In an earlier post, I explained the institutional structure of the Chinese food (ingredients) industry. However, the trends and developments introduced in this blog would not have been possible without a constant influx of fresh young food technologists. I have mentioned several universities in this blog and some posts are dedicated to graduation creations of Chinese food technology students:
Several of the companies introduced in this blog have long term agreements with universities for their product development. In turn, the universities often need the facilities of the companies for intermediate and large scale pilot production of the processed they have developed.
Chinese love lists of top this or top that and you can bet there is a list of the top food technology programs at Chinese universities as well. The following table lists the top 10 of 2018. All listed universities offer full food technology programs. However, some are especially known for their R&D in specific fields. I have added a field which the institutions themselves indicate as one of their major focus topics.
The Chinese word for soy sauce is jiangyou, literally ‘jiang oil’, or oil of fermented paste. It is not chemically an oil, but it probably struck the early users as oily.
If we were to conduct a survey in any European city and ask people what they see as the most typical ingredient of Chinese food, the top substance on the list of answer will definitely be soy sauce. Soy sauce indeed originates from China, where it is an important element if the Five Flavour model of traditional Chinese cooking. It is first mentioned in texts from the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 220 – 265). Early recipe books indicate that it was at first mainly used to season salads, cold cuts and other cold dishes Chinese typically start a dinner with. The use in various ways of cooking pops up in the 12th Century.
Current Chinese commercial texts distinguish 4 types of soy sauce:
Cantonese soy sauce: represented by Haitian and Zhimeiyuan; based on solid fermentation (see below).
Shanghai soy sauce: represented by Amoy and Laocai; mainly using liquid fermentation.
Foreign soy sauce: represented by Maggi, Kikkoman, Lee Kum Kee, Wadakan; foreign invested, mainly using liquid fermentation.
Local soy sauces: e.g. Jinshi (Beijing), Zhenji (Shijiazhuang), Tianli (Tianjin), etc.; small plants or even workshops using proprietary processes.
Most Chinese households have a regular stock of two types of soy sauce in their kitchen: light and dark. Light soy sauce is the original product, while the dark version is produced by adding additional caramel, which also makes the sauce a little thicker. Dark soy sauce is mostly used to flavour and colour meat.
There are various ways to produced soy sauce. The main raw materials are always (soy) beans and cereals. The main distinction is between natural fermentation and the chemical process. The latter is obviously not a traditional process, but a cheap and quick way to cut the long chains of the proteins and starches in the raw materials. Chemical soy sauce is nowadays regarded as inferior. All major brands employ some kind of fermentation.
The earliest fermentation process used so called ‘solid fermentation’, in which a relatively thick broth was inoculated with the moulds to start the fermentation. After the fermentation, salty water was added and after a second period of fermentation the sauce was ready to be packed. The first part of this process resembles that introduced in my earlier post on jiang, fermented pastes, and explains why soy sauce is called jiang sauce in Chinese. A number of local plants still use a variety of the traditional process, often adding their own proprietary mix of ingredients to produce an original local product.
Many top brands use the ‘wet fermentation’ process in which the main ingredients: beans, cereals and salt are processed into a liquid that is then fermented. This process leads to a very fragrant sauce that preserves the nutrients of the ingredients. It also has a much higher yield than the traditional process. However, it is considerably longer and can take up to 6 months.
China has produced 7.781 mln mt of soy sauce in 2021; up 11.39%. The country imported 14,000 mt and exported 148,000 mt in 2019.
As many traditional Chinese food products, the soy sauce industry consists of a large number of very small manufacturers. China’s top producer is Haitian (Foshan, Guangdong), which is approximately good for 2% of the national output. Haitian is known for the fact that it has scaled the traditional solid fermentation process up to modern industrial proportions. This results in top quality soy sauce, but the output cannot be easily increased. Perhaps this is a good in thing in the long run. While China has not (yet) produced a Kikkoman, Chinese soy sauce has a much richer flavour than the generic Japanese product. Haitian has generated a turnover of RMB 17.086 billion in the first 3 months of 2020; up 15.26%.
Top 10 soy sauce brands 2016
The following list has been compiled on the basis of the opinion of Chinese consumers. However, the most popular brand is also the top producer in volume.
Lee Kum Kee
Haitian generated a turnover of RMB 11.6 billion in the first half of 2020, up 14.12%.
Guangdong also here stands out as the top region with 3 companies; 4 if we also regard Hong Kong as de facto part of Guangdong. Shanghai and Shandong are the runners up with 2 each. Haitian is doing well. The following table show the increase of its market share in the period 2015 – 2018.
A number of variations on soy sauce have appeared in recent years. An earlier variety is oyster sauce, which is soy sauce flavoured with ground oysters to give it a fishy flavour. Other flavours include mushroom and chilli. Some companies produce soy sauces for special applications like soy sauce for meat, soy sauce for mixing salads, or table top soy sauce for dipping cold cuts or dumplings.
In line with the trend towards low fat, low salt, low sugar foods, a number of Chinese soy sauce manufacturers have developed low salt varieties. In the course of 2017, Cuiwei Food (Sichuan) launched a salt-free soy sauce, produced by natural fermentation. While salt reduction is a positive development, soy sauce has always been a fypical savoury seasoning product, so completely salt-free soy sauce can only succeed when marketed as a new type of ingredient, a flavouring agent rather than a savoury ingredient.
The clean label movement is also affecting the Chinese food industry. Haitian has launched a kind of clean label soy sauce late 2020. It was announced as a product with a simple formulation:
water, soybeans, wheat, salt and sugar.
The brand name reflects this: Jijian ‘It’s Simple’.
Eurasia Consult has detailed information about many top soy sauce producers
Moon cakes are probably the most important type of traditional Chinese pastry. However, the period in the year that they are available is short, only a few weeks.
Moon cakes are the typical treat you eat around the Mid Autumn Festival, the first full moon of the Autumn according the lunar calendar.
The bulk of a moon cake consists of the filling, wrapped in a crust of traditional Chinese pastry dough (relying on fat for the texture, rather than yeast or other rising agent). Moon cakes are roughly divided into Northern types and Southern types. The Northern moon cakes are harder and dryer, while the Southern types are softer and moist.
Fillings can be based on lotus paste, bean paste, fruit, nuts, etc. Southern moon cakes can also contain small pieces of ham or other meats and often have a duck egg in the centre. Moon cakes are rich, eating one in the morning can easily count as breakfast as well as lunch. Chinese often cut a moon cake in small pieces.
The moon cake production season starts early, sometimes two months prior to the actual festival. Many traditional bakeries, and even bakeries of Western pastries, usually stop manufacturing other products, directing all man power and resources to the production of moon cakes. About 280,000 mt of moon cakes were produced in China in 2013.
A market survey conducted in 2019 has shown that the main consumer group for moon cakes is the 30 – 39 years age bracket; good for 54% of the total consumption. The second group is the 20 – 29 years bracket; good for 22%. That year a total of 1.38 billion mooncakes were sold, generating a turnover of RMB 19.67 billion.
It is big business for suppliers of food ingredients as well. Traders in food ingredients also stock up large quantities of moon cake ingredients and place extensive advertisements in the local media.
Here is a video of producer of moon cake production machines. It is a commercial video, but still gives an interesting insight in the industrial production of moon cakes.
Signature moon cakes
Major hotels and restaurants have also started noticing the potential of mooncakes as a novel way of reaching out to the market. They have asked their chefs to come up with innovative flavours using unconvential ingredients. Some even experiment with Western ingredients. Here is my pick from the Beijing 2014 season.
The mooncakes of the Imperial Palace Restaurant are mainly Chaozhou-style (a cuisine in Guangdong) pastry mooncakes, which are handmade by chefs with more than 10 years’ experience, and are delicious and fresh, with low levels of fat and sugar. The restaurant claims that their products have no additives. In addition to the traditional mooncakes, the restaurant has introduced fillings made from fruit and vegetables, such as cranberry and white gourd.
The Westin Beijing Financial Street has packages that mix Western and Chinese flavors such as goose liver, truffle pumpkins and Chinese chestnut.
The Shangri-La Hotel in Beijing has 42 fillings at different prices, including some special flavours such as rose with red bean paste. Diabetics can choose low-sugar pumpkin mooncakes, and those who want to keep fit can buy ones containing cereal germs.
Moon cakes can not escape the problems of modern industrial production. Consumers want the products look, feel and taste exactly as the traditional hand made cakes, leaving the manufacturers with the problem to translate that wish into a recipe.
Modern moon cake production has a number of problems related to ingredients:
With the increase in the period between production and consumption preservation has become a serious problem. Moon cakes are an ideal environment for the growth of molds, especially the moist Southern style moon cakes. My latest bite of mooncake (Jan. 1, 2015; Jiayuan brand, bean paste filled) contained potassium sorbate and sodium dehydro-acetate.
Until mid 2000, many manufacturers included a small pack of dimethyl fumarate (DMF) with their moon cakes. This preservatives slowly sublimates, preventing the growth of mold. Moreover, DMF did not have to be listed on the packaging as a preservative, because it did not count as an additive. However, the use of DMF for food was prohibited in May 2000. Alternative preservatives are still being tested by the manufacturers. Especially the suppliers of Natamycin are actively promoting their products for the treatment of moon cake surfaces.
A company in Guangdong has developed a special preservative for moon cakes. The longer the shelf life the higher the price is no longer the case with moon cakes. Rules have changed, so have perceptions. The norm now is, the shorter the shelf life the higher the price.
Traditional Chinese pastry dough is high in fat, creating that typical crumbly texture. This calls for antioxidants to preserve the flavour of the pastry. Recently publications on antioxidants in moon cakes seem to converge on their preference for tea polyphenol as the best solution. It is a natural ingredient and apart from its antioxidant property, it also has a preservative activity and protects the colour of the pastry. An interesting ingredient in this respect is tea, which adds colour, flavour and mouthfeel and also functions as an antioxidant. See my special post on tea as food flavour.
Moon cakes are supposed to be sweet. However, Chinese consumers are also getting more aware of the problems caused by excessive intake of sucrose. The past few years have seen experiments with alternative sweeteners. A number of manufacturers are already offering moon cakes sweetened with polyols, in particular maltitol and xylitol. Beijing based Daoxiangcun produces ‘maltitol moon cakes’. According to the information on the package, the pastry contains 15% and the filling even 43% maltitol.
Trends in typology
A survey held in 2019 still showed that traditional flavours were mainstream in the moon cake business.
The term ‘healthy’ is not explained by the authors of the survey, but we can assume that these are mainly sugarfree moon cakes.
Most moon cakes are still produced on an ad hoc basis, and sold in bulk, without brand. However, a number of brands have started to emerge in recent years. The current top three brands are:
Produced by the Huamei Food Co., Ltd. In Dongguan (Guangdong), this is not only a noted brand, but also a ‘green food’, the Chinese designation for ecologically friendly foods, one grade below biological foods.
The producer of this brand, Ronghua Pastry Co., Ltd., is also located in Dongguan, but the mother company is from Hong Kong. This company has been engaged in a fierce legal battle with an entrepreneur from Shandong about the use of the Wingway (the Cantonese pronunciation of Ronghua) for many years. This is yet another proof of the economic importance of moon cakes.
Anqi Food Co., Ltd. is yet another Guangdong-based company, located in Shenzhen. It was the first to introduce ‘iced moon cakes’ in the Mainland. These are white moon cakes, with a skin made from glutinous rice.
The top 5 moon cake brand in online sales in 2019 were:
The only limits of what is possible with moon cakes are the limits of ones imagination. Any more or less round shape from dough with any kind of filling can be called a moon cake. The photo of this section shows a bear-shaped and elephant-shaped moon cake. The bear cake has a coffee flavour, while the elephant cake is scented with orange.
Trend 2015 1: medicinal moon cakes
A trend in 2015 is to enrich moon cakes with traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients, like: ginseng, goji berries, or cordyceps (a fungus infected caterpillar). The resulting pastry can then be attributed medicinal functions and, hopefully, be sold at a premium price. This initiative has received mixed reactions from the market. However, whether it catches on or not, it has at least added new colours to the existing range of moon cakes, as shown by this picture.
Eurasia Consult’s databases include a large number of recipes for generic and innovative moon cakes; and our database of the Chinese food industry includes 121 producers of moon cakes.
Weird, weirder, weirdest
It is not always easy to come with yet another novel type of mooncake. Here are some of the weirder examples launched in 2015.
Chocolate mooncake with spicy beef filling
Ten years ago, a Chinese girl was reported to say to a boy, “It’s impossible for us to be together, like chocolate will never be with beef.” Today, it seems that everything is possible.
Sour and spicy mooncake
The sourness of the mooncake filling is from pickled vegetables and hawthorns. The spiciness is made from a chilli sauce resembling to the famous brand Lao Gan Ma.
Fermented bean curd mooncake
This is a variant of a kind of pastry made with fermented bean curd popular in Chaoshan, Guangdong province, similar to furu, also reported in an earlier post. The pastry is usually used as a sacrificial offering by local people on the first day and the middle day of each month.
Mooncake with fillings of cream, truffle and goose liver
Expensive is still fancy in China. The “Louis Vuttion” of mooncakes is made with expensive ingredients of truffle and goose liver. This luxurious mooncake definitely deserves a bite.
6. Mooncake with leek egg filling
Scrambled egg is a popular filling for Chinese Jiaozi (dumpling). But for the first time, scrambled egg is being used for the traditional Mid-Autumn day dessert.
“Shiren” mooncakes have 10 kinds of nuts, doubling the traditional “Wuren” mooncake with 5 kinds of nuts. It’s four to six times larger than traditional mooncakes, and implies best wishes of “perfect in every respect”.
Mooncake stuffed with braised pork and preserved vegetable in soya sauce
Braised pork with preserved vegetable in soya sauce, or “meicai kourou” is a famous Chinese dish. The one made this special filling for mooncake must be a super fan of this dish. Like the scrambled egg moon cake, this variety is in line with another innovative type of dumpling reported in another post of this blog: dumplings with entire dishes as filling.
Bamboo charcoal mooncake
This mooncake is made by putting bamboo charcoal powder into the mooncake when baking. It’s said to have the function of absorbing toxins inside our bodies. As reported earlier, the distinction between food and medicine is much smaller in China than in the West.
Instant noodle mooncake
Putting instant noodles into the traditional mooncake will surely give you a special experience. The mooncakes are also marked with Chinese characters, “Diao Si”, which means “underprivileged losers” in a self-mocking way. Perhaps this refers to the recent decline in the instant noodle market in China.
Mooncakes with bean-taste filling fried with tomatoes
Moon cakes as ingredients. The canteen of Civil Aviation University of China had put forward a dish which fried mooncake pieces stuffed with sweet bean taste and tomatoes before decorating them with caraway. The dish became a hit on the Internet and is called the weirdest mooncakes.
Virtually any food-related chain in China is offering its own specialty in the shape of moon cakes. Häagen-Dazs is also joining in with ice cream moon cakes.
Domestic ice cream makers had to follow suit and Chicecream launched a series of ice cream moon cakes in 2021, in cooperation with Shangrila.
Mooncakes with an academic flavour
Universities around Shanghai have begun competing to offer mooncakes with the most distinctive characteristics in 2016. In addition to traditional fillings such as egg yolk, lotus seed paste, “five kernel,” red bean paste and fresh meat, a variety of new flavors have been introduced, including tiramisu, durian, coffee, ham and beef, purple sweet potato and mushroom. These new flavors offer a real treat for teachers and students alike.
Trend in 2018: small and special ingredients
More and more food companies whose products do not include pastry are launching their own specialty mooncakes this year. A prominent example is nut processor Three Squirrels with a range of 6 different flavours. The most spectacular one has a liquid caramel core as shown in the picture.
Daoxiangcun (Beijing) is a pastry maker, but has launched a series of relatively small colourful mooncakes based on a famous animation character Huangdoujun.
Qingxintang is a Guangdong-based producer of a wide range of traditional Chinese snacks. This year, the company is luring the mooncake crowd with a series of 6 mini-mooncakes that are promoted as vegetarian (many Guangdong style mooncakes contain pork or duck egg) made from selected flowers, cereals, seeds and teas.
Surprises of 2020: cheese-filled mooncake
Zhenzhang Food Co., Ltd. (Xi’an, Shaanxi) has launched a cheese-filled mooncake under its Yupinxuan brand in September 2020. It uses Tatura cream cheese as an ingredient. Although the cheese is imported from Australia, the mooncakes are marketed as ‘French style cheese mooncakes’, obviously because French sounds fancier than Australian.
Also in 2020, newcomer Bee & Cheery has invested in buying the rights to launch a series of Doraemon moon cakes in sweet pumpkin and green bean flavours.
Leading dairy company Yili has launched a limited edition of its Ambrosial drinking yoghurt with moon cake flavour. I wonder it this will ever become a success, but it is an interesting example of how anyone is something in the Chinese food industry wants to cash in on moon cakes.
Chinese consumers also started liking smaller sized moon cakes in 2020. According to Bianlifeng, a Beijing-based, data-powered convenience store chain, the smaller mooncakes in pretty packaging have quickly gained popularity among consumers. Females accounted for 60% of the consumers who bought mooncakes at Bianlifeng, which has prompted the manufacturers of the mooncakes to make the snacks about half their traditional size. Mooncakes lighter than 80 grams accounted for 67% of the chain’s sales in 2020.
Babao Porridge (Babaozhou, Babaofan), a sweet rice porridge stuffed with dates, lotus seeds and other fruits, is an extremely interesting example of a traditional product revived by industrial production. The concept of babao is used in more traditional foods, e.g. zongzi, filled steamed rice cubes wrapped in leaves, which are introduced in a separate post of this blog.
Present day Babao Porridge is derived from a southern type of porridge called Laba Porridge. La refers to the La month, the last month of the lunar calendar and ba (‘eight’) to the eighth day of that month. On the 8th day of the lunar 12th month people used to prepare a porridge using eight or more ingredients to celebrate the end of the year. Another story explains the custom as a Buddhist tradition.
Laba porridge was first cooked as a sacrifice for ancestors and gods during Laba Festival as a part of winter worship. In an agricultural society, the 12th month or layue (腊月) was a time when families consumed some of their stores from the harvest season. Cooking a porridge with rich and varied ingredients is a way to celebrate a prosperous harvest for the year, in hopes of a better one to follow.
Just like Christmas overtaking the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when Buddhism arrived in China, it stamped its own influence on this local tradition. For Buddhists, Laba Festival is also Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.
The legend says that Shakyamuni, after 6 years of seeking enlightenment by living frugally, once sat down under a tree, dead tired. A woman herding cows saw him and prepared a simple porridge for him using course cereals and wild fruits. Shakyamuni was so revived from eating a bowl of that porridge, that he immediately gained enlightenment. From that day on, Buddhist Temples prepared a similar type of porridge on the 8th of each 12th month.
With the increasing pace of life, modern Chinese are less and less willing to spend several hours a day in the kitchen. This includes less frequently prepared foods like Babao Porridge.
The basic production process is easy enough. The raw materials are mixed and cooked, cooled and then packed in cans, similar to those used to pack soft drinks. In this way, the porridge can be easily consumed as a convenient food, while travelling, as a snack during office work, etc. A plastic spoon is usually attached to the can, so the traveller does need to pack a metal spoon from the kitchen either.
Buddhist monestaries have to abide by the law as well, so more and more temples are producing laba porridge in a semi-industrialised clean way, to ensure that the faithful do not have to pay dearly for enjoying a bowl of laba porridge with food poisening. On the way, it earns the monestary a lot more income as well.
The most essential aspect of the production of Babao Porridge is the combination of emulsifiers and thickeners. Babao Porridge consists of a viscous liquid part and solid parts. Manufacturers need to formulate the product in such a way, that the solid parts are more or less evenly distributed over the liquid part upon opening of the can.
A number of Chinese manufacturers of emulsifiers and thickeners supply products specially formulated for Babao Porridge. Some sources propagate CMC as the most appropriate thickener for this application.
A combination of CMC and a low calorie high intensity sweetener to replace the sugar will not only provide an authentic mouthfeel, but also decrease the caloric value.
Industrial recipes for so called ‘low calorie Babao Porridge,’ proposed by manufacturers of ingredients use sticky rice as the macro-ingredient, where part of the rice can be replaced with pumpkin. Various combinations of fruits (dates are most popular) and nuts (including peanuts) are added. Frequently suggested micro-ingredients and additives: pumpkin powder, xylitol, oligoxylose, CMC, konjac powder, and EDTA.
As a result of all the recent food safety problems, Chinese consumers have become more aware of ingredients and started asking if one food really needs so different ingredients. A recent article (24/9/2014) criticises the use of xanthan in one brand of Babao Porridge. Xanthan is known in the porridge industry under the nickname zhoubao, literally: ‘porridge treasure’. The reporter believes it is a means to hide the lack of skills of the manufacturer to produce a proper porridge.
The following brands are recognised as China’s top brands for Babao porridge
The Yinlu Food Group was established in Xiamen (Fujian) in 1985 as producer of canned food and beverages. It is still one of China’s top producers of protein drinks. It now operates production units in Shandong, Hubei, Anhui and Sichuan. Nestlé has acquired a controlling stake in Yinlu, nut has announced that it intends to sell that stake again early 2020.
The Wahaha Group was established in Hangzhou (Zhejiang) in 1987 as a private company operated by a school, producing tonic for school children. The founder and CEO, Mr. Zong Qinghou, is currently one of China’s richest entrepreneurs. Wahaha has 150 subsidiaries in all regions of China, employing 30,000 people. It ranks among China’s top 500 companies in 2014 It is a relatively new player in this market, but has rapidly risen to this position. The range includes a babao porridge sweetened with xylitol. Wahaha has started a new campaign for its canned porridge range in January 2015, stressing that the company is being loyal to the Chinese tradition of porridge making. The following picture says that Wahaha’s Babao Porridge ‘tastes just like mother used to cook it’
Wahaha has launched another type of nutritious Babao Porridge mid 2018, under the Qingzhi brand.
Koji, plant sterols, sugar, glutenous rice, barley kernels, red beans, maltitol, black rice, peanuts, red kidney beans, hulless barley, tremella, lecithin, sucrose ester, fatty acids, sodium tri-polyphosphate, acesulfame-k, EDTA-2Na, sucralose, water
Based in Guangzhou (Guangdong), Qinqi was the first in China to launch Babao porridge in cans, which created the market for ready to drink Babao porridge. Although no longer the number one brand, Qinqi still bears the honorary name ‘porridge king’.
This brand is owned by the Xinxin Food Group, established in Yangzhou (Jiangsu) in 1991, by a local factory and a Taiwan investor. It produces a range of convenience foods, including Babao porridge.
The name of the producer, Tongfu Bowl Porridge Co., Ltd., betrays that it is dedicated to producing exactly that: porridge in (plastic) bowls. Tongfu was the first to introduce this type of packaging in China. It is considerably lighter than the canned version. It is located in Wuhu (Anhui)
Corona was good for Babao porridge
Babao porridge sales went through the ceiling during the first quarter of 2020, when the entire Chinese nation went into quarantine at home. It turned out to be the ideal corona food, besides instant noodles and other packed fast foods.
More nutritious and high end
Babao porridge entered the high end sector in 2022, when Huangxiaozhu launched its series of zero sugar low fat nutritious babao porridge. Flavours included coconut-water chestnut and and black sesame – taro. The packaging was also inspired by the ongoing nationalist trend (guochao).