The Lunar New Year — celebrated in China, Korea and Japan — falls on January 22 this year, and we’re into all things red, from bbq duck and char sui to goji berries!
Whether it’s dancing dragons, gifts of money in red envelopes, or red lanterns, it’s all about bringing luck and prosperity for a new year. Each new year coincides with a sign in the Chinese zodiac and 2023 is The Year of the Rabbit, promising longevity, peace, and hope.
Those born in the Year of the Rabbit (2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927) are said to be vigilant, witty, quick minded and ingenious, but not necessarily lucky this birth year. Some advice is to “wear red underwear and socks” to reduce bad luck.
And maybe red food would help, too?
Dishes served at Chinese New Year banquets have lots of luck-inducing symbolism, from long noodles for longevity to a whole chicken (including head and feet) for unity, pork for prosperity, and dumplings or mandarin oranges for wealth.
Often the auscpicious foods "sound like" or "look like" money — think golden dumplings and egg rolls, or whole fish (the word sounds like "surplus" or "abundance").
But red apparently attracts wealth (a power colour symbolized by red carpets and red “power ties”), so I’m thinking about red food like goji berries, an Asian fruit revered for its healthy properties that is now being grown in BC.
So grab your lucky rabbit foot, pull on your red socks and dig in.
BC GOJI GROWERS:
A BERRY NICE HARVEST
By CINDA CHAVICH
It’s late summer on the Taves family farm near Abbotsford, and the annual fruit harvest is in full swing.
With the Applebarn brimming with pies and pressed cider, adorable baby goats playing in the pasture, and hayrides through the orchards of stout apple trees, it’s a prime spot for a family outing in the country.
But this year, there’s more for the U-pick crowds to sample. Beyond the fresh Honey Crisp, Fuji and Taves’ signature Jonagold apples, visitors are lining up to pick goji berries, a rare fruit in these parts.
WHAT’S A GOJI BERRY?
You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of — let alone tasted — a fresh goji berry.
Native to northern China, Tibet and Mongolia, the goji berry (also known as wolfberry) is the fruit of the Lycium barbarum, a member of the nightshade family, related to tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco.
It’s a sprawling, dramatic-looking plant when laden with bright red “berries” in August, the teardrop shaped fruits hang along the arching branches like miniature peppers or tiny grape tomatoes.
Both the fruit and young leaves are highly nutritious, and goji berries have long been important in traditional Chinese medicine.
High in Vitamin C, carotenoids, trace minerals and fibre, they’re brewed into Chinese “tonic” soups and teas, with claims that their antioxidants and nutrients can boost immunity, cleanse the liver, even lead to long life.
Today, goji berries are touted as the latest in a line of “super foods” and anti-aging elixirs, often added to smoothies and energy drinks or sold as supplements.
Though most of the many health claims are unproven, some scientific studies have suggested the high levels of antioxidants and vitamins in the tiny goji fruit could protect against age-related macular degeneration, support the immune system, slow cancerous tumor growth, stabilize blood sugar, improve sleep and slow alcohol-related liver damage. They are loaded with a variety of phytochemicals, have 15 times the iron of spinach, some of the highest levels of beta-carotene among edible plants, and are also a source of complete protein, containing all nine amino acids.
When dried, 1/3 cup (40 g) of goji berries contains 140 calories, no fat, 18 g of sugar and 6 g of protein.
There are no major side effects to consuming fresh or dried goji berries, but they may negatively interact with blood pressure medications and diabetes drugs, so experts advise consulting a doctor before using supplements.
GOJI BERRIES IN BC
It was greenhouse grower Peter Breederland who pioneered the growing of goji berries in BC. A Dutch-trained horticulturist, he grew greenhouse tomatoes and peppers, then launched Gojoy Berries a decade ago, bringing the exotic fruit to market in 2015. When he retired in 2020, Loren Taves, a fellow greenhouse grower, purchased Breederland’s 400 potted goji berry plants, and planted them in a quarter-acre plot in the corner of his busy fruit and vegetable farm.
Though apples have long been the staple of the Taves family’s farm, a fixture in the Southlands of Abbotsford since the 1930s, every generation has added its stamp of innovation to the operation.
Today there are 60 acres in production, with eggplant and heirloom tomatoes, pumpkins and a variety of berries, including gooseberries, currants and now, the exotic goji berry. The 10-acre apple orchard, supports their popular U-pick operation and Applebarn products (from fresh pressed apple cider to pie filling and preserves), and there’s a new Taves Estate Cidery, producing a variety of hard apple ciders, including one infused with the nutrient-rich gojis.
“We are in the thick of the harvest now, and started two weeks ago,” said Taves when I spoke to him in late August. “These plants are incredibly vigorous and produce berries on the vines that grow in the same year!”
Taves says the plants are trained into a single stem and their willowy six-foot branches (canes) are trellised along a wire, like grapes in a vineyard, to make picking easier. At the end of the season, they’re pruned back to a compact, central ball, “where next year’s new growth will come again.”
“The vines grow four to six feet and flower out over an extended period, harvest time of up to four weeks,” he adds.
And though not specifically grown organically, Taves says the goji berries in his orchard are virtually disease and pest-free, requiring none of the interventions of other berry crops.
“Peter (Breederland) cultured them, and spent a lot of time finding the right variety to grow here in BC,” says Taves.
DRIED OR FRESH FRUIT?
If you’ve eaten goji berries, they were likely dried, a raisiny brick-coloured berry most often sold for medicinal, rather than culinary, use. And though once found mainly in health food stores and Chinese herbalists, dried goji berries have gone mainstream, thanks to their reputation as a superfood.
So, it’s not uncommon to see dried goji berries in trail mixes, energy or granola bars, pureed in smoothies or breakfast bowls, even scattered across healthy salads or brewed up in herbal teas. You can use them like raisins or dried cranberries, in muffins, biscotti or in dark chocolate bark, along with chopped almonds or pistachios.
Some BC chefs and food producers have featured the fresh local berries in goji berry goat cheese, goji berry and pepper jelly, and goji berry ice cream.
But goji berries are fragile, so not often sold fresh, says Taves, who is the only grower in BC and producing just a tonne of goji berries every year. The berries are also very light, so it’s hard to justify paying the crews to pick by hand, he says, and why the U-pick operation makes sense.
“We used to take them to farmers’ markets but they quickly become soft when transported,” says Taves.
“We’re now using a machine pick them, packaging into 150 gram and 400 gram bags, and putting them directly into the freezer to sell on the farm,” he adds. “We are also drying them this year, and some of the berries are used in our Goji Berry and Apple Cider.”
And the creative grower is riffing on other ideas for his small but exotic crop.
“In 2020 we opened a bar and lounge on the farm, and we might do a distillery to build on our brand and flavours,” he says, adding the Taves Estate Cider is available in retail stories, bars and eateries around Vancouver and the lower mainland.
Most of the world’s goji berries are grown in China, but there are also now growers across North America including Gogi Farm USA, the largest in North America, which grows goji berries in California and Washington state.
But you could also plant a goji in your own back yard, the thorny bushes hardy in zones 6-9 and reaching a size of 6-8 feet. They are self-pollinating and prolific, preferring sun or dappled shade, and alkaline soil, and are heavy feeders, requiring regular fertilization. You can even try planting your goji in a large pot to keep the plant in check. The red berries ripen in late summer and into the fall, and you can add the nutritious young leaves to your salads or infuse in teas.
COOKING WITH GOJIS
And how do they taste? Fresh berries are sometimes described as “bland and slightly bitter” or “tangy and bittersweet”.
Taves admits he likes the flavour of goji berries now, but it’s been an acquired taste. The fruit is sweet up front, he says, but with green, herbaceous notes and a slightly bitter finish. He describes the goji as “very bright, with a distinct savoury flavour” and says the fruit is “like a cross between a berry and a tomato.”
Most experts agree that drying improves the flavour of goji berries — it brings out their natural sugars, says Taves, and masks any bitterness.
I think the dried berries have a mild flavour that hints of dates and cranberries when hydrated. That’s probably why they make good additions to savoury salads and broths, and match with dark chocolate and citrus zest. Taves says they’ve perfected their Genji’s Goji Berry Cider, the sweet and spicy, salmon-colored apple cider flavoured with gojis, ginger and raspberries.
Chefs Matt Nichols and Jeff Massey, co-owners of Restaurant 62 in Abbotsford, used the local goji berries in the salad course for the recent Taste of Abby food festival dinner — Heirloom Tomatoes with Mount Lehman buffalo fresco, cucumber, puffed quinoa, Hunters Dale lemon basil, and goji berry dressing.
“The goji berries add the brightness and acidity to the vinaigrette,” says Massey, who describes the flavour of the fresh berries as sweet with crab apple or quince notes. “They have a fair bit of sweetness but there’s a tannic structure in the skin.”
Restaurant 62 focuses on local ingredients and Massey says they’ve used the fresh and frozen berries in both sweet and savoury dishes — pureed with shallots, rosemary and sage as a sauce for roast pork and blitzed into a sorbet for a late season dessert.
Because dried goji berries can be quite hard and chewy, you can quickly rehydrate them in water before adding them to your dishes or pureeing for sauces and sorbets.
In her eponymous cookbook, Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine, the revered Asian-American chef describes how her mother simmered chicken with
dried “go chi” berries and ginger, the family dipping the tender boiled chicken in soy sauce then drinking the nutritious broth. Foo also adds goji berries to the vinaigrette for her Lotus Salad and includes a recipe for Brandied Go Chi, the dried berries plumped in orange juice and brandy.
In Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the other China, Naomi Duguid writes that wolfberries “have played a role in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, as a food that is beneficial to the kidneys and liver, nourishes the blood, and is good for the eyes.” She recommends brewing them as a tea, or adding wolfberries (goji) to the water before boiling her pork and leek dumplings.
So add a new ruby-red, berry to your shopping list — whether dried or fresh, the goji is an exotic and healthy BC fruit.
And best of luck to all in 2023 — may you always have more than you need!