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The Sweet Smell of Success — One Chinese County’s Dominant Role in Global Garlic Industry

Anyone who has enjoyed Chinese food in China will discover, by aroma as well as by taste, that garlic is the most widely-used flavoring agent of all, after salt. It’s detectable – in fact visible – in just about every stir-fried or stewed dish, in such large quantities to leave most outsiders breathless. Which, of course, is just as well. 

A simple stir-fried dish will often have 3-4 whole cloves of chopped or sliced garlic. Many dishes have far more. One of my favorites, Lazi Jiding, is a Sichuan dish of small chunks of chicken, chili peppers, and often several heads’ worth of garlic cloves all deep-fried together.

Garlic turns up everywhere, at all times of the day. This morning at the breakfast buffet of the hotel where I was staying in Fujian, there was a dish of simple stir-fried cabbage that had at least 25 cloves of garlic in it. I stopped counting long enough to spoon some onto my plate, and move onto the next garlic-laced Chinese breakfast treat.  

I lived a lot in Italy,  the other country famed for its use of garlic. There, adding more than one clove to a dish is usually considered excessive, even uncouth. You will likely eat more garlic in a day in China than a month spent eating in Italy. 

In the US, garlic has become a far more common part of the diet than when I was a child.  I began noticing several years ago that all the garlic I bought in LA was imported from China. That always struck me as odd, since very little fresh food is imported from China, and California has a town, Castroville, that’s famed as one of the world’s largest producers of garlic. 

The Made-in-China garlic I’ve bought is always fresh, crisp and cheap – usually no more than a dollar a pound. I never figured out how anyone could make any money shipping it from so far and selling it for so cheap. 

I assumed that the US’s ever-increasing appetite for garlic was emptying China of its favorite flavoring. Since moving to China, however, I’ve seen that wasn’t the case, that there was more than enough to satisfy China’s far larger appetite. So, then my question became: where is all this garlic being produced? From all the garlic in circulation, you’d think half of China’s arable land must be used to cultivate it. Yet, I’ve never seen any in the ground. I’ve asked friends, farmers, chefs, but never got a clear answer to where all this garlic was coming from. 

Now I know at least one place. Jinxiang County in Shandong Province is the largest garlic-producing area in China. This little-known area in Shandong’s southwest corner is not far from Qufu, Confucius’s birthplace. Jinxiang  is also now one of the centers of worldwide commodity speculation. The price of Jinxiang-grown garlic has spiked recently, rising more than fifty-fold from its low a year ago. As the China Daily reports, “Garlic trading has created a handful of new millionaires overnight in Jinxiang county.” 

I couldn’t find a figure for Jinxiang’s total garlic output. But, last year Jinxiang produced 70% of China’s garlic for export, over one million tons last year. That means that Jinxiang produced half all the garlic eaten outside China. At current pace and current export price of around $1,000 a ton, Shandong will export over $1 billion of garlic in next 12 months. 

China has no strong natural advantage in garlic-production. It’s not particularly labor-intensive, nor does it grow best in climate like China’s. Garlic, after all, is a member of the onion family, and so grows pretty well all over the world. Jinxiang must be the world’s leading garlic producer for other reasons that highlight a part of China’s economic strength that is often not emphasized: regions with intensive focus on particular industries (in this case, growing garlic for home and export market)  and a developed infrastructure to move goods quickly and efficiently to market. 

China has one other advantage that helps explain its dominance in global garlic-production. The whole plant can be sold for good money, not just the bulb. Chinese also eat prodigious quantities of the green garlic shoots that grow above ground. This vegetable, called jiu cai (韭菜)in Chinese, is served on its own, as a stir-fried dish, or added to many other staples, including dumplings. Like a skilful butcher carving a hog,  garlic farmers in Jinxiang know how to extract every morsel of profit, and leave nothing to waste. 

I’m determined now to go to Jinxiang. Partly, it’s because I love garlic. But, I also want to see (and smell) this region for myself, how farms are organized, what else is grown or manufactured there. I want to find out more how one place became so big and so successful selling one agricultural product that (unlike, say, tobacco or ginseng) grows just about anywhere. 

I’m determined to go to Jinxiang at first opportunity.  I’m pretty certain over the last 20 years, to satiate my love of garlic, more of my money has ended up in Jinxiang than just about anywhere else in China.  

 

Disclosure: None