ALTHOUGH some diners complain that organic restaurants are expensive and only offer simple, mild-tasting dishes with little variety, they have become more popular in Shanghai in the past two years.
The concept is generally defined as restaurants that exclusively use organic ingredients.
The popularity of organic food in China stems from an "open secret." Farmers usually cultivate two fields. In the bigger field they use chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides and the crops are sold to markets; in the smaller field they don't use any chemical additives and this food is kept for themselves and their family, says Tony Zhang, founder of Tony's Farm, an organic farm in Shanghai.
Organic food has become more popular as a series of scandals in the past few years have raised serious safety concerns about what people eat, Zhang says.
However, Penny Dai, a food critic and columnist based in Shanghai and Hong Kong, says the organic dining concept is not fully expressed in Shanghai.
"Providing organic food is the base," she says. "But more importantly, an organic restaurant is a place where diners experience an organic lifestyle, pursuing harmony and nature.
"Compared with most Shanghai organic restaurants, which simply stick to the use of organic ingredients, eateries in Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo take the concept much further. This includes the dining ambience, interior design, tableware and even the selection of staff," Dai says.
For example, in Taipei, SoFr3sh features various greens planted in water without soil. Salad greens are freshly picked in the restaurant, which reduces pollution as the produce doesn't need to be transported.
Meanwhile, Gingko House in Hong Kong features staff consisting mostly of elderly seniors with financial difficulties. The idea is to do good things for both society and the environment.
The napkins and tablecloths used in many organic restaurants in both Hong Kong and Taipei are made from organic cotton, according to Dai.
Some newly opened organic restaurants in Shanghai have caught on to this trend and are better expressing the organic concept through interior design.
Green and Safe, an organic restaurant that opened last year on Dongping Road, made its furniture out of recycled school desks and chairs. Customers who bring their own food containers can get a discount.
Some restaurants, including Log Cabin in Pudong, are on an organic farm.
Dai says there are no more than 10 truly organic restaurants in Shanghai, and most of those have opened in the past two years. They cover hot pot, Taiwanese, Mediterranean, Shanghainese and Cantonese cuisines.
Hot pot is the most popular culinary style for organic food in the city. Both Qimin Organic Hotpot on Shaanxi Road and Log Cabin are hot pot restaurants.
"When eating hot pot, organic produce is simply boiled and simmered so that their original flavors can be highlighted," says Zoe He, spokesman for Qimin Organic Hotpot.
Frank Hu, chef de cuisine at Shang-High Cuisine in Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai, also prefers keeping it simple when it comes to organic produce.
"I prefer stir-frying organic vegetables or simmering them in clean broth to show their original character. In terms of organic meat, braising for a long time is an ideal way to bring out the meaty fragrance and tenderize the firm texture," says Hu, who works at the city's only Shanghainese organic restaurant.
Mauro Colagreco is a Michelin-star chef who owns Colagreco restaurant and an organic garden in the outskirts of Shanghai.
"I try to use simple techniques to present the natural flavors," Colagreco says. "It's better not to add too many flavors. Salad is ideal."
Organic restaurants in Shanghai are divided into two types - one that owns an organic farm, either in the suburbs or neighboring provinces, and the other that sources ingredients from various organic farms domestically and worldwide.
Restaurants that own an organic farm generally feature dishes with less variety, yet they offer high quality at comparatively affordable prices.
"Food variety is inevitably limited by the growing seasons, the local climate and soil," says Zhang from Tony's Farm.
Some fine dining restaurants, including Shang-High, source ingredients from all over the world so that they can present food grown in different climates and in different seasons. Some critics say this defeats the purpose of organic as the produce has to be transported great distances, which inevitably creates pollution.
There are also restaurants that do not qualify as strictly organic, yet they use organic ingredients for some dishes. Such dishes are usually highlighted on the menu.
For example, a pizza made from organic eggs is highlighted on the menu of Mercato, an Italian restaurant owned by Michelin-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Organic food is at least 15-percent more expensive than normal produce, according to Zhang, which leads to potential problems with diners.
"I expect that the more I pay, the better the food tastes," says Faye Gu, who dined at an organic hot pot restaurant recently. "However, most of the time I feel disappointed."
He, spokesman for the Qinmin Organic Hotpot, says many customers do not understand the organic concept.
He says it's not the food itself that is mild tasting, but the cooking method. He adds that boiling food creates a milder taste as nothing is added.
He says they once held a blind tasting, inviting customers to taste both organic and non-organic food.
"The organic Chinese cabbage, beetroots and tomatoes, although smaller, taste sweeter, more flavorful and concentrated," she says.
Shang-High's Hu says taste really depends on each food.
"Some vegetables that are farmed organically - especially cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots - taste more flavorful, crispy and juicy," he says. "But for some seasonal greens such as spinach and cao tou (a clover blossom), the difference between organic and non-organic is hard to discern."
Furthermore, organic pork and chicken tastes and smells much better, according to chef Hu. He says organic pork is leaner, firmer, and has more juices inside and a distinctive natural aroma.
Challenges and opportunities
Wang Maohua, deputy director of the country's Agriculture Product Certification Center, Certification and Accreditation Administration, says organic food faces some challenges in China, including certification issues and price gouging due to misleading marketing promotions.
Meanwhile, the high cost of organic farming also limits its popularity among price-conscious customers, especially middle-aged and elderly people.
Zhang from Tony's Farm says customers need to understand why organic food costs more. "It's not just the money, but the time invested in organic farming," he says. "It takes at least three to four years to certify a plot of farmland as organic. During this period the soil and the water needs to be improved and nothing is grown on the farm."
On the other hand, many organic restaurants are trying to keep prices affordable by attracting more people.
"Although organic food is more expensive, it's used more efficiently in the kitchen," chef Hu says. "Take romaine lettuce as an example. With normal lettuce, plenty of outer leaves are removed as they are rough and dry. However, when cooking organic, the whole head of lettuce can be used. It's an important way to cover costs."
Zhang says he is optimistic about the future of organic food.
"In Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, organic food accounts for about 8 to 10 percent of food consumption while on China's mainland its market share is less than 1 percent," he says.
It's one of the few organic restaurants in Shanghai with a good variety of dishes. Chef Hu sources ingredients locally for freshness, as well as domestically and globally for variety and quality. He sticks to authentic and traditional Shanghai flavors while at the same time adding a contemporary presentation.
Dongpo Pork (pork braised in soybean sauce) is the signature dish. The organic black pork features a firm yet tender texture, pleasant meaty aroma and rich deep flavors.
The stir-fried pea shoots and beef cheek with truffle braised in sauce are also recommended.
Price: 250 yuan per person
Address: 6/F, Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai, 1108 Meihua Rd, Pudong
This restaurant lives up to its name. It's in a log cabin on an organic farm. It features the concept "from farm to table."
All the ingredients are freshly picked from the farm and cooked in a hotpot.
The soup base is made from chicken and herbs. It tastes clean and flavorful. The experience is enhanced by the farm view outside. However, variety is lacking. Besides greens and vegetables in season, there are only some stir-fried river shrimp and river-eel on the menu.
This venue combines a café, supermarket, canteen and restaurant. Customers here may feel like they are dining in a fresh market.
Lines of wooden crates outside the store catch the eye and fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables are sold.
The first floor has a supermarket, a school-like canteen and a pastry table.
All food in the supermarket is organic, from the soybean sauce to wine. The canteen area provides simple dishes like salads, pastas and bread. The sour and spicy Thai salad is refreshing and highly recommended. The carrot cake is also a winner.
The formal restaurant is on the second floor and is only open for brunch and dinner. The menu is dominated by Mediterranean tapas while some traditional Taiwan dishes such as salted pork and smoky chicken are also available.
Portions are a tad small.
Price: 200 yuan per person
Address: 6 Dongping Rd
Qimin Organic Hotpot
The restaurant combines organic farming techniques with traditional Chinese recipes.
The restaurant name comes from "Qi Min Yao Shu" (literally meaning "Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People"), the first agricultural encyclopedia in China about cultivating and cooking food.
All the ingredients are grown on the restaurant's organic farm, which covers an area of 35 hectares in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province. The farm uses bean powder and rice as natural fertilizers.
All the soup bases follow ancient recipes in "Qi Min Yao Shu."
The chicken soup is a highlight. The chicken bone is broken without breaking the skin to give the broth full flavor.
A dipping sauce made from 10 ingredients, including sesame and cumin, is recommended for meat dishes. It adds more richness and layers of flavor without overpowering the meat.