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Salad Days in Old Shanghai

发表于 10-5-2021 13:41:55 | 显示全部楼层 |阅读模式
James T Areddy, Salad Days in Old Shanghai. Until the 1990s, mainland China rarely ate raw food, including cabbage and salad greens. An enterprising Frenchman changed all that. Wa;; Street Journal, Aug 17, 2021, at page A 13
https://www.wsj.com/articles/the ... hanghai-11629151748
(book review on Xavier Naville, The Lettuce Diary. How a Frenchman found gold growing vegetables in China. Earnshaw, 2021)

(a) salad days
(b) Xavier (given name)
(which is English spelling (accent on the first syllable); Spanish spelling: Javier with accent on second syllable)

Not of aristocratic descent, he was born in a castle in present-day Navarre, which is eastern neighbor of Basque Country -- both as an autonomous community within Spain.
(c) "They [raw, green leafy vegetables] were a new form of healthy food that preserved more vitamins than stir-frying vegetables in the traditional Chinese way"
(i) The sentence applies to vitamin C only, which disintegrates when heated.
(ii) Mainly green leafy vegetables contain C, but celery does, too.
(d) "he writes drily"
(i) dry (adj):
"13 b: having no personal bias or emotional concern  <the dry light of reason>
* * *
14: marked by matter-of-fact, ironic, or terse manner of expression  <a dry wit>  <has a very dry sense of humor>"

In my view, "a dry wit,"  "has a very dry sense of humor" can mean ironic, as when a speaker dead-pan (unsmilingly, which is what drily means) says things that are ironic (or humorous) to a listener. However, drily may mean matter-of-factly, as here.
(ii) dry (adj):
"2: (of information, writing, etc [not human, that is]) dully factual  <the dry facts of the matter>
        2.1 unemotional, undemonstrative, or impassive  <it transformed him from a dry administrator into the people's hero>"

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A Westerner visiting China in the 1990s could expect dinner hosts to offer their guest “salad” alongside regional foods like Sichuan mapo tofu or Hunan red-braised pork. The then out-of-place dish was both a sign of respect for the visitor and a way of showing that China was opening up to “outside” ideas, even about cuisine. Yet, a Chinese offering of “sè-lā,” as the dish is pronounced in Mandarin, would often remain untouched. What passed for salad—diced potatoes tossed with Russian dressing, or a half-head of doubtful-looking iceberg drenched in an indeterminate glop—wasn’t very appealing alongside traditional Chinese fare.

Credit Frenchman Xavier Naville for better orienting salad in China. In "The Lettuce Diaries," Mr Naville recounts his unlikely story of creating a market there for the kind of salad greens familiar to Westerners.

When he arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1997, the 27-year-old Mr Naville was the impeccably dressed but woefully inexperienced head of finance for Asiafoods, a British-backed American startup that, like Sysco or Aramark, packaged "safe, hygienic meals” for “institutional canteens." Within two years he had learned not only rudimentary Mandarin but also vall about the challenges with vegetable sourcing and growing in China—in both supply and hygiene." He had also chanced upon a promising client, KFC, which needed a Chinese supplier of coleslaw and lettuce for its already more than 300 fast-food chicken restaurants on the mainland.

In the year 2000, Mr Naville and an American vegetable-prep consultant spun off a few stainless-steel chopping tables at Asiafoods into a new venture, Creative Food, that would become, in Mr Naville's words, "the largest fresh-food company in China." Bite into a chicken sandwich at a KFC in Shanghai today, or buy a bagged salad in a supermarket in Beijing, and there’s a good chance the operation Mr Naville launched supplied the lettuce inside.

Until the advent of Western-style fast food in the 1990s, "the Chinese rarely ate raw vegetables," Mr Naville remembers. "I knew from our canteen menus that to them, raw food was not food, period." But once urban diners acquired a taste for burgers and fries, raw salads became less of a stretch. Young, newly affluent Chinese consumers soon came to like bagged, chopped, pre-washed greens because they were as convenient as fast food but far more nutritious. "They were a new form of healthy food that preserved more vitamins than stir-frying vegetables in the traditional Chinese way," Mr Naville writes. Within seven years of its launch, he had sold Creative Food at a $20 million valuation.

"The Lettuce Diaries" evokes a bygone golden age for foreign entrepreneurs in China. Now that ties between Beijing and the West are rapidly collapsing, it's hard to recall a time. not long ago, when ambitious outsiders flocked to the mainland to seek fortunes, taking advantage of low wages and huge opportunities to launch small businesses poised to capture the world's largest, newest middle class. Mr Naville offers sound advice about doing business in China: Westerners must "listen, listen, listen" and be willing to fine tune their business models, not just to local needs and tastes but to rapidly changing political realities and supply lines. But he recognizes that his story won't inspire a second rush there: What worked for him in early 2000s simply can't be replicated in 2021. In the China of Xi Jinping, he writes dryly, "it's unlikely that a Frenchman who doesn't speak the language would be able to carve out a niche serving lettuce to restaurant chains across the country."

Full disclosure: Mr Naville was an acquaintance of mine in Shanghai -- I was a Journal reporter there until last year -- and I always looked forward to picking his brain about business. I envied his seemingly "easy" success; I pined for insight from the crossroads of Chinese agriculture and industry; I wanted access to government officials who were rarely candid with a reporter like me. But Mr Naville was surprisingly tight-lipped, and it took "The Lettice Diary" for me to learn why: He'd been picking greens in a minefield. He'd not only had to mastered Mandarin but also a "treacherous" and corner-cutting Chinese business mindset. One of his employees was held hostage in a financial dispute, and another plotted to take control of his company. "I discovered," he writes, "that my Western education had to be blended with an entirely new set of principles guiding relationships between people."

He also had to learn to relax his sense of business ethics with Western clients. In 2003 KFC requested Mr Naville supply [optative mood/sentence after request; English adjective/ noun optative and verb opt both descend from Latin verb optare 1: choose, opt, 2: wish, desire] scallion and onions as well as lettuce for a new chicken wrap [鸡肉卷] that would be heavily marketed at Lunar New Year. The wrap was a hit, selling at four times the forecast rate -- and Mr Naville's operation couldn't keep up. So, while standing in snowshoes in northern Japan where he was on his honeymoon, Mr Naville pulled some government strings, calling on a friend, the vice mayor of a town outside Shanghai, to order the town's school kitchens to handle the processing. "Picture a metal roof over concrete sinks and countertops set with filthy, rusty kitchen tools * * * and wooden chopping boards harboring invisible colonies of bacteria," he writes. "And forget about hand washing." The supply crisis was averted, but Mr Naville's scheme was soon exposed to KFC, threatening his entire business. "I'm not proud of what I did, but I also believe it was a necessary trade-off," he writes of the off-site processing operation and its non-existent "quality control."

Mr Naville's KFC connection led to deals supplying lettuce to other Chinese fast-food chains, including Starbucks and McDonald's, and to start his bagged-salad business. But like many other foreign entrepreneurs of his era, Mr Naville left China with concerns about its global influence ad a feeling that the nation's modern image doesn't live up to reality. "I felt increasingly uncomfortable showing investors Shanghai's glittering skyline as a way to convince them that my business had an amazing future," he writes. "Behind the curtain of China's modernization loomed this shadowy food chain that had no connection whatsoever with the modern-looking store fronts [almost always one word: storefronts; Lexico.com says storefront is 'North American' and Cambridge dictionary said the same and that 'shopfront' is British English; London-based macmillandictionary.com has storefront (one word); only London-based collinsdictionary.com has 'store front' (two words), noting it is 'North American'] and factories I showed my visitors."

Mr Areddy is a Journal correspondent who covers China.  

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