When I first lived in China as a student in 1975, I recall that I was surprised to find domestic canned luncheon meat in the shops. My mind apparently did not immediately associate luncheon meat with China. That assumption was ungrounded. China is the number one pork nation, with almost half of all pigs in the world living there. Pork is so common in China, that in the names of Chinese pork dishes it is usually simply referred to as rou ‘meat’. So, when you see xiangla rousi (Fragrant Spicy Meat Shreds) on the menu of a Chinese restaurant, you can be almost sure that the meat is pork. Some northern Chinese use the term darou (‘big meat’) for pork, hinting that it is the main type of meat in their diet. Also see my previous post on types of meat in China.
The non-association was probably based on the fact that luncheon meat was a regular item in our kitchen when I was young. It was (and still is) a convenient ingredient to meat up a dish when you are in a hurry. You can slice it or dice it, eat it raw, stir it through your almost finished pasta or fried rice, or whatever.
And that is exactly the reason why the consumption of luncheon meat has been increasing so rapidly in China during the past few years. The following table shows the consumption of from 2012 to 2018.
That is a continuous double-digit growth. However, when you look at the absolute figures and compare them with the size of the Chinese population, you don’t need a calculator to figure out that this growth rate can continue for quite a while. With the expansion of the modern life style with its much faster pace to second and third tier Chinese cities, the demand for convenient cooking ingredients will grow with it. The total value of the bread retail in China in 2019 was RMB 55.91 billion; up 6.76%.
Chinese ingenuity with luncheon meat: from a quick and nutritious dish: egg-coated slices of luncheon meat . . .
. . . to Spam burger with Oreo crumbs; a limited offer of December 2020.
Opportunity for whom?
Does this mean that international suppliers of luncheon meat should see China as their major target for growth in the coming years? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the growth will take place; no, because you have to cope with fierce competition from domestic competitors. The following table shows the local production of luncheon meat for the same years.
Again, no calculator is needed to see that, even with the little dip in 2015, domestic production exceeds demand for each year. Moreover, the annual increase has fastened since 2016.
China is exporting luncheon meat to various parts of the world. However, it has been surprisingly difficult to find statistics with similar details as for consumption and production. This is perhaps related to a number of quality issues that have occurred in various countries importing Chinese luncheon meat.
In spite of the sufficient domestic production, China is importing some luncheon meat as well. Hormel’s seminal Spam is obviously available, followed by Tulip from Denmark. There is also Betchina from Russia.
Top domestic brands are Maling from Shanghai, Gulong from Xiamen and Yingjinqian from Guangzhou, in that order. It is not easy to categorise domestic products. Let’s try do so on the basis of ingredients. The following table lists the ingredients as indicated by the above three producers.
|Maling||pork, water, corn starch, vegetable protein|
|Gulong||pork, water, corn starch, salt|
|Yingjinqian||meat, potable water, starch, vegetable protein|
Gulong stands out in that it does not add protein from other sources than meat. Gulong is also the only product indicating salt as an ingredient. We can be sure that the other producers are also adding salt, but fail to mention it.
The following picture was taken in a Beijing supermarket on August 26, 2019.
Military lunch – also for civilians
An interesting special category of Chinese luncheon meat are those produced by military manufacturers. I have already posted about military food in China and indicated that this industry is also selling to the general public for commercial reasons. The top product in this category is Lingxiang from Chongqing. Its ingredients as listed:
Pork, potable water, sugar, salt, MSG, spices
Sugar is added, probably for flavour, so are the MSG and spices. Perhaps soldiers need to be stimulated more with flavours than the general public. Another reason could be that civilians use luncheon meat as an ingredient, while soldiers will regular eat it straight from the can. In that case, they will appreciate that little extra flavour.
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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.