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Chinese tucking into mutant vegetables from outer space

The stir-fry at the Land Spring Garden restaurant was standard Chinese fare: aubergines, eggs and green pepper, chilli chicken.

But this was no ordinary restaurant and the food was literally out of this world: it had been cooked using mutant giant vegetables from space.

The Land Spring Garden, in Sunhe, near Beijing, is China's first speciality restaurant serving what the government hopes will one day feed its enormous population: nuclear fruit and veg.

This week China's second manned space mission came to earth in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. It was a stepping stone, the government said, on the road to putting a man on the moon.

The programme is another sign of Beijing's bold, some would say unrestrained, ambition to become a world power.

Another example was some of the space capsule's contents, also heralded upon landing in the state media this week: plant seeds. For China has the world's largest, perhaps only, programme to mutate seeds in space to improve yield and size of their crops.

The menu at Land Spring Garden is the result. This year the vegetables have begun to hit the open market. The project began in 1987 when the first seeds sent up in a Chinese rocket and exposed to the galaxy's background radiation in zero gravity were found to show a variety of mutations.

Since then spacecraft have regularly carried seeds in hundreds of different varieties. Those that have shown promise are bred further, for at least four years each, until super-strains have been developed.

"The experiment results show vitamin content of vegetables grown from space seeds is 281.5 per cent of that of ordinary vegetables," the state media said, with customary precision.

The vegetables that have shown most promise have been aubergines, green peppers and tomatoes. The aubergines are almost the size of footballs, while the tomatoes have higher yields and the green peppers have more flavour. Staples such as rice and wheat have also shown promise.

"The changes are small - the useful genetic difference is 0.3 per cent," said Prof Liu Luxiang, of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science. "After three to four generations over several years, a stable strain will form. It is not just a question of sending it into space then saying they are space seeds."

Prof Liu dismissed fears that subjecting food to radiation could be dangerous. "It is just speeding up natural change," he said. As a regular tester of space food, he said: "I have mainly eaten space green pepper. It does not look nice and it is wrinkled, but it tastes crispy and sweet."

Nevertheless, scientists in the West are sceptical, pointing out that radiating seeds on the ground has the same effect but outside China would not be tolerated by consumers hostile to genetically modified food.

At the farm to which the Land Spring Garden restaurant is attached, managers hope to go into full production in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

"We have 30 types of space vegetables here and even space flowers," said Zhang Hongxiang, who was holding a 5ft long calabash, also known as spaghetti squash. He claimed that the biggest advantage was not the extra size but the high yield and better taste.

This was confirmed by Huang Yumei, who was sorting through a pile of extra-long red chilli peppers. "I warn you, they are extra spicy," she said.

By Richard Spencer in Sunhe Township