When I first met Anna I liked her straight away. Maybe it was her fluffy hat and dimply grin, maybe it was the bright flowers on her table, or maybe it was because she offered me a free sample of fruit tea, yum! I tried her homemade tea and jam and came straight back for more. She uses whole fruit and flower combinations that just really work well – in a teacup or on toast, amazing! I asked if I could interview her and she responded with an invitation to dinner.
Anna’s kitchen is warm and colourful, a perfect reflection of her personality. She has transformed a tiny room into a beautiful home, with each detail carefully placed to create a delightful effect that made me never want to leave. It was the first truly well decorated and cosy home I had been to in China. We sat down to dinner on a tiny table in her balcony/kitchen and, in between mouthfuls, I got to know the whole story:
Why do you like making jam?
My two favourite things in the world are fruit and flowers. If I only had 2 元 left, I would spend 1 元 on fruit and the other on flowers. I want a sweet life, so jam is the obvious choice. In the past my life was complicated, so now I prefer to keep things simple. To do something well and to share it with others is enough for me.
I first tried making jam when I lived on Gulangyu [a touristy island off the coast of Xiamen]. My friends thought it would be good to sell, but it took a while to perfect my recipe. When I did, it sold very well! I’m so grateful to my boyfriend and my friends. It is important to keep an open mind; I have learnt a lot from the people around me.
How long does it all take to make?
Around 12-15 hours: prepping the fruit, boiling, steeping, and sterilizing the jars – all very 麻烦 (mafan)! When I sold it in my friend’s shop in Gulangyu, I often worked from 8am to 12pm because I did everything myself, and always came home exhausted and smelling of fruit.
What fruit is best in winter?
Strawberries and kumquats are now in season, and I get them from the local market (they all know me by name!). The teas and jams I make both have the same ingredients but in different quantities. Because it has no preservatives, the tea lasts for 6 months and the jam for 3 months before opening, but of course, flavor is best in the first month.
How do you decide what flavours go best together?
Well, strawberries are everyone’s favourite and they pair nicely with roses. I use whole strawberries in my jam and, not surprisingly, this is the best selling flavour, especially with girls.
Kumquats are sour but full of vitamin C, so very good for winter. I add passion fruit and this is my personal favourite.
How did you learn to do what you do?
Books! I learnt everything from books: how to become independent, how to make things myself, how to cook, how to start a business, everything! I couldn’t get the labels for the jars designed exactly how I wanted, so I went back to a book on colour and art, and eventually designed it just right myself.
How long have you lived in Xiamen?
I have been here two years now – I used to have a café in Guangzhou, but I don’t like it as much as Xiamen. I’m originally from Hunan.
What is your life motto?
Life is sweet.
I believe you can find great beauty in simple things.
Respect what you eat; don’t waste it. Food takes time to grow, and you should learn how to bring out the best flavors. I hope that my jam will show just how sweet life can be.
What impressed me the most was her independent spirit. Here is this young Chinese girl, setting up her own business, and teaching herself to do it. Here she is taking her time over things to savour them and do them well, living in the middle of the Chinese city rat-race. Here she is appreciating beauty for beauty’s sake, and sharing it passionately with the people around her. Here she is, literally, stopping to smell the roses.
(Photos by Bonnie Chen)