Been in Fuzhou: Less than 3 years
I came to know Jacob and his Jiazhou Xianjuan through a friend’s Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog). There were rave reviews of his food, fluent Mandarin, quick delivery by scooter and his cool Chinese name – Kong Jie. These were my only impressions of Jacob, until I met him for the first time with his wife one night. They showed up utterly exhausted, and said they had been experimenting with delivery in a new area, and the orders pouring in were keeping them busy 12 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week.
For most Americans and Europeans, burritos are nothing new or special, though everybody loves them. For the Chinese, it is not entirely unknown, but not very familiar. Conceived in Mexico, its popularity exploded as it made its way across the border into the US and then out to the world. In Mexico, corn or flour tortillas are used to create the outer “wrap”, with the inside stuffed full of meat, refried beans, veggies and cheese. Basically, an entire meal rolled up and consumed as one. The ingredients used to fill up a burrito are wide and varied and can be as simple as just meat and beans. They even bear a resemblance to Run Cakes that are popular in the southern Fujian areas. The classic burrito distinguishes itself with its perceived ‘American flavor’, and in the United States, burrito fillings generally include all of those mentioned above, in addition to some combination of Mexican-style rice, refried beans or black beans, lettuce, salsa, meat, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream, and the size can vary dramatically. Typically, American-style burritos are stuffed with more ingredients than just meat and vegetables. Burritos are especially popular in California, which is why Jacob decided to name his shop ‘Jiazhou Xianjuan’, which translates to ‘Cali Fresh’.
Being brought up in Ithaca, NY, USA, home to Cornell University and a diverse international student body, Jacob grew up around wide diversity of food and culture. Different kinds of restaurants abound all over Ithaca, from the ubiquitous burger joints to the Italian, Chinese and Mexican staples – even Indian and Thai food. It was all good, but something about the Mexican food stayed with him. Like so many people the world over, he loved everything about it, especially the burrito. Disregarding his mother’s wishes that he be a psychologist, he decided to travel the world, eventually settling in Beijing. Here he studied Chinese, learnt pottery and played in a Jazz band. On one fateful day, Jake took the girl, Chen, who later became his wife to a Mexican restaurant in Beijing. “It was her first burrito, and she loved it. I was like, hey I can make them too. So I made some when I got home, and shared them with Chen and other friends. Turned out, everyone loved it. Then I had this idea to start my own burritos business in China.”
Jacob and Chen went back to America for their honeymoon last fall. During this joyous time Jacob took Chen, a Fuzhou native, on a tour of many restaurants in different areas to test out the ‘Fuzhou flavor’, and Chen found her favorite to be the ones from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Back in Fuzhou, Jacob started playing around with the recipe, hoping to come up with something that would suit the local palate, while honoring its roots. He experimented on friends, and family, and eventually he had a recipe that everyone seemed to appreciate. He finally launched his burrito business at the end of last year, from a road side stall by Fuzhou No.3 middle school on Hudong road each Friday, with the simple goal of selling 30 burritos. This proved to never be a problem, as the locals and students realized how lucky they were and bought him out promptly every time he showed up. The business really took off, and Jiazhou Xianjuan is now open every day. The roadside stand still makes appearances, but he also makes batch deliveries to certain city districts throughout the day. Orders come in from messages left by customers or from his WeChat account.
It’s taken an extraordinary amount of hard work for Jacob to live up to the perky name, Cali Fresh, but if anyone can do it, Jacob and his wife can. They start each day at 7am by preparing the meat and veggies, and then preparation for the lunch rush will start. To guarantee quality and freshness, Jacob also imposes a limit on the amount that goes out each day, and extra orders past this limit are not accepted. While making deliveries, Jacob also welcomes customer comments, and has continued to let his technique evolve based on this feedback. For example, though no American would consider a burrito complete without beans, Fuzhou locals don’t seem to like the black beans he uses, so he is considering switching to local spino beans.
Jacob said, ‘Many of us tend to see burritos as fast food only, believing it’s filled with nothing but deep fried meat and loads of salad. I think that’s not exactly true. I like burritos for their fresh ingredients, balanced nutrition and, yes, because they are fast. Burritos fit well in the tempo we live by today. In America, in between Fast Food and Casual Dining, there is a thing called ‘Fast Casual’, that balances out convenience and nutrition. Fast casual food is not unhealthy, and emphasis is put on its ingredients and flavor. Fast casual has become a cuisine trend. But here in Fuzhou, it seems to me that not many people here are aware of the trend. I hope to do my part to get the message out. Eat fast, save time, but still do it in a healthy way.” Looking to the future, Jacob is planning to open a full storefront in Fuzhou and educate more people about fast casual cuisine and Cali Fresh.
H: So, to start with something cliche. What brounght you to Fuzhou?
J: Well, I picked up some Chinese courses when I was working on my dual degrees of Pottery and Psychology in college, and I found great interest in Chinese pottery. I also chose another course on Zhuangzi (note: an ancient Chinese philosophist). There were supermarkets there too, that I always enjoyed checking around. So I was pulled towards China and Chinese culture. Then I went to Beijing to study Chinese on my exchange year in college, and went back to Beijing after graduation in the States. While I was in Beijing, I would go to Jing De Zhen every once in a while to study pottery. It’s also in the pottery capital of China where I met my wife. She is a native of Fuzhou, and decided to come back to her hometown later. I wanted to go with her.
H: What’s your first impression on Fuzhou?
J: Compared to the climate in Beijing, Fuzhou was like a humidifier.
H: What is it that attracts you the most?
J: My upbringing made me want to play a role in cultural interchange between different countries. I taught some kids here about a course called World Culture Tour before. I got them to play roles and to try to understand food, music, history of a different country. In Fuzhou, there are many educated people that yearn for more cultural awareness. So I guess I have many opportunities to do what I like as I am a foreigner, in a way to project more fresh cultural elements. Making burritos is an example for that. When people put my wraps in their mouth, they would actually be put in contact with a different culture.
Homeland, Issue 98, January 2014