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.

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Enzyme applications in the Chinese food and beverage industry

I have a weak spot for enzymes, as this was one of the first type of food ingredients I worked with, when I started to get involved in the Chinese food industry. That was in 1985.

China is a huge market for food enzymes, possibly the largest. This is not only due to the size of the country and the therefore equally large food and beverage industry. Fermentation has been an organic part of Chinese food processing since the Chinese starting recording their history in writing. All the ways one can change the flavour, texture and preservability of raw foods with microorganisms all boil down to the enzymes secreted by the bacteria and moulds. While identifying and producing single enzymes did not start in China, most applications found an eager market there. If you can brew more beer from the same volume of raw materials, than by all means do so. No considerations like Reinheitsgebote in China.

Apart from the use of enzymes in innovative production processes, enzymes can also be employed to turn offal from the food processing industry into valuable ingredients. And again, because of the mere size of the country, the domestic food and beverage industry produces an awful lot of offal each single day.

The road from the first attempts of producing indigenous single enzymes in China took off slowly in the early 1980s, but within a decade, the first exports of Chinese made industrial enzymes took place. Today, multinationals in this industry have to compete with a growing number of local manufacturers, whose R&D efforts generate more and more proprietary enzymes for specific applications. China produced approximately 750,000 mt of enzymes in the first half of 2018; up 8% compared to the same period of 2017.

The graph shows the growth of the Chinese enzymes industry according to a recent analysis by Mcinsey.

I have mentioned some enzyme applications in earlier posts, like the production of steamed bread (mantou). In this post, I will provide an overall summary the most important application areas of food enzymes in China.

Brewing

Adjunct cooking

Rice is relatively cheap in China, while most of the barley has to be imported. Virtually all Chinese brewers therefore use rice as adjunct, which calls for a thermostable alpha-amylase to properly liquefy the rice, before mixing it with mashed barley. 30% is the typical ratio of rice to malt, but with a really thermostable enzyme, you can increase up to 50%. Multinational suppliers still rule in this market, but the number of local producers of this enzyme is increasing.

Mashing

Unlike the liquefaction of the rice, enzymes, single beta-glucanases or compound products, are not obligatory in the mash tun. Compound enzymes as provided by the main multinationals are used in China, but not by all brewers. The larger the plant the more added value can be generated from using such products. Domestic enzyme producers are slowly gaining ground in this market as well.

Other

Adding papain for clarification and glucose oxidase for keeping beer fresh longer are very common in Chinese breweries. Both enzymes are produced in high quantity and quality domestically.

Spirits (baijiu)

As a traditional Chinese product, data for this industry are scarce and unreliable. Enzymes are reportedly widely used in the saccharification of the raw materials, but I assume that it will be mainly domestic generic enzymes, the cheaper the better.

Rice wine

Some rice wine producers use glucoamylase to improve the saccharification of the fermentation broth. Thermostable alpha-amylase, cellulase and neutral protease are also used, the latter for improving the flavour. In view of the positive publications, it can be expected that the use of enzymes will increase in this application, possibly to 100%. The reason for the slower adoption is probably that this is an indigenous Chinese application, which has escaped the radar of the multinationals. As this is a traditional Chinese product, this is mainly a segment for domestic enzymes.

Wine

Part of the wineries use enzymes, but figures indicating penetration and who are the main suppliers are lacking. Based on Chinese practice, we may assume that the smaller wineries will be more willing to use enzymes, in particular for clarification, than the larger ones that are preoccupied with creating an image of being (able to compare with) classic wine makers. All international suppliers are investing in marketing their enzymes for this application, but I have not found indications for serious use in practice.

Fruit juice

Apple

China is good for almost half of the global apple production. The country is therefore also the producer of apple juice concentrate (AJC). All apple juice concentrate (AJC) in China is processed with enzymes. 100% for clarification and probably also close to 100% for maceration. Domestic production of pectinases started later that those for starch processing as used in brewing, but quantity and quality are improving. The Chinese fruit processing industry is huge and therefore forms a lucrative market for pectinases.

Apples sometimes contain so much starch, that you need to add a little amylase to avoid problems during clarification and concentration.

Some companies use special enzymes to clean the ultrafilter.

Other fruits

Enzymes are used as well, but no reliable data are available. The general trend that Chinese processors will prefer to use enzymes, provided they are cost efficient, applies very strongly in this industry.

Bakery/Cereals:

Bread, baked and steamed

Growing demand for bread and other baked goods is presenting the local baking industries with major challenges. Enzyme design for bakery products plays an important role in overcoming these. However, the fluctuating raw material situation demands individual solutions and prompt responses from the enzyme producers.

Most to all bread in China is produced with enzymes. However, this is realised in the form of compound flour/bread improvers. These will typically include fungal alpha-amylase and sometimes xylanase, glucose oxidase and lipase, roughly in that order of frequency.

After China prohibited the use of chemical whiteners like benzoyl peroxide, industrial producers of steamed bread are coping with the problem that their product is often not as white as the customers (have learned to) accept. Lipase, or more precisely: lipoxygenase, can reduce the betacarotene in flour and thus produce whiter steamed bread. Fungal amylase and xylanase are said to produce steamed bread with a smoother surface, which gives a shiny impression.

An interesting development is taking place in this industry in China. A number of domestic enzyme producers have sprung up specialising in enzymes of the bakery industry, offering products specially formulated for a particular type of biscuit, cake, bread or traditional Chinese baking product, like steamed bread. These products can be best described as formulated enzymes, something in between single enzymes and the traditional flour improvers. This is an interesting development and a potential threat for the traditional suppliers of flour improvers, once the Chinese producers dare to bring those products to the international market.

Flour (wheat) and flour-based products

As introduced in my earlier post on flour and flour improvers or those on traditional Chinese foods like dumplings, some Chinese flour companies have developed specially formulated flours for dumplings, fried dough sticks (youtiao) or steamed bread (mantou). However, these companies hardly ever add pure enzymes, but compound flour improvers as well. The workers in this sector are not really trained to handle enzymes, while adding a standard pack of flour improver to a standard bag of flour does not require any education. The top companies like Guchuan (Beijing) will have proper R&D departments that may experiment with single enzymes, but only in small quantities.

Biscuits

The most typical enzyme application in this industry is protease (papain) for the production of crispy biscuits. Domestic enzymes do that trick very well. Some companies have developed specially formed enzyme products for a broad range of biscuits, cookies and wafers.

noodles

Lipase is the typical enzyme for noodles, or better: flour improvers for noodles. Xylanase, glucose oxidase and transglutaminase are occasionally used.

Traditional pastry

Many flour manufacturer produce specialty flours for cake and traditional pastry, but only very few domestic producers of baking enzymes have so far developed special products for this category. The flagship product among the traditional pastries is still the moon cake. One domestic enzyme producer is supplying a ‘moon cake crust improver’, consisting of compound enzymes and emulsifiers, so again more an improver than an enzyme product.

Dairy

Cheese

As mentioned in my earlier post about this topic, cheese production in China is still in its infancy and most of it is processed imported cheese. However, there definitely is an emerging market for rennet and as it is a new thing in China, that market can be expected to be interested in microbial rennet rather than the natural product.

Some domestic companies offer bromelain for cheese making, but these are generic bromelains and not specially formulated products for that application. Multinationals are mentioning it in their marketing in China, but it is not likely that they are putting in much effort.

Hydrolised milk

Only a few manufactures: Yili (Inner Mongolia), Sanyuan (Beijing), New Hope (Sichuan), Bright (Shanghai) and only limited quantities. Yili seems to be the largest in this category, marketing its product to the elderly. This is still mainly a market for international suppliers, but domestic lactases have also appeared.

Oil extraction

During a recent industry meeting, it was reported that the enzymatic extraction of tea seed oil in China had already moved on from trial to regular production.

Savoury products

HVP/HAP, nucleotides, soy derivatives (incl. soy sauce), fish sauce, etc.

These are again mainly traditional Chinese seasoning products. As most of these typically include a fermentation step, they are highly interesting for introducing enzymes to make the production more efficient or cleaner, turn out better tasting and healthier products. Examples mentioned in earlier posts are: fermented beancurd (furu), fermented flour paste (jiang), and old soup (lao tang).

Although these are all bulk applications and therefore interesting for enzyme suppliers, the penetration of enzymes in each product group is still not very well documented. I will add more information to this post, whenever reliable data become available.

Meat

HAP

Hydrolysing meat with protease produces raw material for a wide range of meat-flavoured seasoning products. Considerable R&D is taking place in China to improve processes for teh production of HAP from a broad range of animal-derived raw material.

Stock

Proteases are regularly used to maximise the extraction of flavour from meat in the production of stock, like the ‘old soup (laotang)‘ introduced in an earlier post.

Tenderisation

Papain is the typical enzyme for this application, followed by bromelein. For both, China is now the main production region.

Reusing offall

With such a huge slaughtering industry, China is bound to be the world’s largest producer of meat offall. Treatment of it with proteases can produce a broad range of flavouring products.

Transglutaminase

TG is the fastest growing enzyme in the Chinese food industry. Applied in meat, it can help improving the structure  of meat, which i.a. makes it easier to cut thin slices of meat.

Aquatic products

HAP

Same as for meat. Some Chinese researchers are studying the synthesis of meat flavour by enzymatic hydrolysis (trypsin) of squid skin followed by maillard reaction. The skins are offal of squid processing.

Fish sauce

The traditional production process of fish sauce is very long. It can be speeded up considerably by hydrolyzing  (part of the raw materials with proteases).

Removing scales

A combination of collagenase and pepsin can decrease the damage to the fish during mechanical removing of scales.

Deoderisation

The flesh of some fish has a considerable urea content, which causes an unpleasant odour. Soy bean powder contains urease and treating fish meat with urease can remove enough of the urea to neutralise the odour.

Preservation

A number of enzymes can help the preservation of meat, in particular lysozyme, transglutaminase, lipase triglyceride hydrolase. Considerable R&D activity is taking place in China in this respect.

Food ingredients

Fructo Oligosaccharide (FOS)

The Chinese authorities have approved the use of β-fructofuranosidase to produce FOS from sugar in January 2018.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Considerable R&D is also going on in China to develop enzymatic process for TCM. An example mentioned in an earlier post is enzymatic hydrolysis to produce sea cucumber powder.

New applications awaiting approval

The China National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment has listed the following enzymes to be assessed for use in food.

Enzyme production strain origin gene application
Polygalacturonase aspergillus niger aspergillus niger fruit juice extraction
Maltotetrahydrolase bacillus licheniformis pseudomonas stutzeri baking
Alpha-glucosidae Trichoderma reesei aspergillus niger cereal processing
Carboxypeptidase aspergillus niger aspergillus niger meat processing
Lipase aspergillus niger fusarium culmorum baking

Relevant parties need to react before Sept. 9, 2019.

Eurasia Consult’s databases contain tons of information on enzyme applications in the Chinese food industry, including R&D. Just to mention an example: we have currently access to 108 Chinese patents on the use of pectinase.

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.

Belt and Road – Wheat and Yeast, and more

By now, the new motto of the Chinese government, One Belt One Road (OBOR), is known all over the world. Not only the national government, but also local governments in China, enterprises, and universities are rephrasing their goals and strategies in terms of OBOR. The Chinese food industry cannot escape this trend either, witness a conference held in October, 2018.

I have already posted a number of stories featuring wheat flour in this blog, including texts focusing on flour improvers, bread, and steamed bread (mantou). This is certainly not overkill. China has been the world’s largest importer of wheat for a number of years. The import volume in the 2015-16 season is estimated at 2 mln mt, an increase of almost a third compared to the previous season.

An important reason for that increase is the growing consumption of bread in China. Chinese domestic wheat is relatively low in gluten, which is fine for traditional Chinese products like steamed bread, dumplings or noodles. Bread, however, requires wheat with a higher gluten content. China used to import such wheat from Australia, the USA and Canada, but an emerging source of high gluten wheat for China is Kazakhstan. Chinese wheat imports from Kazakhstan increased from 40,000 mt in 2010 to 250,000 mt in 2014.

KazakhFlour

The fact that China and Kazakhstan are neighbours makes them more obvious trading partners than those faraway Western nations. However, the story is more complicated, more related products are involved, in particular another essential ingredient of bread: yeast. The favourite staple of Central Asia, the nan, is also a baked product using yeast.

Yeast feeds on molasses and Xinjiang, the Chinese border region with Kazakhstan, is an important sugar region in China with 14 sugar plants producing 250,000 mt of molasses p.a. Along the region’s Uighur majority, Xinjiang is also the home of a considerable Kazakh minority. Moreover, Kazakhs and Uighurs share the same Muslim religion, so there is a mutual understanding regarding Halal food regulations. This motivated China’s top yeast producer Angel (Yichang, Hubei) to establish a subsidiary in Yining, a city in Xinjiang close the border with Kazakhstan. A considerable part of the produce of that plant is exported to Kazakhstan. According to one source, ‘Chinese yeast is a famous in Kazakhstan as Coca Cola or Marlborough’.

Angel

Meanwhile, China has started investing in the continuous supply of high gluten wheat from Kazakhstan through an intensive aid program. The country’s wheat output in 2011 was 26.9 mln mt, but was almost halved in the following year, due to severe drought. The average wheat output per hectare in Kazakhstan is about 1/5 of that in China. The Chinese authorities have organized a number of government agencies and companies to combine their expertise in helping Kazakhs to improve their wheat production. One tractor maker in Shandong has developed tractors specially geared to the conditions in Kazakhstan. Chinese experts believe that this development aid can unlock the potential of another 20 mln mt of high gluten wheat p.a. And yes, much of that will find its way to China.

Oil from Kazakhstan – from buying to producing

The Aiju Grain and Oil Industry Group (Xi’an, Shaanxi) imports cooking oil, wheat and flour from Kazakhstan. Aiju’s Chairman noted during his visit of a trade fair in Almaty in 2015 that a considerable acreage of rich arable land is left unused in Kazakhstan. Aiju is now building two factories in the region, which will process up to 1000 mt of wheat and 1000 mt of sunflower oil a day, as well as a base to plant wheat and sunflower seeds over 33 hectares. The base will be finished by 2020 and create 300 jobs. Aiju intends to bring high-efficiency planting and processing technologies to Kazakhstan, which will help with local economic development. The company also plans to start importing beef, mutton, honey and milk from Central Asia too. This includes other countries besides Kazakhstan. Bai Qinbin, deputy director of port management for the Xi’an International Trade and Logistics Park, said the city’s large transportation network can help boost trade and investment between China and countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. “We are working on starting a service between Xi’an to Teheran this year, as the Middle East is in great need of Chinese goods, especially food and commodities for daily use.” Xi’an is one of the most important multimodal infrastructure hubs in China.

Tomatoes and more

The role of Xinjiang in the development of Kazakhstan’s food industry does not stop at wheat and yeast. Xinjiang is already the world’s largest supplier of tomato paste. One of these companies has invested in a tomato processing plant in Almaty. Chinese companies have so far offered to invest USD 1.9 bn to upgrade Kazakh food processing industry with 19 projects such as tomato, chicken and meat processing plants. According to Gulmira Isayeva, Kazakhstan’s deputy agriculture minister, Beijing’s USD 40 bn Silk Road Fund is planning investments in three projects, including one to move three tomato processing plants from China to Kazakhstan. Investments under consideration in Kazakhstan’s agriculture sector include USD 1.2 bn by Zhongfu Investment Group into oilseed processing; USD 200 mln into beef, lamb and horsemeat production by Rifa Investment; and USD 80 mln into the production of tomatoes and tomato paste by COFCO, China’s state agriculture conglomerate.

OBOR as milky way

Yili (Huhhot, Inner Mongolia; aka China’s Dairy Capital) has broken into the ranks of the world’s top 10 dairy makers in 2016, ranking 8th. The company is advertising its global strategy in terms of OBOR.

YiliOBOR

So OBOR really can create win-win situations.

Jiangnan University joins in

A founding ceremony of the “Belt and Road” University Alliance for Food Science and Education was held by Jiangnan University in Wuxi, East China’s Jiangsu province on Nov 16, 2018. Hong Liu, deputy director of the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Education, Liu Xia, deputy mayor of Wuxi, as well as presidents, experts and scholars from 49 universities in 27 countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) attended the ceremony (including the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), the University of Queensland, the University of Reading, Massey University and the National University of Singapore). During the ceremony, general secretary of the alliance, Liu Yuanfa announced the Taihu Lake Declaration, aiming to pool together the wisdom and strengths of the member universities to strengthen strategic communication and coordination in the food industry.

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.

China’s breakfast revolution

Introduction

The meal that most people find hardest to change is breakfast. Most people are willing to experiment with different foods during lunch or dinner, but when you are still waking up, you prefer to do so with those familiar breakfast items.

However, diets in China, including breakfast, are moving to incorporate more western-style foods, driven by economic growth, urbanization, and market liberation. Yet, few studies use microeconomic data to identify the factors driving the trends, particularly to link the rapidly changing demographics to specific western-style foods. Research jointly conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Washington State University, North Dakota State University, University of Florida, and Economic Research Service at USDA used household-level data that were collected in Beijing, Nanjing, and Chengdu in recent years to provide new insights on this issue.

The data were collected through a week-long food diary approach, asking the selected households to record all the detailed food consumption by meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), including each ingredient prepared or eaten in the meal, no matter the meal occurred at home or away from home. The tracked food items includes each item’s name, price, purchase venue, and amount consumed for that meal, which allow us easily to identify and distinguish the western-style items from traditional Chinese diets. A full list of western style breakfasts and the observed frequency for each item are presented in Table 1.

Table 1 Observed Western style breakfast items

Tab1

Western-style Foods Have Gained Significant Popularity

Most of Western-style breakfast menu items can be found on Chinese dining tables for breakfast, and they have become increasingly popular in urban areas. In Table 1, all observed western breakfasts are grouped into three categories, including bread and cake, milk, and other western foods. Each category further includes several kinds of specific western foods. Clearly, 83% of surveyed households consumed at least one kind of the listed food in Table 1 during the survey week. Of which, fluid cow milk is the most popular, with 564 households reported consumption, accounting for over 70% of the entire sample. Following fluid cow milk are the bread and cake categories, with 47.3% and 16.1% of surveyed households reported consumption, respectively. Although less frequently consumed, it is notable that sausage, cheese, and coffee, three very western items, have been incorporated in Chinese breakfast menus.

Urban households more frequently incorporate the western-style foods in breakfast as income rises

Table 2 Frequency of the Western Foods to Be Consumed In Breakfast in the Survey Week

Tab2

On average, there were about four breakfasts out of seven (in the survey week) where at least one kind of western food was consumed for each household. Income, as expected, has a significantly positive effect. The number of breakfasts included at least one kind of western-style food is 3.83 for the lowest income group, while it increases to 4.63 for the highest income group. Similar trends can be found for bread, milk, and other western foods consumption in terms of meal number. For bread, the weekly consumption frequency for the highest income group is 2.42 breakfasts, which is one breakfast more than that for the lowest income group.

The positive income effect can also be seen in terms of per capita consumption (Figure 1).

Fig1

Fig. 1: Per Capita Consumption of the Western-Style Foods in Survey Week

Breakfast cereals

Although cereals are still restricted as breakfast item to a small number of Chinese households, the market is growing. Major players, including Cereal Partners Worldwide, General Mills, Kellogg, and PepsiCo, have all targeted the market in some way. Breakfast cereals are predicted to see 6% value CAGR. Manufacturers will take their inspiration from traditional Chinese medication by offering products containing Chinese ingredients such as red dates, goji berries, and black sesame. Sugar-free products are also a huge rising trend. In 2015 the revenue of general cereal sales amounted to RMB 2.805 billion, whereas in 2022 the market is expected to more than double, reaching RMB 6.2 billion.

A domestic player to watch is Guilin Sea Mild (Ximai) Biology Technology Development. With its brand Sea Mild it accounted for a value share of 18% in 2016 as well as the year before. Guilin Sea Mild specializes in hot cereals, which require the addition of hot water or milk. The company built the overall leadership mainly through its well-established brands and strong distribution network. Guilin Sea Mild is also positioned as mid-priced and thus benefits from a broad potential customer base. The company mainly targets elderly consumers with products such as Seamild Nutrition Cereal for the Elderly, High Iron Red Dates Cereal, and High Calcium Walnut Cereal. Sea Mild got listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in June 2019.

Women in command

Women (mothers) play an important role in deciding the ingredients on a Chinese breakfast table.The western food consumption varies by demographics, including the characteristics of the female head of household (FHH). In Figure 2, we can see that families with wives who hold college or advanced degrees more frequently incorporate western foods in breakfast than other families. It is also the case for per capita western food consumption, with 1.26kg for families with a highly-educated FHH versus 0.98kg for others.

Fig2

Fig. 2: Wife’s Education Effect on the Western-Food Choice Is Positive

Younger Generations leading the Westernization of Chinese Breakfast

Family composition also matters, but the effect differs across food types. For instance, families with children tend to consume more bread at breakfast than other families, but the difference is not that remarkable for milk and other western foods. Also, families with adolescents or young adults more frequently consume bread at breakfast than their counterparts, but families with seniors consume bread less frequently, but more frequently consume other western food products. Families with dual-career parents do not present consistent differences from single-career families.

Table 3 Effects of Family Composition on the Western Food Consumption

Table2

Regional Effects Are Significant

Western food consumption differs remarkably across cities. Beijing is leading in consuming western foods in terms of the number of breakfasts consuming western foods. On average, there are 4.42 breakfasts including at least one type of western-style food, which leads Chengdu by 0.42 breakfast meals and Nanjing by 1.23. Similar comparisons can be found if we focus on bread, milk, and other western foods. In terms of consumption quantity, however, Chengdu takes over the leading position with per person consumption of1.53kg, nearly double the level of Beijing (0.85kg) and Nanjing (0.79kg). It is noted that the differences across cities may not exactly reflect the regional difference as these surveys in three cities were not conducted at the same time.

Fig3

Figure 3: Western Food Consumption by City

Entrepreneurial activities

A number of companies have already started cashing in the above mentioned trends by launching foods and beverages specifically formulated for breakfast. Several dairy companies have launched breakfast milk, like Yili’s Oat Milk introduced in an earlier post. In my post on public nutrition in China, I selected a fortified bread from Oishi that is also marketed as a breakfast food. The common element in all these products is: get all the nutrients you need from one single sip or bite.

New policy = new opportunities

In 2016, many roadside breakfast stands disappeared in several Chinese cities, as the nation set out to improve city appearance and food security management. However, that also meant fewer breakfast locations for local residents, opening the door wider for higher-quality ones. Choices used to be mainly limited to international giants, such KFC and McDonalds, but not anymore. Local companies such as Doujiang Ai Youtiao, a Shanghai-based start-up focusing on data-management and freshly-made breakfast, have created a “second breakfast table” for consumers (see photo). The Shanghai-based start-up has many stores in residential communities, offering Shanghai-style local foods and traditional Chinese breakfast, including youtiao (fried bread sticks). Sales are monitored for adjusting taste and service. Moreover, it also boasts a system that can analyse customers’ eating habits and offer suggestions based on previous purchases. By 2021, sales of breakfast foods at convenience stores is expected to exceed RMB 840 billion in China, while the total sales of breakfast foods in the country will reach RMB 1.94 trillion, data from a 2016 survey showed. Now, many Chinese start-ups have set their eyes on the breakfast market, trying to woo more customers seeking high-quality king-like meals with advanced technology and more convenient services, including Baoxiaotuan, a start-up founded by the founder of Steamed Stuffed Bun Restaurant, Qing Feng.

Conclusions

The western-style foods, in particular bread and milk, have gained popularity in China and become an important part of urban Chinese breakfasts. In the future, with further income growth, the demand for the western foods will continue to grow remarkably. This finding has important implications for agricultural production and food processing industry. Since making bread requires higher protein wheat flour relative to making noodles, fried dough (youtiao), and steamed buns (mantou). The increasing demand for bread herein is challenging China’s wheat breeding and high-protein wheat production. A potential to rely on imports might be a solution considering China’s limited land for high-protein wheat production such as hard red winter and hard red spring, and its relatively logged wheat breeding technologies.

Regarding milk, it is well known that the recent milk safety incidents such as melamine-contaminated baby formula have terribly damaged consumers’ confidence in consuming domestic produced milk and shocked milk production in China. The fact that Chinese consumers are demanding more milk with the growing income and health desire, however, is unchanged according to our findings from this study. Therefore, how to supply sufficient and safe milk becomes a critical question for policymakers and milk industry to pay enough attention. The western-style food consumption is also significantly related the female head of household’s education achievement and family composition. Particularly, the researchers found that younger generations in urban household are leading the trend for westernization of Chinese breakfasts. Since people often formed their food preferences at young and will stick on when aging, the findings thereby suggests that western-style foods will be included in all age groups in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the FHH’s education is found to have a significantly positive effect on western food consumption, both in frequency and in consumption level. This result suggests that any effort to promote western-style foods in China’s market can increase returns by targeting the FHH.

The other direction: the sophistication of traditional Chinese breakfast

Against the background of growing nationalism in China, it will be no surprise that the opposite of the westernisation of Chinese breakfast, the sophistication of traditional breakfast foods, can also be observed. A good example is a recently opened fast-food outlet of the famous Goubuli Baozi (steamed fill buns) restaurant in Beijing. Apart from its steamed buns, the menu also features typical breakfast items like jianbing and doufunao.

Jianbing resemble French crêpes and are sold on almost every corner of the street in Beijing during breakfast time. The ones sold in Goubuli include Peking duck jianbing cooked with cucumber, sliced Peking duck, pickles and the sweet paste of flour. Three other varieties of jianbing are available: traditional Tianjin-style; bacon; and seafood. The pictures compare a jianbing as sold by street vendors and Goubuli’s Peking Duck jianbing.

JB-street     JB-GBL

Doufunao literally means bean curd brains and is made of soft silken bean curd with sauces and garnishes usually served sweet in southern China, and salty in northern China. At Goubuli it is topped with crumbs of mahua (fried dough twist, Tianjin’s most famous snack), rousong (meat floss), and furu (fermented bean curd). This combination makes each spoonful of doufunao tasty and complex thanks to the savory furu and soybean paste, crispy mahua, and silken bean curd.

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.

 

Discovering the Holiland . . . in China

In our Western view of the world, cream cakes are very much a part of our culture, as the ideal accompaniment of a cup of coffee. The powerful synergy of caffeine and sugar gives a bitter sweet boost to body and mind.

Traditional Chinese pastry is different. Chinese have a sweet tooth as well, but cream is dairy and hence non-Chinese. Dairy products have found their way to China, witness a number of earlier posts in this blog, but it took a while before Chinese bakers starting producing cream cakes that can compare with the ones in a Konditorei in Vienna.

The largest Western style pastry chain in China has an ominous name: Holiland. The story of its foundation is unique as well.

HolilandShop

When the founder Luo Hong couldn’t find a decent cake for his mother’s birthday he made a rather extravagant gesture. The then 23-year-old bought a bakery to ensure the problem would never happen again.

That was 18 years ago. Now, at the age of 41, Luo is president of one of the largest bakery chains in China, and controls more than 1,000 cake shops in 70 cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang and Chengdu. They specialise in cakes, breads and other pastries and control 85.7% of the market.

This year the company is moving some stores from their original homes in the suburbs to downtown areas where the footfall is high enough to bring in even more customers.

Unlike other Chinese entrepreneurs whose names are often connected with their business, Luo is better known as a photographer, environmental campaigner and social activist.

He has spent most of his time during the last decade taking pictures and participating in charity events around the world, including the establishment of an environment protection fund for the UN Environmental Program.

Cake inspired by a photo
It’s Luo’s belief that if a company doesn’t have different brands to meet different customers’ demands, it cannot be successful.

A picture of a white swan taken in Cambridge is the inspiration for a new cake he intends to market later this year as part of his diversification into premium cake making.

Following on the success of the black swan series, white swan cakes will feature top-class decorations and accessories. The price will be between RMB 400 and 10,000, putting it into a class of its own. A cake weighing 1.5 is priced at RMB 469. At 21 cake, one of the most popular online cake shops, a cake weighing the same costs RMB 169 yuan.

BlackSwan

The wedding cake in the swan series will set customers back RMB 10,000. Fittingly, as part of the service, it will be delivered to the wedding ceremony by Rolls Royce free of charge.

“Cakes and photography are two parallel interests in my life. Sometimes they cross paths. The launch of swan cakes is a combination of my business and personal interests,” Luo said.

To make white swan cakes as exquisite as possible, Luo asked the developers to capture minute details from the queen of birds.

Luo is confident about the cake’s sale prospects and expects they will account for 50% of Holiland’s total annual revenues.

Photos as marketing tool
Luo says photography brings him happiness, inspiration for design and also a low-cost marketing strategy. Some of his photos adorn subway walls after the Beijing municipal government decided this year to improve the city’s culture environment.

“It’s good for our business,” Luo said. “People who talk about the swan pictures will also be curious about my swan cakes.”

Luo knows that in baking it is wise to follow produce what customers like best. One of his products featured a bear decoration but he got rid of it because some of his friends in the finance industry said it brought back unhappy memories of the bear market during the financial crisis last year.

As one of the largest cake shop chains, Holiland also faces the problem of “brain drain”. The high turnover of skilled employees means that Holiland is always in danger of losing key intellectual capital in its core competency areas. The company needs to develop knowledge management strategies to capture, share, and preserve knowledge and integrate knowledge management into its strategic plans, said Luo.

This year, the entrepreneur paid RMB 5 million to American leadership expert, John C. Maxwell, to give a speech about leadership to all employees at Holiland on July 28 and 29 to improve the management skills of his employees.

Online business
Today’s hurried urban life and the convenience of the Internet are luring more customers to online businesses, including bakeries, in China.

Luo and his team have joined the trend. All swan cakes are only accessible to online shoppers. The savings will be used to improve the product. It will come with a steel knife and fork rather than less environmentally-friendly plastic used previously.

Other bakery shops have also found that doing business online is less time-consuming and more economical. E-beecake, 21 cake and Waffleboy are among those becoming more popular with young people.

HolilandCakes

Other traditional chains are also challenging Holiland’s market position. Beijing-based Weiduomei is diversifying its business by opening three cafes and two Western-style restaurants. Baoshifu (Chef Bao), a popular pastry chain established by a man named Bao originating from Jiangxi, has made name for its shred meat buns, but also carries a broad range of pastries and breads. Bread Talk is focusing on gaining a foothold in high-end shopping malls and office buildings, reinforcing its niche image. Luo says: “Competition is good for the development of the cake market, which still has great potential.”

Holiland is also expanding its portfolio of delicacies to include mooncakes and sweet dumplings. This autumn, the company will introduce a greater variety of mooncakes to attract more high-end customers. Holiland sold as much as RMB 200 million of mooncakes every year in China. According to Xie Li, general manager of Holiland, regular cakes, mooncakes and sweet dumpling are Holiland’s best sellers, accounting for 60, 20 and 10% of the company’s revenues respectively.

Brand name with a double meaning (?)

Readers with knowledge of Chinese may notice that this brand name has a double meaning. The Chinese name Haolilai literally means ‘good profit coming’, but the pronuciation resembles haolaiwu ‘Hollywood’. The English name Holiland is obviously inspired by Holy Land. The allusion to the world’s movie capital will attract Chinese consumers’ attention, while Westerners will want to check out a chain linked to the Holy Land. Luo Hong has never explained his choice of brand names, but I am sure the above is more than a conjecture.

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 revival of famous food and beverage brands of the past

We are experiencing a moment in time in which the Chinese are looking back at the nation’s long history with more appreciation for traditional values and things Chinese to be proud of. This includes a number of old famous food brands (laozihao in Chinese) that have (almost) gone lost in during the years of rapid economic growth. Of the 2000 traditional brands in China, about 27% are food and beverage businesses, according to a research report from Beijing Technology and Business University.

Several of the Beijing-based brands used to enjoy national fame — Yili, Sanyuan, Beibingyang, Liubiju, and Wangzhihe. Curiously enough these old Beijing brands still have large numbers of loyal customers but also mirror the development of typical State-owned enterprises in the capital. A number of famous old brands based in other regions of China are being revived as well. The national government has started to protect those brands with a system of certification.

Beibingyang

The Beibingyang Beverage Co’s soda water, for example, can be seen in snack bars and small restaurants in the city where it is quite popular, with demand always far outstripping supply on hot summer days, according to Ma Chunying, Party head of Beijing Yiqing Holdings Ltd, a Beijing-based food manufacturer, who added, “Beibingyang Beverage grew out of an ice plant that started in 1936, so it’s nearly 80 years old.”

BBYsoda

Beibingyang (Northern Ice Sea) used to be China’s top brand soft drink, but disappeared 15 years ago, when it proved unable to reposition itself in the world dominated by Coca Cola and the likes. Yili announced its return in 2011.

Yiqing literally means ‘First light’ and is an abbreviation of the Beijing First Light Industry Corp., a management vehicle of the part of the industry that used to be operated by the Beijing Bureau of Ligh Industry, which in turn was the local branch of the Ministry of Light Industry. This ministry was demoted to the China Light Industry Association and the former ministry’s local branches were reorganised into holding companies that managed the individual companies. ‘First’ refers the lighter types of industry like food.

Beibingyang is performing well. The company has filed a turnover of RMB 600 mln for 2017. It has also launched a type of peanut-based protein beverage of its own, under the Beibingyang brand. It has also started to pack its soda in PET bottles mid 2018 (see pictures).

For me personally, reading the brand name Beibingyang brings back my own memories of my year in China in 1975-76.

Yimin ice cream

The resurrection of Shanghai Yimin No 1 Food Factory, one of China’s oldest ice cream makers, is creative: the brand chose a new durian flavoured sundae to announce its comeback. Yimin’s vanilla ice cream has some history to it. Now the brick-shaped dessert sells at RMB 8 yuan apiece. Back in its heyday in the 1950s, its price was RMB 0.25. Its popularity continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Its size and shape resembled a soap bar (see photo above). And consumers would dip it in soda water, mix it with cookies and fruits, or even allow it to melt so they could use the fluid as a dressing on fruit salad. Those were the days when air conditioners and refrigerators were still few and far between at homes. At its peak, Yimin’s vanilla ice cream commanded nearly 80% of the local market. But then, the ubiquitous imported ice cream brands mauled the 95-year-old firm’s offerings. Let’ watch and see if the new flavour can help Yimin recoup some of that old market share.

Moqi

Moqi Peach Drink is not even a very old brand. Launched in 1984, and booming by 1992, the brand faded away before the end of the century. It grew a dull and old-fashioned image and was no match for the ‘modern’ international soft drinks. However, Moqi was relaunched on February 5, 2018.

Yili

Yili bread (not to be mixed up with Yili, China’s top dairy company), another Yiqing Holding brand, especially the type filled with jam, was known in practically every household in Beijing in the early 1960s and ’70s, and, Ma adds, “This bread keeps the traditional flavor and texture of dozens of years ago and which is still popular, and along with Beibingyang soda water, in the words of one customer “still brings back childhood memories”. In fact, reading the brand name Beibingyang brings back my own memories of my year in China in 1975-76.

YiliBread

These sentiments for old brands fit in with the current trend in China to go back to traditional Chinese values and respect the good things of Chinese culture. Protecting a number of national brands is another distinctive trait of the current Chinese government, as I indicated in the post on infant formulae.

An employee of Yili bread, Zhang Chunlin, explains why it still tastes good after so many years of development by saying that the company insists on using the traditional fermentation method, which produces the particular flavor and nutritional benefits and that the food safety is a major concern for Yili and Beibingyang, which claim to have strict production standards for raw materials and processing. Yili bread does not have any food additives or trans-fat, which can increase the risk of disease.

Sanyuan

When it comes to food security, no one feels stronger about it than Sanyuan, according to a company spokesman, which is a Beijing Sanyuan Foods Co brand and one of China’s leading dairy producers. Sanyuan started life as the Pingjiao State Farms Administration office in 1949, the year of the founding of the PRC; another government agency turned company.

SYmilk

China’s diary business was badly hurt by the 2008 scandal in which several giant Chinese companies were found to be adding melamine, a chemical that can cause kidney and other damage, to their food, while Sanyuan’s products, a relatively smaller operation, proved to be safe. Since then, the government has imposed tighter quality controls on the industry, and has tried to restore consumer confidence. Sanyuan acquired most of the assets of Sanlu, China’s largest dairy company until it got bankrupt as a consequence of the melamine incident.

In a spot inspection, in 2011, China shut down 426 dairy producers and told another 107 to suspend operations until they made improvements. Then, in 2014, the Beijing government gave RMB 10.8 mln to the Sanyuan Group to develop safer, healthier infant milk powder.

One Sanyuan Foods manager said that in addition to about 30 tests for heavy metals, pesticide residue and chemical additives, the company has advanced testing facilities for antibiotics and somatic cells.

They also have a complete industrial chain, from cow breeding, feeding, and processing, to sales and cold chain transport to after-sale service and use information technology and intelligent systems to identify the cows and calculate the amount of exercise and, in processing everything is automated.

Five Star Beer

Established in 1915, Five Start was one of China’s oldest beer brands, but when it failed to redefine itself in the new competitive environment, it was finally taken over by Tsingtao in 2000. The new owners discontinued the brand. In September 2015, Tsingtao announced that it will revive the Five Star brand, for the time being concentrating its marketing in Beijing and the Northeast.

china-five-star-lager

Wangzhihe

Wangzhihe, of the Wangzhihe Group, a subsidiary of Beijing’s Ershang Group, goes back to 1669, so it has a long history with fermented bean curd. The parent group owns dozens of national brands with long histories, including Liubiju sauce and pickles, and Yueshengzhai pickled beef and mutton.

WZHlogo

The literal meaning of Ershang is ‘Second Commerce’. Like Yiqing, it is a management vehicle for the state owned enterprises under the former hierarchy of the Ministry of Internal Commerce. That ministry merged with the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations & Trade into the current Ministry of Commerce. And again, the companies involved were distributed over a number of holdings.

Wang Jiahuai, GM of the Wangzhihe Group, says, “It takes at least 100 days for the furu (fermented tofu) while the natto (Japanese soy food) ferments in about one week. There is a wide gap in texture, fermentation and nutrition between Chinese furu and the Japanese natto.”

Wangzhihe’s furu got national recognition as a cultural heritage item, in June, 2008, Wang added, so, it gives all its suppliers an evaluation and certification before letting them work. They are mostly in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, which have high-quality soya beans.

In denying a rumor that furu contained nitrite, a food additive that can cause cancer if taken in excessive amounts, he said, “Wangzhihe uses a biologic method to ferment furu, and it won’t harm your health,” then went on to explain, “People get used to eating furu as a side dish and do not know much about its nutrition and cultural connotations so, a major mission of our company is to develop the traditional processing and do more research on microbial fermentation and nutrition.”

Liubiju

Liubiju Pickle is “China’s Time-honored Brand”, enjoying a history of over 400 years. It was originally created in 1530 A.D. as a small store bu brothers surnamed Zhao in Xishe Village, (Linfen, Shanxi). Later, it specially dealt with pickle business. The name Liubiju was taken from the motto coined by the shop’s founder and means “House of Six Musts,” referring to prime raw materials, choice ingredients, the best yeast, pure water, proper curing, and flavorful pickles.

LBJsample

The pickles in Liubiju have carefully-chosen materials and strict processing procedures. Natural saucing method is adopted and abided by strictly. All materials come from fixed places. For example, soybeans are purchased from Majuqiao of Fengrun (Hebei) and Yongle Store of Tongzhou (Beijing), and the wheat flour are from Laishui (Hebei) and. cucumber from Daxing (Beijing).

In 1988 all the sauce and pickle makers in Beijing, including Liubiju, merged to establish the Beijing Pickles Company, later renamed the Liubiju Food Company.

Tianfu Cola

The Chinese cola brand Tianfu, that in 1991 was good for 80% of the Chinese cola market, will be relaunched around the Spring Festival of 2016. Back in 1980s and 1990s, the Chongqing-based company was the largest soft drink maker in China with a strong hold of 70% of the soft drink market. Tianfu Cola was sold beyond China and started to gain market recognition in Russia and America. In 1994, the company set up a joint venture with American cola producer Pepsi, which was not successful. By 2005, Tianfu Cola’s market share had plummeted to 1%. The company blamed the failure to the decision to cut the production of Tianfu Cola to make way for the production of Pepsi-Cola. In 2006, the company sold its stake in the joint venture to Pepsi. However, Pepsi refused to give back Tianfu’s production right. In 2010, Tianfu took Pepsi to court accusing the US firm of stealing the secret recipe for its beverage, with success. Tianfu will still use its natural traditional Chinese medicine herbal recipe to produce the drink, which was developed in cooperation with the Sichuan Research Institute for Chinese Medicine.

Tianfu

Yimin 1

In Shanghai, Yimin No 1 Food Factory is trying to regain its earlier leading position with a new high-end ice cream. Founded in 1913, Yimin No 1 Food Factory is one of the first ice cream makers in China. Originally a conglomerate that produced beverages, canned foods and snacks, the company later made ice cream and sold it under the brand “Bright” during the 1950s (Bright became one of China’s leading dairy companies). At its peak, Bright accounted for 80% of ice cream sold across the country. By the early 1990s, the company produced 15,000 mt of ice cream every year, 18 times the amount when it was started four decades ago. But with the aggressive expansion of foreign brands in the late 1990s, the brand fell down the pecking order in the market. Its main consumers today are middle-aged consumers looking for a slice of nostalgia. In 2017, the company recorded RMB 200 mln of sales across its product categories, up 10% from the previous year. However, a low profit margin and a dissipating market share, especially in areas outside Shanghai where people are less attached to the history of the brand, remain big concerns for the company. Yimin is hoping that a new polar bear logo for their high-end offering could eventually become a prominent IP like characters from Disney, in turn drawing more young people to try their product which is available in three flavours — vanilla, cheese and strawberry yoghurt.

Adapting to modern demands

Most of these time-honoured brands stick to traditional methods, but also try to improve through modern technologies, which they consider inevitable if they hope to meet the demands of customers beyond Beijing, change is necessary.

Wangzhihe says it has more tailored marketing strategies for different parts of China and products that cater to local tastes, with Wang pointing out that the people of northern China prefer the red furu while southerners like the white better.

Yiqing Holdings says it has been trying to adjust to meet market demands and, in 2011, opened its first store in the Yili chain in Beijing, and in doing so got to know more about the market and got customer feedback. In the past, businesses such as supermarkets and snack bars just went to the plant themselves to get the goods and the company just stood by, passively waiting for buyers, something that was really out of step with the times.

Ma explains, “There are 65 chain stores in all and that is expected to reach 100 by the end of this year,” while Li Qi, the president of Yiqing Holding, in commenting on their development, says they consider the development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as a business opportunity for their brand strategy.

The company was also a sponsor of last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Beijing and its sponsored products cover food and beverages and sponsoring such grand international event was a good way to become known globally.

Other regions in China will undoubtedly have similar clusters of old trusted brands produced by new style state owned enterprises that are no longer directly operated by the government, but still closely monitored and protected by it. I will report on these regions in the near future.

Old brands introduced in previous posts

A number of earlier posts in this blog introduce other old famous brands. I will list them here, with links to the relevant 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.

 

Train food in China

Trains are a vital means of transportation in China. Although air travel is as common as in China the US nowadays, the Chinese government keeps investing huge amounts of money in updating the railroad system and new trains. China already has the world’s largest high speed rail system.

Heavily packed

Chinese train travelers are without exception heavily packed. However, at least half the load they carry onto the train is not their actual luggage, but food, and drinks. Entire loaves of bread and hole packs of sausages, cartons of hard boiled eggs and instant noodles, obviously, baskets with apples, and other fruits; and tea.

The tea comes in the form dried leaves. You bring your own mug as well and as soon as you have settled in, you place your mug with a handful of tea leaves on the small table in each compartment. Every Chinese train comes with a number of boilers. A train attendant will pass by about every half hour with a thermos flask with boiling water to fill your mug, again and again. If that is still not enough to satisfy your thirst, you can go to the boiler yourself to fill your mug, or perhaps your own small vacuum flask. One helping of tea leaves is usually enough to get you through the day.

After settling in on their seats or berths, and after getting their first infusion of tea, the next collective activity of Chinese train travelers is unpacking. No, not their pyjamas or playing cards, or whatever they could use for entertainment, but food. In no time, the small tables almost collapse under the heavy load of ham sausages, eggs, water melons, fried chickens, biscuits, tangerines. Every food you can name is there, as well as a few items you may not be able to name.

One of the Mongolian's cabins. Smelly mongolian food strewn about. Gross.

All that eating is bound to create waste: sausage skins, eggshells, watermelon seeds, and skins, chicken bones. A lot of that ends up on the floor. However, the train attendants will take care of that as well. After a round with the thermos flasks, they soon return with their brooms, to sweep the leftovers of their hungry guests to a waste bin at the end of each wagon. It takes getting used to for the beginning Western train traveler in China.

Train food

All this long distance train travelling has affected the Chinese food industry. I dedicated an earlier post in this blog to ‘leisure food’, a typical Chinese food category. Of course, these foods are consumed in all means of transportation, but trains certainly have the edge.

Instant noodles have risen to top position. They are cheap, convenient and tasty. As all trains in China provide hot water, instant noodles have become the most popular hot food on a train, because they can be made anytime.

While instant noodles are the typical staple foods during long haul train rides in China, snack food in small packs are the ideal dishes to add some flavour to the relatively bland noodles. Beef jerky, various parts of the duck, steamed chicken feet, dried bean curd, any nut or seed you can think of, pickled vegetables like zhacai, as long as it comes in a palm-size pack, it works for train travelers.

TrainFoodVar

If soaking noodles in hot water is too time consuming for you, you can opt for a liquid staple. Canned porridge in China usually contains nuts, dried fruits and grains, and is sweet flavoured. Young passengers will like it and adults can take it as dessert.

The second favourite activity of Chinese train travelers is sleeping. A full belly makes you sleepy. However, the refreshing activity of tea can be a spoilsport here. A good alternative for train travelers who want to kill a few hours by sleeping is beer. You will find a few cans of beer in the luggage of many Chinese train passengers. And when your last can is empty, you can usually buy more in the dining carriage.

Other moments to replenish your food and drink stock are the stops at stations. Trains will stop for a few up to ten minutes, which usually gives you just enough time to buy a few cans of beer, some freshly steamed buns (mantou), or a bag of peanuts.

Frui for sale on the platform

Dining carriage

Spending such a long time in a restricted space, is bound to become tedious sooner or later. You can chat with your travel companions, but the moment will come that you have exhausted all topics you may want to discuss. You can play cards, read, listen to music, but it all will become repetitive.

There are three peak events to look forward to on long Chinese train rides: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is not because they are such a culinary tour de force. Neither is it because you are hungry. You have spent most of the time that you are awake eating, and there are few opportunities to burn calories. Still, few people skip a meal, simply because meals are served in the diner, so you finally have an occasion to walk and get some exercise. And you can sit on a chair, instead of a berth, or one of the small fold out chairs in the corridors.

TrainDiner

A typical train meal consists of a bowl of lukewarm rice and a couple of greasy dishes. You usually get more flavour from the foods that you brought yourself than from what you get served in the diner. However, with the modernisation of the Chinese railway system towards the world’s largest high speed train network, the production of train food is also updated. The following picture shows a cold-chain packed meal produced by the Beijing Railway Service Company, with an expiry time of 72 hours.

RailFoodBox

The following video gives an impression about how train meals are served in China.

To summarise: eating and drinking on Chinese trains is not a haut cuisine experience, but it is one of the best occasions to experience a symphony of all aspects of Chinese food and culture.

High speed trains driving change

As of late july 2018, 27 high-speed train stations are providing a pilot food-on-demand service to passengers, who can pre-order food from a selection of the outlets at the stations. The service serves as an apt response to the meal box monopoly. Complaints about the expensive, tasteless meal boxes offered on high-speed trains are not rare, and many passengers prefer to take instant noodles with them or else not eat at all while traveling by train. So the takeouts-on-demand that can be ordered via China Railway Corp’s website or its app two hours before the train is scheduled to arrive at a selected station could be a savior to those hungry travelers who have no interest in the meal boxes. The pre-order service costs as much as that offered by popular food delivery apps like Eleme, except the delivery fee is around RMB 8, which is slightly higher than in cities.

High speed trains continue to change the relationship between trains and food in China. The top season is undoubtedly the period before and after Chinese New Year, when migrant workers in big cities are returning home to celebrate China’s main festival with their close relatives. A dining carriage director with the China Railway Nanchang Group recalls the changes during the past few decades. In the early 1980s, flavoured peanuts and lard cakes were among the very few snacks sold on trains, and they were highly sought-after. Trolleys were introduced in the 1990s and it became a booming business thanks to the large volumes of passengers. One trolley could sell RMB 10,000 worth of goods during one train trip, though most passengers still favoured cheap snacks. Now Starbucks coffee and Haagen-Dazs ice cream sold on high-speed trains are also welcomed by passengers, though their prices are much higher than traditional snacks like melon seeds. Bottled mineral water is also best-seller, at least on slower trains, and passengers are willing to dig deeper into their wallets for better brands. Water priced at  RMB 5 sells better than the RMB 2 ones.

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.