The Chinese armed forces include about 2.3 million military personnel. Moreover, as the army is a regular Chinese employer, it is responsible for the livelihood the entire household of its officers and civilian employees. This means that the Chinese armed forces are facing the burden of feeding 5 – 6 million mouths. Even when we restrict our attention to food for combatants, this group of consumers constitutes a complete market by itself.
The total budget of the Chinese army was RMB 720.2 billion in 2013.
As reported earlier in this blog, medicinal functionality and nutrition have always been overlapping realms in Chinese culture, including in the design of combat foods. Modern food technology now adds the availability of functional ingredients and combining these with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) creates and interesting challenge as well as opportunities for the suppliers of food ingredients.
The Military Provision Research Institute of the General Logistics Department, that conducts this research in China, identifies the following aspects of military food that require special attention:
The food needs to easy to digest, cure indigestion and ensure a maximum bioavailability of the nutrients.
Suppress hunger and fatigue
Soldiers in combat can not always eat their meals regularly. Their food must be high in energy and release that energy slowly, to allow for long breaks between meals. One of the current research programs of the Military Provision Research Institute is the addition of soy bean oligopeptides in military food to combat fatigue.
Protect against climate and adverse geographic conditions
Soldiers need to be operative under any type of climatic conditions, from the humid heat of the tropics to severe cold, or at high altitudes with less oxygen. Chinese soldiers do not need to be sent abroad to experience all these climatic extremes. China comprises virtually all types of climates in the world within its national borders. Different foods need to be designed for different environments.
A military college has developed a type of biscuit that can increase the consumers’ oxygen level and alleviate fatigue for 48 hours. The recipe includes a number of TCM herbs.
Protect against disease
The food needs to enhance the immune system of soldiers and protect against diarrhea and perhaps even diseases like influenza. This is where TCM is believed to be especially useful as a source of new military foods.
Protect against radiation
There is ongoing research into food ingredients that make people more resistant against radiation during nuclear warfare. E.g., seaweed is being studied as a source of ingredients for anti-radiation foods and beverages.
The picture shows an example of existing ‘antiradiation food’ developed by the Chinese army that is also sold to the general public. The interest among such products has increased after the problems with the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
Taste like home
Chinese are finicky eaters and the military are no exception. Chinese are happy that modern technology reduces the time needed for the preparation of meals in the kitchen or the battle field, but that food must still retain its traditional texture, colour, flavour, etc.
This picture shows a complete meal packed in plastic, which might as well have been purchased at a regular supermarket.
Some insiders even remark that military convenience food in China is better developed that what is currently sold as ‘Chinese’ fast food, which still finds it hard to compete with multinationals like McDonalds and KFC. They therefore urge the military food industry to expand its business scope to civilians as well. Chinese military industry has always been known as technologically more advanced than average with a high concern for quality. If the military food manufacturers will pay attention to this call and start making consumer products as well, they may turn out to be tough competition of the existing industry.
On the other hand, several civilian food companies are trying their hand in feeding Chinese military. An example is China’s top producer of snack foods Sanquan, that is mentioned in several other items in this blog: the quick frozen tradition and China’s top food brands.
Here is a video showing how to open and prepare a complete Chinese army meal. It is rather lengthy, but at least you will get a good look.
Developments in 2020
Some photos released late 2020 show the latest developments of that year. Following a general trend in the Chinese restaurant business, ready-to-eat baked fish looks like a real treat.
A second trend is military food inspired by regional cuisines. This photo shows Sichuan food, Northern food and Southern food. It sounds great to be able to taste a bite of home while watching the enemy’s movements from the trenches.
Militarised versions of luxury dishes are also available, like the famous Buddha Jumps over the Wall; a food so tasty that it makes Buddha do exactly that, to catch a bite.
I am amazed about these trends. Could Chinese soldiers be the best fed in the world?
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.