A taste of a unique is­land, in four bites

China Daily (USA) - - SHANGHAI FOCUS - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai

Chong­ming is the world’s largest sand is­land, and with its lo­ca­tion on the es­tu­ary of the Yangtze River and the East China Sea and its unique soil traits, it is en­dowed with ideal con­di­tions for grow­ing many plants, veg­eta­bles and fruits.

Between 2010 and 2015, the lo­cal govern­ment shut down 156 fac­to­ries and plants con­sid­ered en­vi­ron­men­tally un­friendly, at a loss of 1.73 bil­lion yuan ($260 mil­lion), to turn the 1,267-square-kilo­me­ter is­land into both an ur­ban re­treat for peo­ple and a par­adise for flora and fauna. Last year its agri­cul­ture gen­er­ated 5.9 bil­lion yuan in rev­enue, ac­count­ing for one-third of the agri­cul­tural prod­ucts con­sumed by the 24 mil­lion peo­ple of Shang­hai. In ad­di­tion to the pro­duce the is­land grows, it has at­tracted an in­creas­ing num­ber of ur­ban­ites flee­ing city life to be­come farm­ers.

Fol­low­ing are some of the most well-known agri­cul­tural prod­ucts from the is­land that dis­tin­guish it from other places and have proven to be ir­re­sistible to mil­lions of Shang­hainese, so much so that they are will­ing to make the re­turn jour­ney of 150 kilo­me­ters for a taste of Chong­ming.

Chong­ming is be­lieved to have grown golden mel­ons since the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), af­ter Chi­nese ships made their largest and long­est over­seas voy­age in an­cient his­tory, with 240 ves­sels and 27,000 crew sail­ing to more than 30 coun­tries and re­gions. They brought back a va­ri­ety of for­eign pro­duce in ex­change for china. But af­ter cen­turies of cross-breed­ing, the mel­ons grown in Chong­ming to­day are eight times larger than the orig­i­nal ones and weigh as much as a wa­ter­melon, says Chen Jun, vicedi­rec­tor of the district’s agri­cul­ture depart­ment.

The melon is dubbed the veg­etable jel­ly­fish, mainly be­cause of the sim­i­lar color af­ter it is peeled and sliced as an au­tumn ap­pe­tizer, and its tex­ture and fla­vor are closer to those of cu­cum­bers.

Each year Chong­ming grows 530 hectares of golden mel­ons, which weigh 24,000 met­ric tons. Since 1985 the is­land’s golden mel­ons have been ex­ported to a dozen coun­tries, and this au­tumn, for the first time, 500 kg of fresh golden mel­ons are go­ing to be sold in Hong Kong.

The Chi­nese word for saf­fron is zanghonghua, which means Ti­betan red flower, and with a strong mis­con­cep­tion in mind many tourists in Ti­bet have sought it out as a sou­venir. Chong­ming is the largest pro­ducer of the flower in China, ac­count­ing for more than 90 per­cent of the out­put.

Gu Jian­pei, a vet­eran saf­fron grower and trader in Chong­ming, said the is­land started to plant the flower early in the 1980s, af­ter a bi­ol­o­gist con­sult­ing for Shang­hai Medicine Group dis­cov­ered that the sand-soil in Chong­ming is ideal for the flower, which is widely used in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine.

Saf­fron, na­tive to the Mediter­ranean, has strin­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal needs to grow suc­cess­fully, un­able to sur­vive be­low -7 C or above 30 C, or with any chem­i­cals or chem­i­cally pol­luted soil.

In 2015, the is­land pro­duced a record 800 kg of saf­fron. The flower’s high prof­itabil­ity — it takes about six months from sow­ing to har­vest­ing — has also at­tracted an in­creas­ing num­ber of lo­cal farm­ers to cul­ti­vate it.

Just as many Parisians travel to Nor­mandy ev­ery oys­ter sea­son for oys­ters, Shang­hainese used to ferry for hours to Chong­ming dur­ing win­ter, be­fore the Yangtze River tun­nel and bridge opened in 2009, for a taste of the meat that the Chong­ming white goat yields. The goat, a pro­tected species listed by the na­tional agri­cul­tural depart­ment as the most im­por­tant goat breed in the Yangtze River Delta re­gion, is cel­e­brated for its smaller size, ten­der meat, and free of the gamey odor com­mon to many goats.

It is usu­ally served af­ter be­ing boiled in water, with a dish of soy sauce. While the goat is avail­able all year around, the tra­di­tion to sa­vor it mostly in win­ter is be­lieved to re­sult from the say­ing that “One more dish of white goat on the ta­ble, one less cotton-padded jacket in the wardrobe”, as in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicines, goat is con­sid­ered to gen­er­ate and pre­serve hu­man body heat.

How­ever, the white goat’s small­ness, mainly be­cause of its slower growth, is en­dan­ger­ing the species as farm­ers are des­per­ate to ac­cel­er­ate its growth by cross-breed­ing it with other goat types. Since 2007 the Shang­hai Academy of Agri­cul­ture Sci­ence has had a spe­cial project to pre­serve the pu­rity of the Chong­ming white goat. It has saved 300 em­bryos and 500 frozen sperm, which a re­searcher with the academy, Lin Yuexia, said are be­lieved to be able to stay ac­tive for about 100 years.

To­gether with old white wine (sticky rice wine) and white goat, na­tives of Chong­ming is­land trea­sure white hari­cot as one of “three whites”.

Brought to China from In­dia by Western mis­sion­ar­ies more than a cen­tury ago, the lo­cals of Chong­ming have nick­named it baib­ian­dou, or for­eign beans. With a size and tex­ture that are sim­i­lar to those of English beans, it is usu­ally lightly fried with a spray of spring onions as a veg­etable dish and en­joyed from late sum­mer to early win­ter by is­land res­i­dents.

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