Zhangzhou: China’s second (first?) food capital

It has been a while, since I introduced Yantai (Shandong), China’s food industry capital. Somewhat later, I added a blog about the specialised food capitals. That list included Zhangzhou in Fujian province, as China’s canned food capital. However, the Zhangzhou food industry has developed so rapidly and broadly during the past few decades, that it should be regarded as China’s second food industry capital. In fact, the city already earned the title of “China’s famous food centre” from the China National Food Industry Association in 2011.

Determined to become a prestigious food production centre, Zhangzhou in Fujian Province is well-equipped to strengthen and enhance the structure and standards of its food industry. Zhangzhou continues its efforts to stimulate innovation and development in the food industry. The city’s ultimate aims are to establish a qualified and systematic food manufacturing centre with high standards and to strengthen its food-brand influence in the industry.

In 2013, there were 425 large-scale food manufacturing enterprises in Zhangzhou, accounting for 26.4% of the total numbers of significant enterprises from all industries. Food production values amounted to USD 12.08 bln, up 20.9% from the previous year. Exports of food and subsidiary agricultural products from Zhangzhou totalled USD 4.1 bln, up 47% and were responsible for 66% of Fujian Province’s total exports.

There are three main streams of revenue for Zhangzhou’s food industry, namely subsidiary agricultural food processing, food and wine manufacturing and beverage and tea production. Seafood, vegetables, oil and fertilizers are the main categories on the subsidiary agricultural food processing list, which generated a total production value of USD 7.8 bln in 2013 – an increase of 30%.

The total production value of food manufacturing, mainly canned food and biscuits, amounted to USD 3.3 bln, up 31.3%. The total beverage and tea production, with Oolong Tea and other beverages as best-sellers, had a value of USD 574.5 mln, an increase of 27.4%.

Speciality food

After years of development, Zhangzhou has established a firm foothold in the business of producing speciality food, such as canned fruits and vegetables, frozen vegetables and seafood and the processing of meat and preserved fruits. Of equal importance are food and food-related items such as biscuits, vegetable oil, fertilizers and tea.

Zhangzhou’s production of canned food occupies 60% of the province’s total and 11% of the nation’s total. In particular, exports of canned mushrooms represent more than 80% of China’s total. Zhangzhou also plays a significant role in many other categories. For example, it is the number one producer of canned asparagus, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots; the key production base of candied ginger, providing 80% of the European market’s supply; and the second largest exporter of processed seafood in the province.

Large-scale establishments

Among the city’s large-scale food enterprises, there are 190 (11.3% of the total) with the capacity to produce more than USD 16.1 mln worth of food. Zhangzhou’s high production capability is further proven by some impressive figures in 2012, which recorded 12 companies capable of producing more than USD 161 mln worth of food (6.3% of the total); 85 companies with a total production value of USD 32 – 161 mln (44.7%); and 48.9% of the total that could produce food with a value of USD 16 – 32 mln.

Prominent subsidiary agricultural food companies are Hongyi Grain and Oil Resources Co Ltd, Fujian Haikui Aquatic Products Group, Dabeinong Group, Fujian Dongya Aquatic Products Co Ltd and Fujian South China Sea Food Ltd.

Major food manufacturing enterprises include Fujian Zishan Group Co Ltd, China Lubao Group and Danco Group; while beverage and tea producers comprise Damin Foodstuff (Zhangzhou) Co. Ltd, Taisun Enterprise (Zhangzhou) Food Co Ltd and Tsingtao Brewery. There are two publicly listed food companies, namely the Fujian Haikui Aquatic Products Group and Tenfu Corporation.

There are 34 foreign-investment enterprises with total business values of USD 1.1 bln, representing 8% and 9.7% of the total of overseas enterprises and their value. Sixty-two companies are run by entrepreneurs from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan with values of USD 2.6bn, and 329 domestic companies have a total business value of USD 8.2bn.

Brands and awards

A dramatic increase in the number of food brands can be seen in Zhangzhou, a result of the city’s great enthusiasm for product innovation and the city government’s aggressive brand name strategy. By the end of 2013, there were 292 brands awarded “provincial-level status”. Among these, 25 are famous food names in China, one being “national-level status” and 266 are classified as the province’s “prestigious brands and products”. In 2013, seven new brands reached “national-level” and 26 new labels were awarded “provincial-level status”.

Zhangzhou’s ultimate aims are to establish a qualified and systematic food manufacturing centre with high standards and to strengthen its food-brand influence in the industry.

City by the sea

Zhangzhou is a renowned coastal city in Fujian Province with a surrounding sea area of 18,600 square kilometres and 112,300 hectares of shoal area. The 715-kilometre-long coastline starts in the north at the Jiulong River Estuary and continues down to the south to the Tielu Gang of Zhao’an County in Guangdong Province, featuring a coastal tortuous rate of 1:4.12. There are more than 20 natural harbours in the city, such as Xiamen Bay, Futan Bay, Jiuzhen Bay, Dongshan Bay and the Zhaoan Bayand Gongkou Gang. The city also has 232 islands with a 2,098-kilometre-long island shoreline, plus 36,000 hectares of usable sea area.

All of these favourable coastal landscapes have enabled Zhangzhou’s fishery industry to develop into a fully-fledged sector, producing 1.54 mln mt of seafood worth USD 2.9 bln, representing an economic value of USD 6 bln. There are more than 300 companies involved in seafood processing — producing 723,000 mt of products (25% of the province’s total), worth more than USD 2.5 bln.

Zhangzhou also exports 383,700 mt of seafood with a total value of USD 2.62 bln, registering an increase of 33.13% and 39.5% respectively. There are five enterprises that can produce seafood worth more than USD 161 mln, and 34 companies with a value of more than USD 16 mln. The city produces five of China’s most famous brands in addition to seven “provincial level labels” and 24 “prestigious” products.

The area has recently accelerated its pace of becoming a key producer of grouper fish. It is determined to accomplish the goal of being the “capital of grouper” and set a record for producing 15,000 mt of grouper, worth USD 241 mln, by 2015. The goal can only be achieved by means of continuously nurturing juvenile grouper, in addition to developing a healthy and standardised rearing system plus a commercialised strategy for fish farms.

For many years, Zhangzhou’s seafood has been exported to the US, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Export markets are now expanding to countries and regions such as the EU, Russia and South America. In 2011, the city’s seafood products were exported to almost 80 countries and regions, with more than USD 100 mln worth of produce for sale to Taiwan, the US, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Presently, Zhangzhou, compared with other cities in the province, has gained the largest number of registered import permits to various countries and regions across the globe. For example, 45 companies are registered to be allowed to import seafood to Indonesia, 35 to Vietnam, 35 to Korea, 25 to the US, 11 to Russia and seven to the EU.

There are 97 large companies with annual production values of more than USD 805,000, and 21 of more than USD 16.1 mln. The number of export companies is increasing. There are 29 companies that export products worth more than USD 10 mln and seven companies at more than USD 50 mln. Among all, Fujian Dongshan Haikui Aquatic Products Group Co Ltd exports seafood products worth USD 200m, one of the top 10 companies in the city. Above all, there are 13 standardised fish farms in the city, three healthy breeding model farms, 20 non-hazardous production bases and 59 export centres.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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Canned food – a luxury item in China

In Western households, canned food is kept for when you have little time to prepare a meal. In China it is regarded as a luxury food

A major production and export country

The canned food industry is one of China’s earliest food industries with a good foundation and fast development. As the opening text of this post already states, canned food used to be regarded as a luxury product. As a result, canned food was mainly positioned as export product. And indeed, those exports have made a great contribution in generating hard currency over the decades. China has been able to stay in the ranks as a processor and exporter of canned food such as tomatoes, asparagus, bamboo shoots, yellow peach, orange, etc. The world’s largest canned food producers are also located in China.

Where are the canneries?

Canned food is produced all over China and food is usually canned near the place where the fruits and vegetables are grown and the animals are raised. E.g., Zhejiang province has been the largest export region for canned tangerines for decades. The top region is Fujian province and Zhangzhou in particular. In a previous post I already reported that Zhangzhou is often mentioned as the ‘Capital of Canned Food’ in China. A top product in this respect is canned mushrooms. 80% of the canned mushrooms exported from China leave the country via Zhangzhou. The above map shows the location of canneries in various regions of China in 2012.

Some figures

In 2017, China produced 12,395,600 mt of canned food, up 3.75%. The industry generated a total turnover of RMB 175.387 bln; up 5.46%. In the same year, China exported 2,744,800 mt of canned food; down 3.32%. This generated an income of USD 4.66 bln; up 1.3%. Canned seafood was the largest export product with a volume of 336,400 mt. The USA and Japan were the main recipients of Chinese canned food with a rate of 14% each, followed by the EU with 11% and Russia with 5%.

Domestic consumption of canned food

The canned food market in China is not plain sailing. Especially in recent years, with the increasing concern for healthy food among Chinese consumers, the image of canned food has suffered due to the long shelf life, adding preservatives and other misunderstandings, but the industry as a whole has so far withstood the test. At present, China’s canned food consumption level is still very low with only 6 kg per capita while the consumption is at 92 kg in the United States, 56 kg for the EU, and 30 kg for Japan.

Issues

China’s canned food industry is coping with problems of overcapacity, disorderly competition, unfortunate product structure and lack of innovation, while there is a huge potential market to be stimulated.  In recent years, the international market competitiveness has declined as the cost has been rising. Especially adjusting the product structure has become a priority. In fact, the changing lifestyle of the younger generation, with a busier pace of life, is posing a new market opportunity for the canned food industry in China. To cash in on that, innovation is imperative.

Strong association

As is emerging from several posts in this blog, associations are a strong influencing factor in the Chinese food industry. This also applies to the China Canned Food Industry Association (CCFIA). Established in Aug. 28, 1995, the CCFIA is the only national wide legal organization entrusted by the Chinese Government. Its members include canned food producing enterprises, sale companies, research, inspecting, detecting units, equipment manufacturers, raw material providing companies and management departments and units. The CCFIA is the representative of the common interests of the members. Its aim is to promote the development in canned food industry in China and provide high quality services to all the members.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

Top food technology programs in Chinese universities

In an earlier post, I explained the institutional structure of the Chinese food (ingredients) industry. However, the trends and developments introduced in this blog would not have been possible without a constant influx of fresh young food technologists. I have mentioned several universities in this blog and some posts are dedicated to graduation creations of Chinese food technology students:

Several of the companies introduced in this blog have long term agreements with universities for their product development. In turn, the universities often need the facilities of the companies for intermediate and large scale pilot production of the processed they have developed.

Chinese love lists of top this or top that and you can bet there is a list of the top food technology programs at Chinese universities as well. The following table lists the top 10 of 2018. All listed universities offer full food technology programs. However, some are especially known for their R&D in specific fields. I have added a field which the institutions themselves indicate as one of their major focus topics.

Rank Name City Region Special field(s)
1 Jiangnan University Wuxi Jiangsu fermentation
2 China Ocean University Shanghai * seafood
3 Nanchang University Nanchang Jiangxi nutrition
4 Tianjin Science & Technology University Tianjin * functional foods
5 Jilin University Changchun Jilin local resources
6 South China University of Technology Guangzhou Guangdong ingredients
7 Hefei University of Technology Hefei Anhui agricultural resources
8 Dalian University of Technology Dalian Liaoning seafood
9 Henan University of Technology Zhengzhou Henan cereals
10 Zhengzhou Light Industry University Zhengzhou Henan cereals

(*Shanghai and Tianjin are cities with provincial status)

In case you are interested in more details about these institutions or the following ones, please contact me. Eurasia Consult has in-depth knowledge about food technology education in China.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

The management of new food additives and raw materials in China

The current Chinese procedure for the registration of food ingredients (GB 2760-2014) dates from Dec. 31, 2014. As food ingredients are a core topic of this blog, it will be interesting to have a look at how this system has been functioning in the years after its promulgation up to June 2018. The data in this post are provided by the National Health Commission.

The following table lists the number of applications for new food additives or new applications of existing additives per year.

Year Applications
2014 63
2015 74
2016 73
2017 43
2018 16

(all figures of 2018 refer to the first half of that year)

Obviously, not all applications are honoured. The next table lists how many applications were actually approved; distinguishing new additives and new applications of existing ones.

Year New additives New applications
2015 2 11
2016 17 37
2017 20 21
2018 1 7

As indicated in an earlier post, China is a country that has an active Public Nutrition policy. Nutrients have a special registration procedure dating from March 15, 2012. The final table of this post is similar to the second, but now referring to nutrients that can be added to food and beverage products.

Year New additives New applications
2012 2 8
2013 1 4
2014 0 2
2015 0 0
2016 3 3
2017 3 0
2018 0 0

These figures indicate that the Chinese authorities have become more careful in the past few years in approving nutrients as food additives.

In July 2007, a law for managing ‘new food sources’ was adopted in China. This law regulates the approval procedure for new raw materials for the food and beverage industry. The following table shows the number of newly approved materials during the past few years, broken down in imported and domestic.

Year Imported Domestic Combined
2008 14 27 41
2009 22 48 70
2010 5 24 29
2011 11 50 61
2012 14 25 39
2013 27 44 71
2014 1 1 2
2015 9 11 20
2016 3 12 15
2017 1 8 9

These figures show a large fluctuation, but also an overall downward trend. Apparently, the control has grown stricter over the years to increase food safety.

This post can best be read in combination with the following previous posts:

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

What on earth are . . . youtiao?

It has been some time that I uploaded a ‘What on earth . . .’ post, so here is a new one. Youtiao literally means ‘oily stick’. That does not sound very appetizing, which would be inappropriate for a traditional food that virtually every Chinese likes. A rather long English rendition I have come across is ‘deep-fried bread stick’. This is more like a description than a translation. If I remember correctly, I have also once read ‘fritter’ as the translation for youtiao somewhere. That is certainly a convenient one, but our fritters are incomparable with youtiao. In line with the philosophy of this blog, let’s not translate this word then and get used to youtiao, as my regular readers should be used to mantou by now (in case you have forgotten this term, look it up using the convenient search function of this site).

Youtiao are deep-fried twists of dough. They are almost exclusively a breakfast food and are usually eaten with congee or with a bowl of steaming sweetened soy milk. The vendors get started at around 5 am and are still making them way past eleven, for all the late-risers. It’s so commonplace to see someone in pyjamas and flip-flops walking back home with a plastic bag filled with three or four youtiao for the family breakfast. The reason is that youtiao are delicious when then have just left the deep-fryer, but their texture quickly becomes rubbery with the lowering of the temperature. Making them at home is not a real option. It is a waste of oil and the oily fumes are not good for your walls, furniture, your clothes and anything else in your home. Better have a street vendor fry them for you in the open air.

Youtiao are fantastic when pulled fresh from the deep-fryer. The foot-long bread can be separated into two side-by-side pieces, with a crisp, almost waffle-like exterior, and a light and chewy interior. Like all fried things, the flavour depends entirely on the quality of oil being used and the freshness.

Youtiao are made from yeast dough, rolled flat, then cut into short narrow strips. Each strip is placed on top of a second, then pressed lightly together lengthways to make the join that can later be pulled apart after cooking. The baker then deftly twists and stretches them until they are the right length, and lays them side by side in the deep fryer until they are golden brown and nicely crisp.

                   

Here is a typical recipe for youtiao dough.

Ingredient dosage
wheat flour, sieved 500 g
yeast 1/2 teaspoon
sodium bicarbonate 1/4 teaspoon
water 1 1/4 cups
sugar, diluted in the water 1 teaspoon
salt 1/2 teaspoon

Special flour (improvers)

As I have reported in several posts on flour-based products, Chinese flour producers have developed specially formulated flours for youtiao. The motivation is not so much to encourage Chinese consumers to make their own youtiao at home, but to stimulate the industrial production of youtiao. The same applies to the development of flour improvers for youtiao. Several producers of flour improvers are offering improvers for youtiao, containing mixes of enzymes, improvers, starch, etc. A popular brand of youtiao flour is Beijing-based Guchuan.

This product lists the following ingredients:

Wheat flour, starch, sugar, salt, food additives (sodium bicarbonate, sodium pyrophosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate, calcium carbonate, citric acid)

Industrial production

The main challenge for industrial production is to retain the crispy texture of youtiao. Perhaps a workable solution would be a semi-finished youtiao that consumers can buy in their supermarket and heat in an oven or air-fryer.

There are several manufacturers of quick frozen classic youtiao. China’s leading producer of traditional snack food Sanquan, has developed a fennel flavoured youtiao. They are somewhat smaller than regular youtiao.

You can baked then off at home. Ingredients:

Wheat flour, water, vegetable oil, spring onions, fennel, salt, yeast, spices.

Whenever Sanquan comes up with a product, competitor Sinian can’t afford to lag behind. Sinian has launched a small type of youtiao that can be eaten with hot pot, hence the name Hot Pot Youtiao.

The ingredients listed are:

Flour, vegetable oil, water, salt . . .

That ‘. . .’ is not very nice to the consumers, but I will revert as soon as I have the entire ingredients list.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

Who is making food (ingredients) in China? – the structure of the Chinese food industry

One of the first things you need to know about a (potential) Chinese partner is to what system it belongs

This is a blog about food, drinks and their ingredients. However, as Chinese society, including its economy, is organized in a very unique way, it is useful to get more insight in its basic structuring. In fact, several aspects of that structure have been mentioned indirectly in various posts, in particular those about Mengniu Dairy and Yanjing brewing.

Economic sectors

An important type of context is the industrial sector. Chinese economy is divided in a number of industries, headed by a central ministry or organization with ministerial status in Beijing. Each province and autonomous region has a Department corresponding with the central organization. Lower administrative regions have, again corresponding, Bureaus. Chinese usually refer to this as the system (xitong) to which they belong. According to the official parlance, a state-owned enterprise is the property of the entire people, but the central administrative organization of its industrial sector has been given the power to manage the enterprise in the name of the people. The central organization will then delegate that power to its corresponding lower level organization. Those organizations also establish and operate schools and colleges related to their sectors.

An example will help clarify the situation: food manufacturing is typically regarded as Light Industry in China. A state-owned flour plant in Suzhou (Jiangsu), will therefore be typically managed by the municipal Light Industry Bureau, which will report to the provincial Light Industry Department, which operates under the China National Light Industry Council in Beijing. This is the reason why so many company names in China start with the name of the city or province in which it is located: it refers to the main governing body. I have mentioned the Changyu Winery in earlier posts. Its official name is Yantai Changyu Wine Group, which indicates that its CEO is typically reporting to the government of Yantai Municipality in Shandong province.

The value of the place name in a Chinese brand name is attested by the story of Yanjing Brewing laid down in an earlier post. Located in Shunyi County, the brand name originally envisioned was Shunyi Beer, but a ministerial official proposed to change it to a name that was related to Beijing. As Beijing Beer already existed, it became Yanjing Beer.

There are also dedicated light industry colleges like the Zhengzhou University of Light Industry. As attested by several posts in this blog, Zhengzhou is located in one of China’s major food producing regions, the home of, e.g., China’s top snack producer Sinian.

This way of organizing creates a kind of matrix structure in which a Chinese company has to account for its activities and results to the local government, but simultaneously to its sector organization. To stick with Changyu, it is accountable to Yantai Municipality and the Light Industry sector. These two merge in the Yantai Municipal Light Industry Bureau, but it can happen that the provincial or national Light Industry organizations contact Changyu for information about its operations.

Personnel

In the current stage of the development of China, this structure does no exercise a huge influence on issues related to production or marketing and sales. Larger state-owned companies are still affected in the field of human resource, in particular in filling the positions of top managers. Leading functions in companies like Changyu are usually appointed by the organization on the Ministry of Personnel, which also has branches in provinces, cities, counties and other administrative levels. The Party organization is also involvement in such appointments. Nowadays, only people with proven expertise and experience in the field will be considered for appointments of top functions in state owned enterprises, but the political aspect remains. This means that the social networks of the top executives of Chinese companies exercise considerable influence on the day to day managed of the enterprises.

Social embeddedness

The combination of the various stakeholders to which a Chinese enterprise is accountable and the social network can be called: the social embeddedness of Chinese companies. Insight in the affiliation of a Chinese enterprise is vital for Western companies who are seeking or have engaged in partnerships with Chinese counterparts. Too often, Western managers believe that their Chinese partner is ‘a company just like we are’ and that the CEO of the Chinese partner has ‘the same responsibilities as I have’. They aren’t and they don’t. Such misunderstandings will certainly play a role in the problems of companies like FrieslandCampina or Fonterra in China recently reported in the media.

Eurasia Consult’s founder Peter Peverelli is an expert in determining the social embeddedness of Chinese companies and the consequences for their Western partners

Food & beverage covers several sectors

The theme of this blog, food, drinks and ingredients, involves a complex situation, as the manufacturing of these three product groups is dispersed over more than one sector. Light Industry is definitely the largest one, but a number of food companies, in particular those using primary agricultural produce as raw materials, are operating under the Ministry of Agriculture. A special type of companies under Agriculture is State Farms. This name is based on the fact that the first of such companies were large state-owned farms established in rougher regions with no existing agriculture or other economic activity. These farms later also established processing plants of their own. A small number is part of the hierarchy of the Ministry of Commerce. The latter is in charge of distributing goods rather than making them, but in the early decades of the PRC, that ministry also established production units. An industry that is very disperses over those sectors is dairy processing. Interestingly, FrieslandCampina and Fonterra mentioned above are both dairy companies.

Light Industry Top 50 2017

As Chinese ministries (try to) keep track of the industrial statics of their respective sectors, the regularly publish compilations like the top 10, 50, 100 manufacturers of a certain product or sector. The China National Light Industry Council recently published the Top 50 Light Industry companies of 2017. I will list the top 10 in this post.

Rank company sector
1 Maotai spirits
2 Wuliangye spirits
3 Yili dairy
4 Mengniu dairy
5 Wahaha beverages
6 Yanghe spirits
7 Xiwang starch sweeteners
8 Bohai soybean oil
9 Hefeng meat
10 Haitian soy sauce

From this list it is obvious that food, drinks and ingredients are the major sector of Light Industry in China. Actually, it covers a broad range of products, like: toothpaste, detergents, brooms, toys, etc. However, the Top 10 and in fact the entire Top 50 consists of food companies. Regular readers of this blog will recognise several of the companies in this list.

Universities

As mentioned above, universities also play an important role in the development of the Chinese food industry. Their role is so vital, that I have dedicated a special post to them.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

Balancing the Five Flavours (and one more)

The ability to perfectly balance flavours is what separates a chef from a cook

If the goal of eating and drinking is to maintain and improve health, then the typical single most important element in food would be nutrition. The Chinese, however, focus on colour, fragrance, taste and form in food, looking for refinement in food vessels and elegance of the dining environment, demonstrating an artistic spirit. Hence, from the beginnings of documented history, the Chinese advocated the philosophy of ‘harmony between the five flavours (wuweitiaohe)’. It could be related to the core concept of Confucianism: ‘harmonious society (hexie shehui)’. The Chinese invented ways to adjust blended ingredients and spices for a wide variety of tastes. Revolving around the ‘five flavours, which are sourness, sweetness, bitterness, pungency and saltiness, dishes can evolve into more than hundreds of different flavours.

Saltiness xian

Of the ‘five flavours’, saltiness is the principal flavour. It is the simplest and simultaneously the most crucial. Salt is needed to heighten any flavour in foods. Without it, any delicacy cannot emerge in its full glory. But from a health perspective, salt should not be taken in excessive quantities. The most important salty ingredient is obviously salt. However, soy sauce is of almost equal importance as a salty seasoning in Chinese cuisine. Soy sauce is a good example of how a few other flavours can be deftly used to cut the raw edges from pure salt.

Some salty ingredients: salt, soy sauce – regular.

Sourness suan

Sourness is also an indispensable taste in foods, especially in the northern part of China, where water supply is heavy in minerals and strong in base. So, in order to induce better digestion of food, vinegar is often used in cooking. It can also arouse appetite. Sour taste can also neutralize fishy odour and greasiness. At banquets with strong grease and heavy meat dishes, sour dishes are usually added to neutralise the greasy mouthfeel (ni in Chinese). They come in many varieties. Not only are the sour tastes of plums, fruits and vinegar different from one another, just the different types of vinegar are distinguished by its production areas, different ingredients and different production techniques, thus causing quite drastic differences in taste. Usually, the northerners regard mature vinegar made in Shanxi as orthodox, whilst the people in the Jiangsu-Zhejiang area appraise the Zhenjiang-made rice vinegar as authentic. The most typical of all places eating vinegar is the province of Shanxi. Many families there are skilled at making vinegar from crops and fruits. Their everyday meals are even more dependent on vinegar. A very interesting thing is that in the Chinese language, the word “vinegar” is used to represent the feelings of jealousy between men and women. Slang, such as ‘eat vinegar(chi cu)’ for being jealous and ‘vinegar jar (cugangzi)’ for a jealous person, are universally understood in both the north and the south.

Some sour ingredients: bitter melon-fresh, vinegar, lemon, lime, dry wine, cranberry, wild cherries.

Pungency xin

Pungency is the most stimulating and complex of the ‘five flavours’. Sometimes Chinese use ‘pungent-hot (xinla)’ as one word. In actuality, pungency and hot (la) have major differences. Hot is sense of taste, stimulating the tongue, throat and nasal cavity. Instead, pungency is not just a sense of taste as it involves sense of smell as well. Pungency is mostly obtained from ginger, while hot and spicy usually denotes the use chili pepper or black pepper. Since hot peppers were a foreign product, there was no mentioning of ‘hot’ in ancient Chinese cooking, instead it was generalised as pungency. Ginger not only neutralizes rank taste and odour but can also bring out the great taste of fish and meats. So, ginger is a must-have when preparing fish and meat. There are also principles to using hot peppers. We should not merely seek for the degree of hotness but should rather use saltiness and natural essence of food as fundamentals, so that the hot and spicy taste comes out multi-staged, full of great aroma and not too dry. In addition, garlic, scallion, ginger and other spices can also kill bacteria, so are great for cold dishes with dressing.

Some pungent ingredients: ginger, black pepper, chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, radish, cardamom.

Bitterness ku

Bitterness is rarely used alone in cooking but is a valuable asset. When making simmered or braised meats, adding tangerine or orange peel, clove, almond and other seasonings with a light bitter touch can rid the meat of unpleasant taste and smell, and awaken the original flavour of the food. Black foods usually also have bitter flavour notes. Traditional Chinese medicinal theories believe that bitterness is helpful for the stomach and produces saliva. Some people really enjoy bitter taste in foods, such as in the Sichuan-style ‘Strange Taste (guaiwei)’ type of foods, which have the bitter elements.

Some bitter ingredients: bitter melon-ripe, Seville orange, soy sauce-thin, garlic-raw, star anise, dry mustard, radicchio, mustard greens, endive, arugula.

Sweetness gan

Sweetness has the effect to cushion the effect of other basic flavours, whereas saltiness, sourness, pungency and bitterness are all too strong, they could be remedied by sweetness. When making dishes of other tastes, sugar can improve and embellish. However, using large amounts of sugar is not recommended, as too much sugar can be nauseous. Since many spices can produce a sweet flavour and they all taste quite different, much of the culinary world hails cane sugar as the orthodox sweetness.

Some sweet ingredients: sugar, honey, coconut, bell peppers, apples, grapes, raisons, hoisin sauce, cooking wine, garlic-cooked dates, onions-cooked, rice-cooked, bing cherries.

Freshness xian

What is not listed in the ‘five flavours’ but still holds an important status in the culinary world is the ‘freshness’, now better known as umami, factor. ‘Freshness’ is the most tempting flavour in food. Most foods all contain an ‘essence’ but it is often dormant, so making soup is often the way to awaken the taste. Chicken, pork, beef, fish and ribs can all be used as soup stock. When the unpleasant tastes and smell are eliminated during the soup-making process, the essential flavour is fully exposed by adding just a touch of salt. Stock not only can be enjoyed directly but can also be used to make other plain foods taste great. Such foods include shark’s fin, sea cucumber, bird’s nest, bean curd and gluten, which all must be cooked with essence soup to achieve its mouth-watering taste. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is an artificial essence. Its synthetic nature makes it impossible to compare to naturally made stock. So skilled chefs usually do not care for it.

Medicinal flavours

Five tastes in harmony, with flavour as the top priority, bringing direct pleasure to the tongue. At the same time, it is a good health-protecting and body-regulating method. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theories state that pungency can regulate bodily fluids, blood and qi, and can be used to treat bone and muscle pain from coldness, kidney problems and so on. Sweetness can nourish, soothe, and improve emotional mood. Honey and red jujubes are also great tonic foods for those who have a weak and frail physique. Sour taste can cure diarrhoea and produce saliva to stop thirst. Sour vinegar can prevent colds, while eggs boiled in vinegar can stop coughing. All these are folk cures with adequate modern medical recognition. Bitterness can release heat in the body, improves vision and detoxify the body. Five tastes in harmony is an important factor to great health and long life. The picture shows that sour is linked to the liver, bitter to the heart, sweetness to the spleen, pungency to the lungs and saltiness to the kidneys.

Compound flavours

Chinese cuisine is apt in mixing and blending flavours. Spices and other seasoning ingredients can be combined in endless ways, but a small number of the them have become such favourites of Chinese chefs, that they have got used with various types of foods. An example introduced in an earlier post is yuxiang, ‘fish flavour’. In that post, I introduced the basic recipe and a number of variations developed by food technologists. This post adds another dimension to the understanding of such generic compounds: the mix of basic flavours: yuxiang is relatively hot, but the right combinations of saltiness, pungency, sourness and sweetness can bring out the delicacy of the peppers while containing excessive sharpness.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.