Leisure food – A food group strongly embedded in Chinese culture

The existence of a category like leisure food in Chinese food statistics is rooted in the laid back nature of Chinese culture

Entering a typical Chinese supermarket and looking around at the distribution of foods and beverages on the shelves, one indication that may strike you as unfamiliar, of even odd, is ‘Leisure food’, xiuxian shipin in Chinese.

Leisure and food are a match made in heaven in any culture, but there is no nation that created a more harmonious marriage between those two concepts than the Chinese. Visit any historic site in a Chinese city, and you will be amazed about the choice of snacks and drinks that are on sale in small shops or by street vendors.

When you then zoom in on the domestic tourists, you will have a hard time spotting one who is not eating or drinking, or at least visibly carrying food in their bags, ready to take it out and have a bite.

Before getting to those sites, or scenic spots, you need to travel. China is a huge country, so travelling can take time, and the best way to kill time in any culture is . . . eating. Chinese airports, train stations and long distance bus terminals are genuine food streets, offering everything the easily bore passengers may want to keep themselves, and their facial muscles in particular, busy. Eating has thus become the favourite way to pass the time on long haul rides in China.

Chinese high school and university students are also an important consumer group of leisure foods. Bakery products and meat snacks are their favourite foods during breaks.

All this has led to the coining of the category leisure food in the Chinese food industry.

It has become an officially recognized term. The library of Eurasia Consult has a collection of Food Industry Yearbooks starting with 1985 until the early 2000s, when the Internet rendered those paper information carriers unnecessary. Leisure Food is a separate section in those books, like the separate shelf for those products in Chinese supermarkets.

Leisure food is a hybrid collection of foods comprising:

One source divides leisure foods in the following subcategories:

Type main market customers outlets consumption mode
Private consumption home family members Residential areas, special shops, convenience stores At home
Travel food travelling travellers local special shops, supermarkets , airports, railroad stations, tourist spots Travelling, gift giving
Gifts Gift giving people in need of gifts special shops, supermarkets Gift giving

What I especially like in this division is the category of ‘gifts’. It always a nice gesture to bring home local delicacies when returning from a trip. And with a country as large and varied as China, there are more local specialties than a person can bring home in a life time. Moreover, gifts play a key role in Chinese culture. This is why Chinese airports and larger railway stations sell local foods in fancy gift packaging. People do not buy those to eat themselves, but to give them to relatives and friends.

The following graph shows the market shares of various categories of leisure food of December 2019.

Market size and value

There are more than 4000 manufacturers of leisure food in China.The leisure food industry in 2018 was worth RMB 1029.7 bln; up 12%. Insiders expect that the value of this market will reach RMB 1298.4 bln by 2020.


It is an interesting market for suppliers of food ingredients. Preservation is key term here, not only referring to keeping the bugs out, but also the preservation of the flavor, color and texture.

This sector is also an interesting market for suppliers of food packaging machinery. All of the above mentioned products need to be packed in small portions, that can be conveniently stowed in ones pocket or hand bag. The preferred size is the single-portion package; a pack you open and empty in one leisurely moment, without the need to close and seal it for the next moment.


Trends for 2017

  • Leisure food should be tasty, novel and healthy. Snacks are by definition tasty. Consumers will only make repeat purchases and remember the brand if a snack is delicious. Chinese consumers are eager to try new leisure foods. As long as a product is novel and interesting, they are willing to give it a go. As Chinese are becoming increasingly health conscious, growing numbers place great emphasis on the nutrition facts of nibbles, such as those that are low in sodium, sugar and fat. This also includes additives in general. If more flavourings are added in order to create exciting taste, it can may Chinese consumers, who are now avid readers of ingredients lists, suspicious.
  • Small Packs are the trend. A very prominent trend is packs are getting smaller and smaller. Factors driving the growing demand for leisure food in mini packs are convenience, hygiene, pricing and visual impression. Mini packs can satisfy consumers’ demand for “convenient and hygienic one-off consumption”. They are particularly popular with female consumers who prefer snacks that can be eaten in one go. With large packs, if the food inside cannot be consumed straight away after they are opened, some consumers would not want to eat it again afterwards as they would consider it to be neither fresh nor hygienic.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.


Medicine Food Same Source

This is a literal translation of the Chinese expression yao shi tong yuan, which indicates that in the traditional Chinese perception food and medicine are substances derived from the same raw materials. There is a strong link (overlap) between pharmaceuticals and food in traditional Chinese thinking about food, nutrition and preventing/curing disease.

The function of many medicinal plants is often referred to as restore (bu) in Chinese. Medicine brings the diseased body in balance again. The various basic flavours are also accredited medicinal functions.

One consequence of this view on food and medicine is the existence of medicinal restaurants in China. You can tell the cook about your ailments, and he will compose a meal with ingredients that address those problems. This is called yaoshan, ‘medicinal meal’, or shiliao, ‘cure through eating’, in Chinese, again a combination of medicine and food.

This part of the Chinese cultural heritage has a strong influence on Chinese policy making. A good example is the Chinese government’s strong attention to promoting public nutrition. While most Western governments believe that promoting fortified foods is misleading the public from a more healthy diet, the Chinese authorities are actively promoting fortified foods. See our special item about that topic.

If you think that the modernization and the increased influence of Western thinking in China will make this belief in the healing power of food disappear, you are very wrong. On the contrary, we have seen a number of foods fortified with traditional Chinese medicinal herbs appear on the market. An example is honey fortified with dangshen (radix codonopsis), a ginseng-like root. Ginseng itself is also more and more used as an ingredient in Chinese dishes.

The national authorities have issued a list of 87 TCM herbs that are allowed as food ingredients.

Nutritional beverages

TCM has especially inspired the development of a range of health drinks. I will mention a couple of the most representative here.

Stewed pear

Cansi’s (Nengshi) “stewed pear with rock sugar is positioned as an ancient folk recipe that has been spread for thousands of years throughout China”. Some of the claims the product makes are to “lubricate lungs” and to “relieve stress”, with pears playing an integral role in traditional Chinese medicine. The product also has TCM ingredients, such as honeysuckle and lily extract.


Yam drink

Natural Source’s Wall Breaking Yam Juice earns it name from the technology it uses. With its yam juice processing, it’s claimed that superior technology can break the cell wall to release additional molecules for nutrition value. The result is that when consumed, it increases the absorption rate by 80%. Yam is one of many traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients that are being processed, combined with other flavours and packaged for modern times.


Biscuits and water for stomach problems

The Jiangzhong Pharmaceutical Group, that became famous for its successful TCM drug against stomach ailments due to indigestion, has launched a biscuit with extracts from the hericium erinaceus fungus in 2015. It is an age old ingredient in Chinese cuisine and an equally old raw material for TCM drugs against problems in the entire digestive tract.


Early 2020, instant noodle maker Jinmailang launched a new type of bottled water that has been pre-boiled. It is marketed under the brand name Liangbaikai. This literally means ‘Cool Clear Boiled’ and has been derived from the Chinese expression ‘cool boiled water’, i.e. boiled water cooled down to an agreeable drinking temperature. According to TCM, such water is much better absorbed by the human body than tap water or other types of bottled water. The ad states that this water ‘is more suitable to the guts and stomachs of the Chinese’.

Military participation

Chinese military researchers are are also developing modern applications for traditional herbs. An interesting item we have spotted in this category is an ‘antiradiation biscuit’, a biscuit with the extracts of five Chinese medicinal ingredients. It has been developed for military use, but has also been made available to the general public. We have not yet found it on any supermarket shelf though.

The Wuhan College of Military Economy has develop a type of biscuit that can increase the body’s oxygen level and alleviate fatigue for 48 hours. The recipe includes a number of herbs from traditional Chinese medicine. Once more, this product has been developed for use by soldiers, but it will also have an interesting market in tourist destinations in high elevations, like Tibet. Problems caused by oxygen deficiency often spoils part of the fun among tourists in such regions.

Herbal coffee

One way for TCM to redefine itself to fit into the present age is to link up with a popular beverage like coffee. A time-honoured traditional Chinese medicine store Huqingyutang has opened a cafe named “HERBS EXPRESSO” to sell ‘coffee’ in Hangzhou (Zhejiang). Unlike regular coffee, which is extracted from coffee beans, the cafe’s ‘coffee’ is sourced from herbs and processed with a coffee machine. Actually, the ‘coffee’ is a coffee-flavoured herbal drink, the cafe’s manager said. Mixing fresh fruits, milk and cream, the taste of the new herbal drink is better than the traditional herbal soup. “By improving the taste of herbal drinks, we want to promote traditional Chinese medicine culture to the world,” the manager added.


Under the weather? Go to the pub!

Tongrentang Group, a renowned traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy, founded in 1669, has opened two fusion cafes that offer drinks and healthcare services in Beijing in 2020. The cafe provides different kinds of coffee drinks that are infused with herbs such as licorice, monk fruit and cinnamon. It also offers various teas that are mixed with Chinese wolfberry (goji) and grapefruit. The cafe also has an area where shoppers can buy featured products such as honey, goji, cubilose (bird’s nest) and ginseng. Tongrentang plans to open 50 flagship stores in major cities nationwide in the next five years to offer comprehensive healthcare consulting services. On top of that, it will open more than 3000 landmark cafes in major commercial areas.

Foreign interest

Multinationals have started to note this development as well. Lipton is marketing a tea on the Chinese market with extracts from Chrysanthemum, honeysuckle and lily. The tea is named: Qing heng cha, ‘clearing balance tea’.


I will list the ingredients and add the various activities attributed to them according to the Chinese Materia Medica:

Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

  • Clear heat, relieve toxic fire – hot, painful swellings in the throat, breast, eyes; intestinal abscesses.
  • Expel wind-heat – fever, aversion to wind, sore throat, headache; also for summer-heat.
  • Clear damp heat from the lower jiao – dysentery, lin syndrome.


  • Disperses wind, clears heat (bitter, cold) – headache, fever.
  • Clears liver and the eyes (sweet, cold) – wind-heat in the liver channel manifesting with red, painful, dry eyes or excessive tearing, or yin deficiency of the kidneys and liver with floaters, blurry vision, or dizziness.

Green tea

I wonder why Unilever has not yet started marketing this range (there or more such teas available on the Chinese market).

Meanwhile, the famous Pu’er tea from Yunnan is also marketed worldwide a slimming aid and a way to lower blood lipids.

Example of a foods that are ascribed medicinal functions according to TCM in this blog are: dates (jujubes) , lotus pods, sea cucumbers, and dried plums (huamei). Examples of foods enriched with medicinal ingredients introduced in this blog are: moon cakes and some military food.

TCM and COVID-19

Traditional Chinese Medicine has played an important role in the treatment of COVID-19 infections. Clinical treatment shows that several kinds of TCM used during the outbreak in China helped reduce illness in patients and improve the cure rate, according to Li Yu, director of the Department of Science and Technology, National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the next step, TCM treatment can be used for patients in the recovery stage. This is the stage in which TCM herbal compounds gradually change from pure medicines to health supplements.

Punk yangsheng

A vogue that started in China around 2020 is Punk Yangsheng. Punk refers to unhealthy living habits of young Chinese, like sleeping late or not at all, clubbing, eating junk food, etc., all in a quest to make lots of money. Still being Chinese the want to compensate for their unhealthy habits by engaging in the yangsheng, or body-healing, habits of older generations. Middle-aged people might sip goji berry tea to stay young; their children are now buying bottled beverages with infused goji berries to make up for lack of sleep. other trending yangsheng drinks include those that promise results like a clearer complexion, more energy, weight loss, and reduced oedema. Priced between RMB 20 and 40, they’re not cheap. But that doesn’t seem to have curtailed their appeal. The following illustration shows more examples of how food or drinks with TCM herbs are used in this way.

TCM in animal feed

A new development is the use of selected TCM herbs as ingredients for animal feed. Practitioners in China have prescribed bitter blends of medicinal plants and herbs for centuries to ward off disease in humans. Now, farmers are adapting the age-old elixirs — a dash of ginseng here, a speck of licorice there — for use on livestock. They’re hoping to tap into the growing popularity of traditional medicine and health food in Chinese society. The expected results are not only delicious but healthy: lean, juicy meats that can protect against colds, arthritis and other illnesses. A Guangxi farmer began mixing 22 kinds of herbs into the daily feed for his livestock several years ago. The pigs that he raises sell for more than double the price of ordinary pigs, and some customers even eat his meats instead of taking medicine. Farmers like Mr. Lin hope that China’s increasingly health-conscious middle class will help bring medicinal meats into the mainstream. The health-food market in China reached $1 trillion last year, and it is expected to grow 20% annually for the next several years.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.

Traditional Chinese dairy products

It seems to be common knowledge that Chinese are not traditional consumers of milk and dairy products. If Chinese consume dairy products at all, they are mostly formulated products.

This is not quite true. First of all, apart from the Han Chinese, China has a number of national minorities of whose cuisines milk has been an important ingredient for centuries. These products have been introduced in Chinese cuisine in areas where their cultures mixed with those of Han Chinese. The emperors of the last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), were not Han Chinese, but Manchus whose dairy products became part of the court cuisine.

Westerners introduced their dairy products, when the first settled in the coastal regions of China. Although Chinese indeed found it hard to learn to appreciate those strongly smelling products, some amalgamation has taken place. It should not be a surprise to learn that the people of Guangdong, in particular of the Pearl River Delta, have developed a number of dishes with milk as the main ingredient. Also see the paragraph on mantou (steamed bread) as dessert in my blog on steamed bread.

We will introduce the best known traditional Chinese dairy products below, sorted by region:


Double skin milk (shuangpinai)

Milk is boiled and a small volume is poured into a small bowl. After cooling a skin is formed. The remaining liquid is poured off carefully to leave the skin intact in the bowl. Fresh milk is mixed with sugar and sieved to remove any solids. This is poured on top of the skin and the bowl is covered with a small dish. The covered bowl is boiled in water for about 15 minutes. [see illustration]


In their efforts to localise, KFC China launched its own version of shuangpinai in 2022.

Fried milk (zhanai)

Milk is mixed with egg white. Then fried ham or other meat shreds are added and the milk is fried in peanut oil. It can be prepared salted or sweetened.

Ginger milk (jiangzhuangnai)

Press juice from ginger and put one spoon of ginger juice in a bowl. A little more will produce a slightly sharper taste, but the volume should not exceed three spoons, lest the flavour of the milk will be covered. Milk is slowly boiled with sugar. The sugar should be equally dissolved. The boiled milk is poured into a larger bowl from a certain height; this should be repeated seven times. The milk is then poured over the ginger juice and the ginger milk can be consumed after 3 – 4 minutes cooling.

Milk tea (naicha)

Milk is boiled with sugar and tea.


Cheese (nailao)

We use the word ‘cheese’ here in English, because the Chinese word nailao is currently used to refer to Western cheese. The traditional cheese was introduced in the Northern Chinese cuisine by the Manchus, who ruled China during the last dynastic period. Wine culture and sugar are added to fresh milk and distributed in bowls. The bowls are heated on hot ash and then cooled by ice, which caused the milk to set.

Milk bun (naiwowo) and milk roll (naijuan)

A wowo is a traditional Chinese type of small pyramid shaped bun. Milk wowos and milk rolls are prepared by wrapping milk skin around a sweet filling, like sesame paste, sweetened bean paste, haw thorn paste, etc. The main difference between the two actually is their shape.

Inner Mongolia

Milk is a core ingredient of the Mongolian diet. Besides cow milk, goat, mare and camel milk are also consumed. However, apart from fermented mare milk, most Mongolian dairy products are made from cow milk, as it has the best clotting properties.

Milk bean curd (naidoufu)

Fresh milk is sieved through cloth into a vessel an put aside for one or two days in summer, up to three to seven days in cooler seasons. The fresh milk will start clotting by itself. The clotted milk is softly boiled in warm water, while the whey is slowly pressed out. The resulting curd is kneaded with a spoon or a wooded vessel until an even sticky substance is formed. During the kneading, sugar can be added. The milk is then put in wooden moulds and dried in the sun. The resulting milk bean curd is cut into small strips.

Milk drags (naizha)

The process is the same as for milk bean curd, but without the kneading. Sheep milk is normally used for naizha, as cow milk naizha is not easy to chew.

Cheese (nailao)

Curdled milk is wrapped in cloth and pressed using a stone. The resulting solid is called raw cheese. Using milk clotted by boiling (after removing the skin) is called cooked cheese. Cheese is cut into small flakes and sun dried.

Milk curds (nageda)

Naigeda can be regarded as a kind of cheese. Milk is fermented, heated and then sieved through cloth. The resulting mass is kneaded into small pieces of various shapes.

Yoghurt crisp (suannaisu)

Cooked yoghurt is pressed in the same way as cheese. The result is called yoghurt crisp. Cut into small pieces, again in the same fashion as cheese, it is referred to as sour cheese (suanlao). It can be kept for a long time and is said to relieve indigestion.

In 2020, Inner Mongolia decided to invest RMB 230 mln in developing the region’s traditional dairy products. Watch this interesting video giving a visual overview of these products.

Industrial production

A number of the traditional dairy products introduced above are going through various degrees of (semi-)commercial production. The Mongolian dairy products have recently become a genuine vogue in Beijing. More and more Mongolian restaurants are opening and placing plates and bowls with Mongolian dairy products on the table is a typical way to greet a group of guests.

While this can still not be considered real commercial production, Duole Dairy Co., Ltd. (Guangzhou, Guangdong) has launched milk tea packed in plastic cups. It is interesting to see that the Cantonese, who were the most inventive in incorporating milk in their local cuisine, are now also the first to come up with a industrially produced version. It is advertised as prepared with fresh and natural ingredients, quench thirst and relieve fatigue.


Ruiyuan Dairy (Xinjiang) is producing naigeda on an industrial scale. The company has two patents for this new process.

Some of the redesigned traditional dairy products have little in common anymore with the original thing. A good example is the industrially produced naisu by Duoweier Bioengineering (Chifeng, Inner Mongolia). The ingredients list is quite impressive:

Whole milk powder, starch, crystal sugar, vegetable fat, glucose syrup, vegetable oil, additives [emulsifiers (sodium caseinate, glycerol fatty acid ester), stabiliser (sodium biphosphate), silicon dioxide], dextrin, whey powder, water, glucose powder, maltose, cream, lactic acid, citric acid, food flavour


The ancestors of the engineer who formulated this product would be less impressed, but then, they did not face the challenge of large scale production.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.

Quick frozen future for traditional Chinese snacks

Quick freezing is developing as one of the most interesting ways to industrialize the production of traditional Chinese foods.

The quick frozen food sector really started developing in China in the early 1990s. This was caused by a synergy between the market penetration of refrigerators with sufficient freezer capacity and the increase of the pace of life in Chinese cities. Both trends, in particular the ownership of larger refrigerators by consumers, are still moving in to smaller cities and even the countryside. The total value of the Chinese bakery market in 2019 was RMB 231.713 billion; the share of frozen bakery products was RMB 90.368 billion.

The main products in the category are:

  • dumplings (jiaozi): folded sheets of dough, stuffed with a mix of spiced minced meat and vegetables;
  • stuffed steamed bread (baozi): basically mantou filled with a similar mix as dumplings;
  • glutinous rice balls (tangyuan): glutinous riced stuffed with sweet fillings;
  • wonton (huntun): a small variety of dumplings, whose fillings often only consist of meat that are consumed in a soup.

Dumplings on top

The most important frozen traditional snacks are: wonton, dumplings and tangyuan. Wontons are relatively small meatballs packed in large thin sheets of dough, usually eaten in a soup. Dumplings (discussed earlier in this blog) are similar, but larger fillings, consisting of meat and vegetables. They are also cooked, but not served in a soup. Tangyuan are sweet fillings, often made from sweetened bean paste, with an outer layer of glutinous rice.

Quick frozen dumplings are by far the largest segment. The following table lists the major producers and their market shares (survey of 2010):


One of these, Sanquan already ranks among China’s top food brands. The company generated a turnover of RMB 4.783 bln in 2016, up 12.8%.

FrozDump   SanquanNutri

Quick frozen snacks in China are therefore both a symbol of convenience and of increased variety in the diet. For suppliers of food ingredients it means an opportunity to develop specialty products for frozen Chinese snack foods, like emulsifiers that allow the consumer to through the frozen dumplings from the freezer directly into the boiling water.


However, the food ingredients for which this growing product group poses especially challenging opportunities are enzymes. Ample R&D is going on in China to look for enzymatic routes in solving the problems of quick frozen snacks.


Supersize me (?)

The China Food Newspaper of Oct. 23, 2014, carries a critical article about Sanquan’s most recent product line: big size stuffed buns (baozi), marketed as: Big Chunks of Meat Hunger Killing Buns (Da Kuai Rou Jiechan Bao). The dinosaur on the package says more than could be expressed in words. The author wonders if this food concept is in line with the growing concern for obesity. It reminds me of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Supersize Me. It is fascinating to see that, while McDonalds is trying not to repeat its supersize mistakes in emerging markets like China, local Chinese producers seem to be falling into the same trap, apparently unaware of this discussion in the West in the recent past. Let’s hope that keen journalists, and parents, educators, medical professionals, etc., can stop this in time, before competitors of Sanquan follow suit, and turn young Chinese consumers into dinosaurs.


Preparing the US market

A steamed bun brand that originated in Hangzhou (Zhejiang) is preparing to go international, opening its first overseas location. Founded in 2009, Ganqishi now has nearly 200 outlets in Hangzhou and Shanghai, selling at least 70 million buns every year. Its annual sales revenue exceeds RMB 200 mln and in 2013, it received a private equity investment of RMB 80 mln. The photo shows how people line up to buy Ganqishi baozi. In May 2016, the company will open its first US outlet in Harvard Square, the historic centre of Cambridge, Massachusetts close to top educational institutions such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. These will still be freshly made baozi. However, once the American taste buds have been wettened by Ganqishi, the market for frozen baozi is bound to grow to in the country that invented convenience food.


China’s leading producer of quick frozen dumplings, Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan), announced that it was setting up a production unit in Los Angeles.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.