Healthy eating was second nature for Sydneysider Kimberly Ashton, but when she moved to Shanghai a decade ago, she was starved of options.
"Organic stores, health food cafes… there are plenty of healthy options and places to get good food in Sydney," she says. "But in Shanghai, it's still a new concept to eat healthily and want to be healthier."
Ten years on, there's a small but growing community of health-conscious consumers and businesses in China's most populated city - Ashton has been one of the main driving forces in this.
Ashton, who studied Putonghua in Hangzhou, is the co-founder - and "chief sprouting officer" - of Sprout Lifestyle, an educational retail space in Shanghai's Xuhui district. Launched late last year, Sprout organises and hosts regular events and workshops, such as cooking classes, seminars, organic farm tours, retreats, documentary screenings and nutrition workshops.
Ashton also offers health coaching and private nutrition consultations. A former events marketing professional, she trained at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York and is studying naturopathic medicine.
Sprout is a natural progression from another business she and Sprout partner Georgia Zhou started about 2½ years ago - and is still going strong - called The Wellness Works. It's a consulting company for individual and corporate wellness programmes that organises health-related events such as organic farm tours, healthy cooking workshops, seminars about naturopathy and structural wellness retreats. Also offered is coaching on incorporating healthy activities into one's daily life to be more efficient at work, and how to live greener.
"Sprout Lifestyle is more consumer-facing," says Ashton. "Through our events at The Wellness Works, people kept asking me where to buy healthy food, which is not so easy to find in Shanghai. So we thought we'd do that, and it's been going really well. We're about to launch the online store in June.
"But we've kept the events going because we're all about growing healthy habits. I believe that if I just sell healthy products and don't show people how to use them or cook with them, it's no use. So we do anything between 12 to 20 events a month. We have a little kitchen in the store where we hold cooking workshops."
April and May are Sprout's busiest time, Ashton says, because people want to get outside, lose weight and eat healthily. The organic farm tours, for up to 30 people each time, are often oversubscribed. The most popular event by far is the raw chocolate workshop, which takes up to 20 people per class and often has a waiting list.
"Most people are just there for the chocolate - they don't care whether it's raw or not," says Ashton. "But that's a good way to get into something healthy."
In about six months, Sprout has built up a database of close to 2,000 customers. In early June, Sprout will open a cafe at Shanghai's new Eco Village, a converted textile warehouse in south Xuhui district.
There's clearly a demand in Shanghai. But the bulk of Sprout's customers are expats or English-speaking Chinese white collar professionals who've either worked overseas or are well travelled. According to Ashton, the local Chinese tend to be less curious and open about healthy trends - though this is changing due to the recent food scares and food safety issues, and a rising consciousness about health and disease.
With help from Ashton's efforts, widespread change could come sooner rather than later. Ultimately, her goal is to build a community of health consumers and practitioners, such as fitness trainers, TCM doctors, health coaches, nutritionists, and health food industry people.
Says Ashton: "I want to bring this network of people together, because without a good base, it's very hard to spread the message and get consumers onboard."
Get ready to roll
Sprout Lifestyle's brown rice sushi rolls
These delicious rolls are simple to make and are great served as a side dish or appetiser.
200g brown rice, cooked and cooled
1 tsp umeboshi (Japanese plum) vinegar, optional
2 sheets nori (dried seaweed)
Red peppers, avocado, cucumber, sliced lengthwise
1 handful fresh pea shoots or alfalfa sprouts (or your favourite sprouts)
Toasted black or white sesame seeds
Organic soy sauce or tamari (for dipping)
- In a large bowl, mix brown rice and vinegar thoroughly. Toss in 1/2 teaspoon of sesame seeds.
- Place one sheet of nori on a sushi mat or chopping board. Spoon three tablespoons of rice horizontally across one end, leaving about 2.5cm clear from the edge.
- Place sliced peppers, avocado and cucumbers on top of the rice. Top with fresh sprouts.
- Roll the sushi, squeezing the mat inwards and making a tight roll.
- Using a damp knife, slice into eight pieces and place on a serving plate. Garnish with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
- Serve with soy sauce or tamari.