recipe and also a guide to wrapping and pan-frying dumplings.


Grace and I got together with some friends recently so she could teach them her jiaozi recipe. Everyone did wonderfully, though there were some complaints of knuckle pain the next day from all the kneading. A bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon went well with the meal.