Published: 09:41, February 21, 2024 | Updated: 17:06, February 21, 2024
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China has right ingredients for culinary success
By Li Yingxue

From caviar to olive oil, domestic 'specialty' food items are matching high-quality imports

Farmers pour harvested olives into a container for storage on Oct 12, 2023 at an olive cultivation base in Longnan, Gansu province. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

A school trip by 11 children from the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region to the chilly north last month has unwittingly opened the nation's eyes to homegrown food products assumed to be specialty imports.

Dressed in bright orange puffer jackets to shield themselves from the cold in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, the children, ages 3 to 6, attracted media attention and were dubbed the "Little Sugar Oranges".

Seizing on the publicity opportunity, the Guangxi regional government sent locally grown sugar oranges to Harbin as a gesture of gratitude. In return, Heilongjiang generously sent 100,000 boxes of fresh cranberries to the region.

Many Chinese netizens were surprised to learn that Heilongjiang produced cranberries, triggering an online hunt for specialty foods grown and produced in China.

From caviar originating from Zhejiang province's Qiandao Lake to crabs from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and grain-fed beef produced in Dalian, Liaoning province, they found a plethora of culinary gems.

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Thanks to advances in farming and agricultural technology, China's food producers are also trying out new production areas. Olive oil from Wudu district in Longnan, Gansu province, for example, is not only sold around the world, but has also won gold medals in international produce contests. And wine from Shangri-La in Yunnan province recently topped wine critic James Suckling's China Top 100 Wines 2023 list.

High-end products such as foie gras and caviar are also gradually breaking through geographical and price barriers and reaching ordinary people's dining tables.

Last month, the online platform Taobao shared a report on hidden local specialties. Gansu and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region are now churning out white shrimps, while Anhui, Sichuan, Yunnan and Fujian provinces are becoming known for their whiskeys, the report said.

Workers produce caviar on Jan 6, 2022, at a sturgeon breeding base in Quzhou, Zhejiang province. (NIU JING / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Caviar exports

One-third of the global caviar market's total supply comes from Zhejiang, with Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Sci-tech Development Co the main provider.

"Our 'Kaluga Queen' brand caviar has approximately 35 percent of the global market share and we are the supplier for the first-class cabins of airlines such as Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines," said the company's general manager, Xia Yongtao.

The caviar, harvested from river sturgeon, has been selected by numerous Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris and New York and has also been served at international events such as the Oscars ceremony and the G20 Summit banquet in Hangzhou, Zhejiang.

"Since our establishment, our goal has been to export caviar because it's in high demand internationally," Xia said. From the first jar produced in 2006, Kaluga Queen caviar has gradually penetrated international markets. The company now exports to 45 countries and regions.

"We showcase the quality of our caviar at seafood exhibitions in Europe and invite French experts to our factory for inspections and guidance to help us produce even more delicious caviar," Xia said.

The company's aquaculture output ranks first globally, and Xia said they have plans to expand. "Our goal is to capture over 50 percent of the global market share in the next five years," he said.

Ninety percent of annual Kaluga Queen caviar production is for export, while the remainder is sold in China. Over the past 20 years domestic caviar sales have increased steadily, reaching 100 million yuan ($13.9 million) in 2023, Xia said.

"The domestic market still has tremendous potential. At the moment, most high-end restaurants in China favor Kaluga Queen," Xia said. His next step is to expand the product into more midrange restaurants while continuing online sales, allowing more people in China to enjoy high-quality caviar.

"Through Tmall, our caviar goes straight from the source to the table, allowing consumers to enjoy it at a much lower price than in Michelin-starred restaurants. Our annual sales on Tmall now exceed tens of millions of yuan," he said.

Staff and volunteers sort premium cranberries on Jan 7, 2024 at a planting base in Fuyuan, Heilongjiang province. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

A feast of progress

Innovative agricultural research is revolutionizing farming methods across China and expanding business opportunities.

Zhang Shiling is in charge of aquatic products at the online retail platform Dingdong Maicai. From Xinjiang crabs to Yellow River wetland crayfish, he provides consumers with their food requests despite seasonal challenges.

Last February, Zhang discovered a crayfish farm in Yellow River wetlands during his nationwide search for produce. Impressed by the crayfish's thin, clean shells, he introduced them to the market.

"The consumers love these crayfish," Zhang said. "They have a high repurchase rate because of their delicious taste — whether boiled or steamed — with sweet and fresh meat."

Every year, Zhang buys crabs from Jiangsu province, however, there are times of the year when they are unavailable. With the help of an agriculture institute, Zhang learned that crabs sourced from Xinjiang could fill the gap.

"In Xinjiang, they've learned crab farming techniques from Jiangsu. The crabs raised with snow water in the Tianshan Mountains have thinner shells and sweeter meat and are about 70 percent of the price of Yangcheng Lake crabs," he said.

Zhang also noticed that in recent years, many places in China have started farming high-quality aquatic products such as South American white shrimp.

"Chinese consumers are trusting domestic aquaculture more and don't rely as much on imports. They also want domestic seafood to be fresher," Zhang added.

Xia, from the Hangzhou caviar company, said his company also relied heavily on technology to improve its product.

"In 1998, our founding team established the Sturgeon Breeding Technology Engineering Center of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences," he said.

With the international ban on wild sturgeon fishing, Xia said his company saw an opportunity to fill the gap in the international market and in 2003 developed its caviar project.

One of the sturgeon species their team researched was the Kaluga, or river beluga, which can live up to 100 years and weigh 1 metric ton. "We chose the name of this fish to name our caviar after," he said.

After scouting various locations for aquaculture, the company settled on Qiandao Lake. "We were impressed by its crystal-clear water and smooth surface during our first visit. The area also boasts excellent transportation and government support for technology transfer, making it an ideal choice in Zhejiang," he explained.

Xia and his team faced the challenge of Zhejiang's hot summers. They overcame the hurdle by pumping cold water from the depths of the lake to cool the fish farms. This improved survival rates of the Kaluga and led to a significant increase in productivity.

Processing the caviar was another challenge to overcome. The company sent employees to Germany to learn the techniques involved and they later set up a caviar production workshop in a rented warehouse.

In 2006, they produced China's first jar of farmed caviar. "We started with about 500 kilograms that year, then gradually increased to 1.7 tons, 3.2 tons, and in 2023 we hit 221 tons," Xia said.

Their workshop became too small for their requirements and in 2010 the company built a processing center in Quzhou, Zhejiang. Since then, the company has expanded its operations beyond Qiandao Lake to Liaoning, Sichuan and Hubei provinces.

"Our technology is ready to be replicated elsewhere in China," Xia said. "We have also invited environmental and fisheries experts and others to study wastewater treatment. Through chemical methods, we turn wastewater into organic fertilizer, which is supplied to local farmers for use, forming a good agricultural cycle."

Farmers have also been taught how to breed sturgeons and sell them to the company. A research institute to train students in aquaculture and production techniques has also been established, Xia said.

Hong Xing, a villager in the Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, invites friends to taste handmade wine in July 2021. (PHOTO / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

Liquid gold

Olive oil, often called "liquid gold", has been gaining popularity in China in recent years. However, for a long time domestic consumers favored imported brands.

In the 1970s, Professor Xu Weiying, an olive oil expert from China Agricultural University, suggested planting olive trees imported from Albania in Wudu district, Longnan, as a trial. After a few years the trees began to thrive, prompting the local government to invest in establishing an olive oil demonstration base.

In 1998, the International Olive Council's World Olive Distribution Map marked China's presence for the first time, specifically noting Wudu district. By 2005, Wudu olive oil had earned certification as a geographical indication product.

With an ideal climate and environment for olive tree cultivation, Longnan is today one of the world's top olive oil-producing regions. It is also China's largest olive oil production area.

During the 2023-2024 pressing season, Wudu district is expected to produce 7,500 tons of olive oil, a year-on-year increase of 20.97 percent, according to a recent Wudu government report.

Founded in 2018, Olive Time Technology, is a leading player in Longnan's olive oil industry.

"We ensure our olives are processed within 24 hours of picking to make our premium extra-virgin olive oil," said Li Chao, the company's vice president and production manager.

The company has approximately 3,300 hectares of land in the Wudu district as its supply base, which in turn has driven nearly 250,000 people to develop olive products, he said.

In 2023, the company purchased 4,600 tons of fresh olives and produced 510 tons of oil with an expected output value of 68 million yuan.

Li said Longnan has few profitable crops, so the olive oil industry is a boon for local farmers. About 0.06 hectares of land can produce around 250 kilograms of olives, providing farmers with approximately 4,000 yuan in income, a much higher return than other crops, he said.

"Compared with cereal crops, olive tree cultivation is much simpler, requiring only watering and pruning," Li said. "Outside the busy harvest season around October, farmers can also work elsewhere during their spare time."

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Domestic olive oil is becoming more popular with Chinese consumers, he said. Domestic olive oil also has a price advantage over imported olive oil of similar quality.

"If domestic olive oil can gain a foothold in the Chinese market as sales increase, the enthusiasm of farmers and enterprises will increase, and the quality and production efficiency of olive oil will also improve," Li said.

The company's oil processing uses imported production lines, with an oil yield of about 12 percent. However, it is collaborating with the Lanzhou Institute of Chemical Physics, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Gansu Agricultural University to develop new equipment and technology to improve the oil yield.

In addition, they are also developing more derivative products, including olive pickles, olive oil beef sauce and olive oil gummies.

There are plans to get Chinese consumers into the habit of drinking olive oil, which has purported health benefits. "We are developing powdered olive oil products that can be mixed with water for drinking, and can also be flavored with honey to better suit consumers' dietary habits," said Li.