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High in the upper reaches of North-West China lies a land filled with riches. For it’s here, on the banks of the Yellow River and in the shade of the mist-covered Liupan Mountains that the people of the Ningxia region have been growing one of Asia’s most sought-after foods for centuries.
This small, oval-shaped berry has been called the “red diamond” as it is thought to have anti-ageing powers and has achieved newfound global status as a superfood, but to the people of China, who have being using it medicinally since the 3rd Century, it’s simply called the goji berry or wolfberry.
The goji berry is grown across China, but it’s Ningxia’s unique geology that has created the most revered version of the fruit
The goji berry is grown across China, but it’s Ningxia’s unique geology that has created the most revered version of the fruit. “It’s the combination of cool mountain breezes, mineral-rich soil and vines irrigated by the famed Yellow River that make the goji berries from the Ningxia region so prized,” said Evan Guo, sales manager for Ningxia Baishi Hengxing Food Technology Co, an organic goji berry farm.
The farmers in Ningxia still harvest the fruit in the same way they have done throughout history. From July to September each year, farmhands crouch in front of waist-high bushes laden with the plump tomato-coloured berries. They deftly pluck a handful of the sweet treats at one time from the vines before they drop them into a woven bamboo basket.
China’s love of the goji berry dates back hundreds of years, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners have long believed that it has medicinal powers. The earliest record of this is in the Compendium of Materia Medica, a historical medical text written by the famed herbalist Li Shizhen in the 16th Century. Ms Zhang Ruifen, a TCM doctor for Eu Yan Sang Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic that has locations in China, Malaysia and Singapore, said, “It is a very extensive, celebrated record and goji berry is recorded in that book. Li stated what each herb looked like and how you should use it.”
The Chinese view the goji berry as a both a fruit and a herb, and the berry that’s packed with vitamin C, antioxidants, amino acids and trace minerals, is prescribed by TCM doctors to boost liver and kidney function. “Chinese mothers may say that you need to eat it as it is good for the eyes, as it contains carotene,” said Zhang, who studied Chinese medicine in Beijing. “I would prescribe it to help boost the kidney and liver system, of which TCM believes that the eyes are a part.”
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At home, Chinese men and women will sprinkle dried goji berries over homemade chicken, red date and ginger in their “old fire simmer soup” (a clear broth cooked over a low heat) or into a flask of chrysanthemum tea to give themselves a vitamin boost. When Zhang prescribes it to patients, she combines it with a potent combination of other herbs: “We usually don’t use a single herb for the whole treatment; it is a part of a concoction,” she said.
However, there are certain times that as a TCM practitioner Zhang says she will choose not to prescribe it so it doesn’t exacerbate the patient’s condition. “If a person has a fever, inflammation or sore throat, which we call ‘heaty’ in Chinese medicine, I would advise the patient to stop taking goji berry during that period of time,” she said. “If they were also suffering from ‘dampness’ and diarrhoea, which we call spleen deficiency, we say that you shouldn’t take it as well. But when you are fine, generally goji berry is suitable for everybody.”
Goji berries have long been part of Chinese culture. Legend has it that more than 2,000 years ago a doctor visited a village in China where everyone was more than 100 years old. He discovered that they all drank from a well that was surrounded by goji berries. And the theory was that, as the fruit ripened, it would fall into the well and its vitamin-packed contents would seep into the water. Tales are also told of a 17th-Century herbalist called Li Qing Yuen who ate goji berries every day and was said to have lived until he was 252 years old. If this wasn’t enough to encourage future generations to eat the traditional old fire simmer soups that were garnished with goji berries, Chinese mothers would tell their children that the berries would stop them from needing glasses to get them to finish their bowls.
But times are changing for this simple berry, including how it is consumed. The ancient goji berry, which has long been part of Chinese culture, is now being viewed as a superfood both in China and beyond.
Asia’s younger generations are embracing the goji berry, but giving it their own twist. For example, members of Gen Z are now buying “wellness kettles” for their goji berry tea. Their parents might recognise these as traditional soup kettles that have been repackaged by brands such as Buydeem and turned a more Instagram-worthy shade of pink. A 2019 study by Agility Research & Strategy on Gen Z in China showed that this generation sees living a healthy life as a key priority, even over money, career, personal enjoyment and having a family.
The berry has also become popular with international consumers. Hooked on the “superfood”, people in the West are paying up to US$10 for a packet of the berries, around three times the price in Asia.
The superfood price tag is encouraging farmers to make sure that their crop reaches the supermarket shelves faster. While the farmers in Ningxia pluck 180,000 tonnes of fresh goji berries each year from the vines, they sell most of their produce in dried form as the fresh berry’s shelf-life is short. The berries will ripen quickly in the hot summer sun, which means that farmers need to work quickly to gather their crop.
In times gone by, berries would be left to dry on large trays in the sun, though modern technology has sped up this process to meet the increase in demand. Ningxia Baishi Hengxing’s owner, Mr An Weijun, who was born to goji berry farmers, launched an organic farm eight years ago. He also built a state-of-the-art laboratory where his team can dry their berries and those of other regional organic producers in a fraction of the time.
The power of the goji berry doesn’t look as if it will dim anytime soon as there were a record number of goji berries (179 tonnes) sold in China during the recent Singles Day sales (China’s version of Black Friday). Asian trend spotters such as Amrita Banta, managing director of Agility Research & Strategy, has also seen young Asians embrace a healthier way of living:
“After many years of Chinese consumers shunning everything made in China as old and unscientific, we believe there is in China a renewed pride in many traditional products and practices,” she said. “Yet, the popularity of goji berries comes on the back of a global awareness of their properties. Today, Chinese youth eat them because they are considered a superfood, not necessarily because TCM indicates that they treat eye, liver and kidney ailments. It is fascinating to see China becoming so proud of its past, yet so connected to the rest of the world.”
Today, Chinese youth eat them because they are considered a superfood
Young chefs in Asia are also using goji berries in their dishes to give them a little local flavour. It was the goji berry that Chef Anna Lim turned to when she was invited to make a limited-edition breakfast dish for fast food giant McDonald’s. The Soup Spoon owner created a savoury porridge with goji berries, and it became so popular in Singapore that it was added to the permanent menu.
“Adding goji berries gives a natural sweetness to the porridge, and with the combination of the colours of the green coriander, white tofu and the red goji berries, it became an eat your colours meal, elevating a simple rice porridge to something that is nutritious and healthy,” said Lim.
While Lim is helping to introduce the fruit to a new generation, chefs such as Chef Chang Hon Cheong of the One Harbour Road restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong hotel is still giving people the chance to enjoy dishes as Asian families would have done in their own mother’s kitchens. Dedicating a page of his menu to herbal tonic soups, the goji berry features among his traditional ingredients.
Guests can take a seat in the Shanghainese mansion-style restaurant where Chang serves the double-boiled soups that he created with TCM in mind. Each day, Chang’s team methodically chops the health-giving ingredients and places them in a ceramic pot, which they immerse into a pot of boiling water. This slow-food process pays homage to TCM and to the farmers who have grown the produce. “Double boiling is a much slower and gentle process,” said Chang. “By double-boiling soup I can fully extract the nutrients and flavours in the ingredients.”
Beyond dining out, health-conscious consumers wanting to embrace the superfood as Asian families have done for generations, can simply throw some goji berries into their soup or tea, and enjoy the taste of the sweet raisin-like superfood that keeps Asia looking and feeling young.
Ancient Eats is a BBC Travel series that puts trendy foods back into their ‘authentic’ context, exploring the cultures and traditions where they were born.
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