About eurasiaconsult

I am passionate about many things, but the top three are: China, food and human organizing processes. I started learning Chinese when I was 14, spontaneously. In the end this resulted into a PhD in Arts (Leiden University; 1986), 10 years of working and living experience in China as a representative of a Dutch firm and a marriage with a Chinese partner (1984). During my work in a company (Gist-brocades, now part of DSM) and as an independent consultant, I became fascinated with organization theory. This has led to a second PhD in Business Administration (Erasmus University Rotterdam; 2001). I am currently combining both interests in a long-term research project studying Chinese entrepreneurship, with a number of Chinese partners. From the day I joined the company, I picked up an interest in food, not just the final product, but also how it is produced, with an emphasis on ingredients and formulation. Once more combining that interest with my China passion, I became an avid student of the cultural and societal function of food. In this blog, I hope to blend all those ingredients into a savoury soup about China, the Chinese food industry and how the organization of that industry differs from the West.

Mengniu – game changer of the Chinese dairy industry

China’s two dairy giants, Mengniu and Yili, are located in the self-styled Dairy Capital of China: Huhhot. What is their relation and the nature of their competition in the Chinese cultural context?

A blog needs to renew regularly. Although most of my posts introduce companies, after the post on COFCO I have never written another one featuring a single company. I will make up for that, starting with this post about one of China’s top dairy companies. This post is derived from a case study in one of my academic writings: Chinese Corporate Identity. Readers who are triggered to get a deeper understanding, please read that chapter, or better: the entire book.

Inner Mongolia – a bit Chinese and a bit Mongolian

Inner Mongolia is an administrative region of northern China of the same level as a province, but with a larger degree of political autonomy.

The greater part of Inner Mongolia is a plateau with elevations of about 1000 metres. The Yellow River flows north from Ningxia and forms a loop that encloses the Ordos Desert. Grasslands predominate on the plateau, where they sustain large numbers of grazing animals such as cows, sheep, goats, camels, and horses. Milk from all those animals has been part of the traditional diet of the Mongols. Apart from drinking the fresh product, milk is processed into a number of cheese and yoghurt like products. Horse milk is even fermented into an alcoholic beverage.

The population of Inner Mongolia is approximately 25 million, up from only 6.1 million in 1953. The rapid population growth since the 1950s is a result of better nutrition, increased health care services, and a substantial migration into the region of Han Chinese. More than 80% of the current population is Han. Mongols comprise the largest minority group in Inner Mongolia, and their presence is acknowledged by the government’s designation of Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region.

From orphan to entrepreneur

Mr Niu Gensheng (1956), Mengniu’s founder, is one of the most mythical among present day China’s entrepreneurs; more even than that of Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. Story has it that he lost his parents at the very early age of 3 months and was raised by a farmer called Niu (which ominously means ‘cow’). His foster parents gave him the name: Niu Gensheng.

Niu was hired by what was then called the Yili Dairy Factory in Huhhot, as a bottle washer, in 1978. From that humble position, he gradually worked his way up from work shop supervisor, subsidiary director, vice-director of the mother factory to Vice-President in charge of production of, what was then rename into, the Yili Group. Niu’s career did not pass by unnoticed. He has been granted a number of regional awards and was included in the 10 Top Young Entrepreneurs of Huhhot.

Ousted from Yili

For reasons that have never been actually expressed, a conflict developed between Niu and the other board members, resulting his removal from the board in November 1998. The Board issued a statement indicating that ‘Comrade Niu Gensheng no longer fitted his position.’ He was ‘advised’ to find a place to study outside his home region for at least two years. Judging by this ‘advice,’ it could have been that his fellow board members did no longer feel comfortable with a self-made man among their ranks. Niu grabbed this opportunity to enrol himself in the MBA course of the prestigious Guanghua Business School of Beijing University. He left Yili the following year.

Founding Mengniu

Already within the same year, 1999, Niu Gensheng and a group of more than 50 of his old subordinates at Yili and a number of private individuals, raised RMB 1.3 billion to establish Mengniu Dairy Co., Ltd. When asked during an interview how Niu could so easily convince a considerable number of his former colleagues at Yili to not only quit their comfortable positions, but also entrust a considerable amount of their savings to him, Niu’s own rationale was that he had the habit of sharing his income with his subordinates. His last salary as a Vice-President of Yili exceeded RMB 1 million, which he found more than he needed to make a good living. He often shared part of it with subordinates that he believed to have contributed to his success. In Niu’s eyes, he was cashing in on the goodwill thus accumulated during the establishment of Mengniu. This was good leadership in a communitarian culture like the Chinese.

Fastest growing private enterprise

At that point of Mengniu’s early age, the company was still in a situation Niu himself recalls as ‘four deficiencies:’ no raw milk source, no factory, no brand (he had registered a brand name, but it was unknown among Chinese consumers), no market. He contacted dairy plants all over China with a surplus capacity and contracted those to produce for Mengniu. Mengniu provided specifications, a brand name and technological assistance. Mengniu first created a market and only then built its own production facilities.

Mengniu turned out to be the fastest growing private enterprise in China’s history. The company generated a turnover of RMB 43 million in the first year of its existence, which was approximately 4% of Yili’s turnover of the same period. The turnover of 2002 was already RMB 2 billion, exactly half of Yili’s turnover of that year.

Foreign investment

A milestone in the history of Mengniu was its acceptance of foreign participation late 2002. Niu Gensheng himself had repeatedly stated in the national press that he was not in a hurry to follow Yili’s example in seeking registration on the stock exchange and expose Mengniu to the whims of speculators. It therefore was even a surprise to insiders when it was reported that Morgan Stanley, CDH Fund and China Capital Partners had signed an agreement with Mengniu to invest USD 26 million in Mengniu. As a result of that deal, the three foreign investors held a total share of 32%. According to a spokesperson of Mengniu, the Chinese side had attracted foreign participation to better compete with the other dairy giants like Sanyuan (Beijing) and Bright (Shanghai), that were heavily supported by their respective local governments. Morgan Stanley had already invested in a number of Chinese enterprises including Ping’an Insurance Company, Nanfu Battery Company and Heng’an International Group. CDH Fund had invested in 12 Chinese enterprises, also including Nanfu Battery and Sina.com, an important Chinese business Internet portal. China Capital Partners, a UK fund for investment in China, had invested USD 55 million in China since its establishment in June 2000. Following opening its door to foreign influence, Mengniu’s next step was to seek listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in June 2004.

Cultural drivers of Mengniu’s success

Niu Gensheng’s strategy has never been to ‘push Yili from the market’, which would be the typical Western MBA textbook approach. Instead he kept praising Yili in his advertisements of Mengniu, position his company as a faithful follower of leader Yili.

He vouched in media interviews that Mengniu would not try to snatch raw milk sources from Yili and that Mengniu would never buy raw milk that did not comply with Yili’s specifications.

In the Chinese cultural context, Niu himself, and the Yili employees he had pulled from Yili, would still maintain friendly contacts with their former Yili colleagues. An aggressive strategy would not fit such relations. In the political field, the Huhhot authorities, while welcoming new entrepreneurial activity, would dislike a Western-style life or death fight between state-owned enterprise Yili and private newcomer Mengniu. Commercial competition must never harm the Confucianist ideal of harmonious society.

In short: Niu Gensheng’s entrepreneurial behaviour suited the Chinese communitarian culture and complied with the Confucianist principles of good governance.

Mengniu and Yili outside Inner Mongolia

During the following years and decades, Mengniu and Yili kept growing and expanding into other regions of China. In most regions, either Mengniu or Yili would be the first to enter, but the other would soon follow suit. While Mengniu kept profiling itself as the follower, in their de facto relationship they alternately acted as follower or leader (for concrete case studies see the above-mentioned book).

Mengniu turns SEO

The Chinese business world was shaken by the news that COFCO (see my post that positions COFCO as the next Nestlé) had acquired a significant share in Mengniu in 2009. The media, that had so far regarded Niu Gensheng as a favourite person to interview, now accused him of going against the tide. While privatization was the trend in Chinese economy, China’s most successful private company was now becoming a de facto state-owned enterprise. Niu was not shaken by the fierce criticism, as usual. He calmly replied that the real trend was that the differences between various types of enterprises in China (state-owned, private, foreign invested, etc.) were decreasing. He simply believed that Mengniu would be best off as a subsidiary of the emerging multinational COFCO. History has proven him right.

Food for thought

Mengniu Dairy’s entrepreneurial history provides a large bowl of food for thought. I will leave most of it for you, my readers, to think over. I will restrict to one challenging thought: considering the problems major dairy multinationals like Fonterra and FrieslandCampina are experiencing in China, how much could they learn from Mengniu, to grow roots in the Chinese cultural context? Nestlé, an early Western investor in China, seems to have done a good job in this respect. The key issue in embedding your Chinese subsidiary in the local society is forging valuable relationships, with business partners, but also with competitors.

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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Shaji – seabuckthorn – the unknown superfruit

Shaji (sea buckthorn; Hippophae rhamnoides) is an indigenous fruit of North China. China is good for 90% of the world output of this fruit. It has been used as an ingredient of various foods and beverages in China for some time but is still not very well known abroad.

Shaji is regarded as a medicinal herb in TCM, but has been put on the official list of ‘herbs that can be used in food and medicine’ in 1987. Medicinal ingredients, including TCM, are not allowed to be used freely as food ingredients, but plants on that list are exempted from that regulation.

Shaji have a high content of vitamin C, about 15 times greater than oranges. The fruit also contains high contents of carotenoids, vitamin E, amino acids, dietary minerals, β-sitosterol and polyphenols. Seabuckthorn oil is a good source for omega-7 fatty acid.

Shaji fruit can be used to make pies, jams, wines, etc. Fruit drinks were the earliest seabuckthorn products developed in China. Shaji berries are edible and nutritious, though very acidic (astringent) and oily, unpleasant to eat raw, unless ‘bletted’ (frosted to reduce the astringency) and/or mixed as a juice with sweeter substances such as juice of other fruits.

Sea-buckthorn berries combine nutritious agents usually only found separately. Its list of vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids reads like the label on a pack of multi-vitamin pills. All of these components are classified as natural anti-oxidants, which form a vital part of the body’s defence system.

Main Biochemical Contents of Seabuckthorn Oil

Contents Pulp oil (mg/100g) Seed oil (mg/100g) Residue oil (mg/100g)
Vitamin K 110-230 54-59
Vitamin E 206.9 171.0 300-600
Carotene 2.0-4.0 10-80
Carotenoids 30-250 300-870 1280-1860
Protein 95.55 7.06
Total acid 10.7 37.6
Total sterol 1093.6 720.6
Unsaturated fatty acids 87.4 % 66.8 % 70 %
Saturated fatty acids 11.8 % 38.8 %  –
Oleic acid 20-25 % 20-25 % 33 %
Linoleic acid 37.0 % 5-10 % 4 %
Linolenic acid 27.6 % 2.1 % 5 %
Unsaponificable matter 1-3 % 0.5-2.5 % 2-5 %
Total flavonoids 0.55 %

Since the discovery of the nutritional value of sea-buckthorn, hundreds of sea-buckthorn products made from the berries, oil, leaves, bark and their extracts have been developed.

China has become one of the largest producers and consumers of sea-buckthorn products in the world. Fruit drinks were among the earliest sea-buckthorn products developed in China. They have rapidly gained a reputation as both a satisfying drink and a nutritional beverage that enhances stamina and vitality.

Though seabuckthorn has been grown for many years in India and China, and its healthy qualities are well known, but it languishes behind other superfruits. While it is gaining increased recognition, seabuckthorn is lagging behind other so-called superfruits, such as açaí.

This is possibly because it has just slipped under the radar: applications are growing in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry, and it is likely that the fruit will gain in popularity in the next few years.

The reason for China’s domination of the fruit is that China has long used the plant for soil and water conservation purposes. They typically grow in dry, sandy area, are tolerant of salt in the air and soil, and demand good sunlight.

The common seabuckthorn is by far the most widespread, with a range extending from the Atlantic coasts of Europe right across to north-western China. In western Europe, it is largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from outcompeting it, but in central Asia it is more widespread in dry semi-desert sites where other plants cannot survive the dry conditions.

The female plants produce soft and juicy orange berries 6-9mm in diameter, rich in vitamin C (average 600mg/100g and sometimes up to 1 500mg/100g). Some varieties are also rich in vitamin A, vitamin E and oils.

The berries contain about 56-70% juice. However, the fruits have some drawbacks as far as processing goes. First, the shrubs are covered in thorns, which makes picking difficult. The fruit falls off the branches of its own accord at temperatures below -20°C, but obviously this method of natural harvesting will only work in very cold regions.

Entire branches can be removed, frozen, and then shaken to remove the fruits, but obviously this is damaging to the shrub. Mechanical harvesting, developed in the Baltic states, involves shaking the branches without freezing, but this method leaves half the berries unharvested and the shrubs can only be harvested every two years, so an effective annual yield is only 25%. In countries where labour is cheap, hand-picking remains the most effective way of harvesting seabuckthorn berries.

Must be blended

The other disadvantage is that pure seabuckthorn juice does not taste very nice. It has to be blended with other fruit juices in order to be palatable. It is also very high acid, so some form of sweetener (or a very sweet fruit juice) must also be added unless the juice is present in very small quantities in a blend. It lends itself well to being blended with pear juice, at a ratio of 30%. Seabuckthorn juice has a freezing point of -22°C, so it remains liquid even in sub-zero temperatures.

General consumer interest in seabuckthorn began about three or four years ago. China is ramping up its output of seabuckthorn. The total area in China under seabuckthorn is now a colossal 2.13 million hectares (ha), according to China’s National Administration centre on Seabuckthorn Development.

Of this total, 667 000ha are ‘wild’ trees and 1.5 million ha are cultivated, representing 90% of the world’s total population of such trees. The main purpose of seabuckthorn cultivation in China, as in India, is to control water and soil erosion and improve the ecological environment. The country is planting an additional 113 000 new seabuckthorn trees every year, as part of the Chinese government’s program to increase production of the fruit and its derivatives. The government is also funding schemes to develop new varieties which will require less or no watering during growth and which will produce much improved fruit yields.

Most seabuckthorn trees are planted in poor environments such as gullies and river beds. Fruit yields are very low. Under normal conditions, seedling plants begin to fruit in the third year and fruits will be harvested in the fifth year. Average yields are 0.75 mt/ha.

There are some 200 companies in China making seabuckthorn products, such as oils, pharmaceutical items and cosmetics. However, juice processing plants were first established in the 1980s, and plants to add the juice to other beverages appeared in the 1990s. In 2004, China produced about 10 000 tonnes of seabuckthorn juice.

Because of its healthy connotations, China sees it as an ideal fruit for organic production, and future development of seabuckthorn will move in this direction. Seabuckthorn is a key component in many health supplements and is now attracting attention as a component in juice drinks.

Shanxi-based enterprises unite

Shanxi province, China’s main producing areas of sea-buckthorn, set up an industrial association in Taiyuan, capital of the province, hoping to unite local enterprises to build their brands. This move came as most of the province’s sea buckthorn processing, production, and sales enterprises are facing operational difficulties. They hope to cooperate and adjust their industrial mode for future development. Statistics show Shanxi has more than 400,000 hectares of sea-buckthorn shrubs, accounting for nearly 70% of wild sea buckthorn across the country. Due to difficult harvest conditions and a long ramp-up time of 6 to 8 years buckthorn is a relatively expensive raw material.

However, in Shanxi, the fruits of sea buckthorn are commonly sold as fruit juice. The sea buckthorn industry is still at a very preliminary level as it has faced a series of problems, such as lagging scientific research, a lack of high-end products, small scale, poor marketing, and differentiated production standards. Other factors such as Internet sales and strong competition have squeezed the market share of Shanxi’s sea-buckthorn production companies. With its establishment, the association will help integrate industrial resources, give full play to their technology and talented people, and connect companies, bases, and farmers to form industrialization development modes.

Product overview

In this section I am introducing a few seabuckthorn-based products made in China to indicate how the fruit is currently used as a food ingredient.

Fine powder

Pure superfine seabuckthorn powder, void of any additive. Producer: Jinliang Food Technology Co., Ltd. (Shanghai).

Tea

Seabuckthorn tea produced by Wanmei (Perfect) China, Ltd. (Guangdong).

Ingredients: fructose oligosaccharides, seabuckthorn powder, black tea powder, citric acid, malic acid, Luohanguo (fructus momordicae ) extract, vitamin C, sucralose, lemon flavour,  ethyl maltol

Dried fruits

Dried seabuckthorn fruits, produced by Shihutang (Xinjiang). Consumption: put a few dried fruits in a cup of tea or glass of spirits (baijiu).

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.

 

Tomatoes in the Chinese kitchen and even more for export

The tomato belongs to a large group of plants of the nightshade family. Its cousins include potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers, all popular ingredients in China.

No one can pinpoint the exact dates these vegetables were introduced to China, but the general consensus is that they came through both the overland and maritime trade routes. The national output of fresh tomatoes for 2017 is estimated at more than 56 mln mt.

There is a chicken dish cooked by the Uyghurs in the north-western entry point of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region that combines almost all of them. Known as “big pan chicken” or dapanji, it is a rich, tomato-based stew with chunks of potatoes, lots of onions and plenty of bell peppers. That probably gives us a hint on the early beginnings.

Good ingredients are treasured by Chinese chefs who often go out of their comfort zones to seek them out. Foreign imports such as potatoes are now staples, and the chili pepper, too, has been naturalised.

The tomato’s brilliant colour and natural umami flavour have made it another essential ingredient. In fact, the classic sweet and sour dishes of southern China now depend mainly on the tomato, where it used to be the hawthorn fruit that coloured and flavoured in the past.

It used to be harvested only in summer, although it is now available all year round, thanks to bigger, better greenhouses and a countrywide logistics network that connects north to south and east to west. Xinjiang is currently by far the largest production region of tomatoes in China. This product has become so important, that China has started investing in tomato production in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

The northern Chinese mainly consume tomatoes raw, in thin slices liberally covered with caster sugar. More than a few Europeans have to grow accustomed to eating sweetened tomatoes. The most favoured hot dish with tomatoes is tomatoes with scrambled eggs (xihongshi chao jidan), which is everybody’s favourite. I used to travel in China with a Dutch client who was not a lover of Chinese stir fried dishes, but he did like scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

Tomatoes are now used to stuff dumplings, pairing with such stronger-tasting meats like beef and lamb, and is cooked down to a sauce for hand-cut noodles. It is not only used to accompany noodles, but is actually worked into the noodles themselves, like spinach.

The love of tomato-flavoured stews in north-eastern China can also be traced to the Russian influence of the past. For certain older generations, the only Western restaurants in the capital at that time served Russian food. For them, Russian food meant a strongly tomato-flavoured borscht, a hearty tomato and beef stew and minced-meat-stuffed cabbage rolls slowly stewed in a thick tomato sauce. That was the pinnacle of gourmet eating in restaurants with names like Old Moscow, or Kiev.

Times have changed. Modern Beijingers still love their tomatoes, but they are more likely to consume them as pizza sauce or over spaghetti. Modern chefs, many coming from overseas, have also introduced other new ways of eating tomatoes.

Tomato paste

The top industrial tomato product is tomato paste. If your mind connects tomato paste with Italy and Italian cuisine, you need to update your settings. China, in particular Xinjiang, has the world’s prime production region for tomato paste for a number of years. Several Italian companies import it in bulk an can the Chinese product in Italy, to export again as a ‘typically’ Italian product. However, the exports of tomato paste have been dropping, partly due to adverse weather conditions and partly to regional protectionism that is on the rise globally. China has exported appr. 852,000 mt of tomato paste in 2017. That is considerably lower than the top year 2011, when China exported 1,128,459 mt.

Tomato-based ingredients

Although exported could increase again, the Chinese tomato processing industry needs to look for tomato-based ingredients with a higher added value. One such product is lycopene. It is offered as a dietary supplement claiming to aid the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and prostate cancer.

A good indication of the current situation of any food ingredient in China is looking at the participants of the Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair (March 22 – 24, Shanghai). The following table shows exhibitors of various tomato-based products at that fair.

Product number
Sun-dried tomatoes 1
Dehydrated tomatoes 1
Tomato paste 3
Tomato powder 7
Lycopene 9

It seems that suppliers of tomato paste or dried tomatoes do not regard FIC as their typical trade fair. However, FIC is clearly the place to look for tomato powder and lycopene.

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.

Nothing sweeter than sweeter than sweet potato

You will find very few Chinese who do not like sweet potatoes, baishu ‘white tuber’ in Chinese. Story has it that the first sweet potato plant was smuggled into China from what was then Dutch colony of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. A sailor had stripped off its leaves and secretly woven the vine into the hessian ropes on board the ship.

It first took root in Fujian province, the mainland province closest Taiwan island. Here, it flourished in the rocky, mountainous terrain where it helped to fill stomachs in a land too poor for paddy planting.

Taiwanese like to cook sweet potatoes in rice porridge, and the people of Fujian took over that habit too. However, the sweet potato never grew into a real staple food in the sense that it completely replaced rice or wheat based staples used in the various cuisines of China. Apart from using it in rice and porridge, Chinese turned it into noodles, cooked it in sweet soups and made pies, dumplings, bread and cakes and little snacks from sweet potatoes.

Staple, but not really

Some ‘rustic’ restaurants, like Culiang Renjia ‘Home of Coarse Staples’, currently very popular in Beijing, serve a basket with a variation of rough staples as a rustic alternative for steamed rice or noodles. The basket includes purple yams, sweet and glutinous corn, Chinese yam, burdock and edamame, green soybeans, and . . . sweet potatoes. I don’t think that Chinese peasants ever used to have such baskets on their dinner tables, but it does give you more fibre and is more filling that steamed rice.

Sweet potatoes were also eaten as a snack. A typical street food in the cold North China winters is a sweet potato baked on a metal barrel. Nothing chases the winter chills away better than a piping hot sweet potato in your hands, skin slightly burned and dotted with droplets of caramelized juices.

Slices of sweet potato are dried in the open air, so they can be eaten as a between meal snack in the office, or during a long train ride. Sweet potato slices are no also available as packed food in the supermarket.

Other processed sweet potato products include hard grey glass noodles (for more on those see the posts on millet and lotus) that cook down to a translucent white that is much loved in winter hotpots. Sweet potato starch is a necessary ingredient in many desserts, as well as the secret to the signature oyster omelette famous in Fuzhou and the region of Chaoshan in Guangdong.

In recent years, an unexpected health fad – sweet potato leaves – has risen, thanks to the mighty webchat groups of consumers who consider themselves nutrition experts. In fact, in earlier years, poor peasants used sweet potato leaves as a cheap vegetable, but that may not be known by those amateur nutritionists. After harvesting, the leaves must be thoroughly washed to get rid of grit, since they grow low on the ground. Then the fibres must be stripped off the long stems, starting from the base of the leaf. It is a fussy, tedious task, but necessary. Otherwise, the leaves will be too stringy to eat.

Sweet potato profit

There are already companies specialising in processing sweet potatoes. A noted one of Tianyu Tuber in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Tianyu was founded in 1993 and has grown into a company with 760 employees and four subsidiaries. The company also operates the Tianyu Sweet Potato Research Institute and the Henan Sweet Potato Starch Research Institute and helps cultivate a sweet potato test field for the China Agricultural University. This clearly indicates that Tianyu is well embedded at local, regional and national levels.

Tianyu has a storage capacity for 50,000 mt of sweet potatoes p.a. and production capacity for 80,000 mt of sweet potato starch, 50,000 mt of various products (noodles, glass noodles), 10,000 mt of sweet potato drinks, and 2000 mt of sweet potato snacks. The company exports its products to 20 countries, including: South Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

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.

Black is beautiful – also in food

Black may be the colour of evil, even in Chinese culture, but for food it is a sign of superior nutrition

Black food has become a focus in the Chinese health food market in recent years. Black food refers to the natural melanin containing foods, whether derived from animals or plants. The natural melanin content causes a dark, dark purple, or dark brown colour. Some foods have a dark skin, while others are black at the end, inside or outside, such as black goji, black rice, black sesame seeds, black fungus, mushrooms, seaweed, kelp and laver. Manufactured black food, such as plum sauce, bean curd, soy sauce, cured egg etc., are meant to stimulate people’s appetite through their colour, but do not count as real black food.

The scope of what counts as black food is not strictly defined. The Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Biotechnology is one of the earliest domestic research institutes specialising in black food. It defines black food as having a relatively dark natural colour, rich in nutrition, and structurally acceptable to the human physiology as food. This definition excludes artificially black foods such as soy sauce.

Black foods contrast with food groups of other colours:

  • White food: bread, noodles, etc.; main nutrients: starch, sugar and other carbohydrates;
  • Red food: pork, beef, lamb, chicken and rabbit; main nutrients: protein, fat;
  • Green food: green vegetables and fruits; main nutrients: a variety of vitamins and cellulose;
  • Black food: black rice, black beans, turtle, black fungus, black mushrooms; main nutrients: protein, fat, amino acids, vitamins.

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), black foods nourish the kidneys. They are rich in anti-oxidants and can therefore prevent several types of cancer and slow down aging. They strengthen the brain and lower blood pressure. The fact that shining black hair has always been regarded as a sign of physical health in China certainly also plays a role in the positive image of black foods in China.

Five Black Elements

The most conspicuous producers of black foods in China is the Five Black Elements (Heiwulei) Group in Guangxi. The company was founded in 1984 as the Nanfang Children’s Food Factory by Mr. Wei Qingwen. The name Heiwulei was adopted a decade later. The term itself originates from the Cultural Revolution, denoting five types of bad people (‘black categories’) in society: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, rightists. Mr. Wei loved black sesame paste, which was his company’s first product. Now, the company is producing ‘Eight Black Treasures’ (Heibazhen): black rice, black beans, black fungus, black mulberry, black corn, black dates, black sesame and black seaweed (laver).

BlackTreasures

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.

Vegetarian food in China

Buddhism is closely associated with vegetarian eating. However, although Buddhism has been an influential religion in China for centuries, vegetarian restaurant or food products are not that abundantly and overtly available.

A fellow student of mine who has been a vegetarian all his life once returned from a visit to China even skinnier than he already was. He claimed that he regularly had problems in China to find genuinely vegetarian dishes in restaurants as Chinese often use small quantities of meat, in particular pork, to flavour food.

Another reason could be that vegetables have always played a bigger role in Chinese cuisine than in meat-based European cuisines. But Chinese also believe in a well-balanced meal, so a few vegetable-based dishes need to be complemented with some meat or seafood. Leaving out animal protein altogether does not result in a balanced meal. As a result, most Chinese perceive their cuisine as ‘mainly’ vegetarian.

November 25 marks the World Vegetarian Day, which is an excellent excuse to have a look at history of vegetarianism in China.

Not all about Buddhism

Most Chinese people would be familiar with an ancient quotation from their high school textbook: “people who eat meat are shallow minded.” The quote is from the ancient book of Zuo Zhuan, the earliest annals in China. “People who eat meat” refers to the privileged that belong to high class, for only noble people were recorded to have access to eat meat in ancient China for a certain period of time.

According to Book of Rites (Li Ji), a historical record written during the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), the kind of meat people ate was closely related to their social status. Only emperors could eat beef every day. Hereditary rulers and noblemen often had mutton and could enjoy some beef on the first day of each month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Most of the time, the common people only had meat-free meals. However, the book also recorded that the nobles needed to stay away from meat when they were on a fast. When somebody died in the family, they went without meat during mourning.

When Buddhism first entered China later in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), there were no strict rules about monks’ eating habit. However, emperor Xiao Yan from the Southern Dynasty (420-589) changed everything. He strongly promoted vegetarianism in Buddhist temples by issuing an order to force monks to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, and abstain from alcohol.

Some temples also became well-known for their delicate vegetarian food. In Qing Bai Lei Chao, a book from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), four such famous temples were mentioned: Fa Yuan Temple in Beijing, Ding Hui Temple in Zhenjiang, Bai Yun Temple in Shanghai, and Yan Xia Dong in Hangzhou.

Vegetarian dishes

The Qi Min Yao Shu written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), widely recognised as one of the earliest agricultural books in China, recorded 11 vegetarian recipes. The vegetables mentioned in the book included spring onion, leek, wax gourd, mushroom and eggplant. Later vegetarianism became relatively popular in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). According Meng Liang Lu, a book from the Song Dynasty, there were even shops that specialized in vegetarian cakes. The book recorded about 25 kinds of meat-free cakes made from dates and chestnuts.

Vegetarian food not only enjoyed more categories, but also more lovely names since the Song Dynasty. There was a kind of cake, named “cakes make cats drunk”, recorded in a book Qing Yi Lu from the Song Dynasty. The cake was made from peppermint and dill, two plants with a strong odour.

Lifestyle food

Vegetarian food gradually become a more delicate choice for ancient Chinese. Li Yu, an aesthetician who was also good at literature, from the Qing Dynasty, praised the vegetarian food as the most valuable delicacy. “In my opinion, beef, mutton and fish are not as good as meat of wild animals. However, the taste of the latter ones cannot compete with vegetables,” Li said in his Xian Qing Ou Ji, a book about his opinions on drama, dance, costume, makeup, architecture and food. Having said that, a typical feature of Chinese vegetarian cuisine is that it aims to perfectly imitate meat. Vegetarian duck looks like duck, tastes like duck and has a texture like duck. The picture shows an example with beancurd sheet (doupi) to imitate the skin.

Chinese people had less eye for vegetarian food during hard years of the republican era and the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, the increase of the living standard of ordinary people increased so much, that they were too happy with the new access to meat, that vegetarian was part of another universe. It was during the post 80s, 90s and even 00s, Chinese consumer interest shifted for subsistence to personal health and body care.

On Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, there are more than 50 groups on vegetarianism. Users discuss the vegetarian lifestyle or share vegetarian recipes in such groups. Many vegetarians also write blogs to share their daily meals with readers, among which, some even publish their own recipes.

Benniao and Tudouni, two vegetarians based in Beijing and Chengdu, came to know each other on the internet through sharing vegetarian recipes. They set up a blog, Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians, on Sina Blog in 2006. Since then, they have been posting their recipes for vegetarians. In 2008, their first cook book Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians was published. The book provides about 200 vegetarian recipes according to the vegetables sold in four seasons. Its sequel about another 180 vegetarian dishes came out in 2010. Xiao Bai, a post-1980s vegetarian cook, attracts 30,000 followers on Douban and around 40,000 followers on Sina Weibo. From 2011, she began sharing on Douban the photos of the meat-free dishes she made. The food was aesthetically featured in the pictures, which soon attracted a lot of attention. One year later, her first cook book, Record of Vegetarian Xiao Bai, was published.

Industrially manufactured vegetarian dishes have also become a lucrative market. This picture shows industrially produced vegetarian duck bites.

Ingredients: soy beans, salt, cooking wine, chili

Vegetarian restaurants can now be found in all Chinese major cities.

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.

Bird’s Nests: if you can’t eat them, drink them

One of the top delicacies in China is made from birds’ spit

Yanwo, or bird’s nest, has been regarded as a rare delicacy in China until recently, when the average spending power of Chinese consumers started booming. They are not the nests of any bird obviously, but the nests made by swiftlets (sea swallows, haiyan), with bird saliva as the main ingredient.

Hard to get

Edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive Chinese delicacies and tonics consumed by man. High quality whole clean white nests can come from Sabah, Thailand. and Vietnam and can retail at well over two thousand dollars a pound. For centuries, Chinese emperors, or m more precisely: their women, has been known to consume bird’s nest to enhance beauty and aid in disappearance of fine facial lines.

Bird’s nest are exclusively built by small birds known as swiftlets. They belong to the large family of the common swallow, but only nests from three species are edible. The nests are built from the bird’s salivary secretion which is abundant, particularly during breeding season.

These nests, often found clinging to the ceilings of caves as high as two hundred feet, are built by both parents expressly for raising their young. When the hatchlings are ready to fly off, the nests, found in many coastal caves of South East Asia including Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are then abandoned.

Some of most costly edible nests are known as red blood nests. These are commonly misunderstood. Many think the red is stains of blood from the birds; however, their reddish hue is not blood. It is simply ferrous material, that is iron from chemical interactions of various natural factors such as temperature, humidity and contents of the cave walls where the nests cling.

Medicine

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), bird’s nest influences lung, stomach, and kidney meridians, and improves appetite and complexion. Chinese commonly use them to aid recuperation from debilitating illnesses because of their easily digestible glycoprotein and other nutrients; also because of their as yet undiscovered bio-compounds.

Science cannot yet explain the healing powers attributed to birds nests. Protein is the most abundant constituent of the nests, which contain all of the essential amino acids. They also contain six hormones, including testosterone and estradiol. The nests also contain carbohydrates, ash and a small quantity of lipids. Research has indicated that the nests contain substances that can stimulate cell division and growth, enhance tissue growth and regeneration, and that it can inhibit influenza infections.

Recent scientific findings about bird’s nest characteristics highlight the presence of a unique profile of epidermal growth factor (EGF) believed responsible for repairing skin cells and tissue. This EGF is said to be responsible for their therapeutic benefits including enhancing a person’s complexion.

Processing

Techniques of processing are minimal for whole nests with few feathers, that is if they are white and relatively clean. Nests with lots of feathers, known as black nests, need extensive processing in what is considered a cottage industry. Typically this is a long, tedious, and labour-intensive task. Generally, a space in a building close to the where the nests are gathered is transformed into a simple factory. There, workers devote themselves to cleaning, drying, sorting, grading, and packing collected uncooked nests.

First, black nests are washed and soaked with warm water for up to forty-eight hours. Hot water can cause nests to expand and their strands to unravel. Too little water makes it difficult to extract the impurities. Next, tweezers are used to pluck the feathers and other foreign particles from the wet nests. Workers are trained to pick out only impurities and not destroy or remove actual nest strands. Hard corners of the nests are trimmed and removed using scissors.

Once the nests are completely cleaned and trimmed, their long strands put into cup-shaped metal molds; see an illustration of them on this page. This helps them retain their original shape; and they are air-dried without heat. Once dried, they are graded and packed for shipping. Each piece of processed, dried, raw bird’s nest usually weighs about three and a half to four grams; that is twelve- to fifteen-tenths of an ounce. To process a batch of black nests from raw to dried and to clean them can require three or four days.

Cooking

Because edible bird’s nests can be prepared in many ways, in savoury soups, desserts with rock sugar, or infused with herbs, many Chinese and others enjoy bird’s nest dishes often during banquets and celebrations. When taken regularly, they are believed to improve a person’s overall physical health and their mental dexterity.

Preparing raw bird’s nest can be done in two ways. Premium white whole nests are made to look like a halved cup putting them in to a wire frame to shape them. The more affordable black nests are dried and molded into flat leaf-like pieces. To prepare them, the nest is rinsed quickly and then soaked in warm water to allow it to expand. Then it is either steamed or double-boiled for at least two hours. Tools and types of molded bird’s nest are also illustrated on these pages.

There are many recipes that use bird’s nests including those serving them as a soup, typically with lean chicken. Sometimes, other ingredients are added to enrich the soup. Many people love bird’s nest in dessert. One simple way is to add rock sugar with or without fruit. Some people add pitted dried red dates, lotus seeds, even white fungus. Others add coconut milk or pieces of other fruits such as papaya, mango, or pear.

The birds nest has even aroused the interest of famous Western chefs like Gordon Ramsay, as witnessed by this youtube video.

Industrial age

As hinted at the beginning of this blog, the consumption of birds nests has been affected considerably by the growing spending power of Chinese consumers. What has been regarded as a tonic for wealthy ladies for centuries, is now within reach of most Chinese women. However, instead of eating the nests directly in the traditional way, birds nests are now made available in various presentation forms, including as ingredient for health foods and drinks and cosmetics.

Today, bird’s nests can be pre-prepared and bottled for convenient culinary usage. It is important to purchase reliable brands ensuring that bird’s nests are of high quality. As is the case with many fancy foods in China, fake birds nest abound. Purchasing reputable bottled bird’s nest is not only easy, but it assures that the contents are made using real high quality edible bird’s nests.

Listed

The latest development is that the Shanghai-based producers of birds nest health beverage: Yuwenqing (both company name and brand name) Birds Nest Water,  announced that it was seeking a listing on the Shanghai stock exchange on August 15, 2017. I don’t want to vouch for the nutritional value of this drink, its ingredients are listed as:

Water, rock sugar, Malaysian birds nest

One cannot but wonder how much of the ‘birds nest water’ you can make from one nest. But this news does show that the birds nest is yet another TCM product that has successfully reinvented itself in the modern world of fast moving consumer goods.

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.