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Tan Xiaofeng has transformed the traditional cultural heritage of making yanqiu, or "banquet balls", into a roaring commercial success, Yang Feiyue reports.

By Yang Feiyue | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-15 06:01

Xie Yafen, Tan Xiaofeng's wife, introduces yanqiu to guests during an exhibition in Jiaxing in 2022. [Photo provided to China Daily]

It was only thanks to support from his wife, Xie Yafen, and other family members, that he got through the growing pains of the business.

Ground rules were laid from the beginning, including using only fresh fish meat and traditional craft, especially during the manual steps.

"For example, the pieces of fish are soaked in water for a while to get rid of the blood, ensuring there is absolutely no fishy smell," Tan says.

"Ginger is used to complement the taste, but it has to be 'hidden' so the guests won't notice its existence," he adds.

Moreover, machines have been introduced to better churn the deboned fish chunks to the degree that an elastic texture is acquired.

Additionally, ingredient amounts have all been standardized after fine-tuning, based on feedback from multiple big tasting events.

More flavors have also been offered to cater to the diverse preferences of customers.

"Some have bamboo shoots and ham added to them," Tan says.

Initially, Tan and his wife drove a secondhand van to peddle yanqiu in neighboring areas, and participated in food expos in big cities like Shanghai.

Gradually, though, they have made their presence felt in the market across the country.

In turn, the booming company has created business and job opportunities for locals.

Ma Fuli, a local fish dealer, has a steady order for hundreds of kilograms of fish from Tan on a daily basis, and has supplied him for years.

"I have the fish ready the way he has requested and deliver it at 3 am every day," Ma says.

Earlier this year, Tan moved into a much bigger facility in Chang'an to expand his business further, and hired dozens of villagers in their 50s and 60s.

One of Tan Xiaofeng's employees, Tan Xiaoqian has been making yanqiu for almost a decade, and earns more than 5,000 yuan a month.

Years of experience has enabled him to produce yanqiu at the required size within a very small margin of error.

Currently, the family factory can produce approximately 40,000 yanqiu a day, without any leftover stock.

At the new facility, a museum recounting the history of yanqiu has been set up and is open to visitors.

For Tan Xiaofeng, yanqiu is not just a business anymore. He has taken being named an intangible heritage inheritor by the Haining government as a mission to promote the local dish to a national audience, which he does through livestreaming.

"Customers from Beijing and Xi'an (capital of Shaanxi province) often come to us to buy in wholesale quantities," he notes. "Maybe one day we will sell our yanqiu overseas."

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