However, although Buddhism has been an influential religion in China for centuries, vegetarian restaurant or food products are not that abundantly and overtly available. During the celebration of the 1st anniversary of the China Vegetarian Cooking Association on June 6, 2018,, it was revealed that there were about 4000 vegetarian restaurants in China. This is still relatively low, as the total number of restaurants is estimated to be 5 mln.
A fellow student of mine who has been a vegetarian all his life once returned from a visit to China even skinnier than he already was. He claimed that he regularly had problems in China to find genuinely vegetarian dishes in restaurants as Chinese often use small quantities of meat, in particular pork, to flavour food.
Another reason could be that vegetables have always played a bigger role in Chinese cuisine than in meat-based European cuisines. But Chinese also believe in a well-balanced meal, so a few vegetable-based dishes need to be complemented with some meat or seafood. Leaving out animal protein altogether does not result in a balanced meal. As a result, most Chinese perceive their cuisine as ‘mainly’ vegetarian. According to an estimate of Xinhua News Agency, there are are now around 50 million vegetarians – about 3.5% of the population. Tang Li, founder and head of the Chinese Vegetarian Association, predicts that in the future, China will become the number one vegetarian country. The association, a non-profit organization that promotes the benefits of a vegetarian diet, was established in 2007, and is made up of ordinary vegetarians, entrepreneurs, activists, and nutritionists.
Xiao Changjiang, head of the Cardiovascular Department at the Hunan Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine Affiliated Hospital, believes that a vegetarian diet is more suited to the Han Chinese than a carnivorous one. “As a farming people, the Chinese had adopted a plant-based diet since ancient times,” Xiao says. “We are less tolerant to meat than nomadic people. Since the 1980s, the massive supply of meat has resulted in people eating much more of it.” In April 2017, Xiao promoted a “one vegetarian meal per week” plan by providing free vegetarian dishes to both patients and hospital staff. “It’s an experience-based activity,” Xiao explains. “We invite the patients to try the meal and then explain the benefits to them. This will make it easier for them to accept.” The scheme has so far served more than 7,000 people, and the feedback has been “pretty good”.
November 25 marks the World Vegetarian Day, which is an excellent excuse to have a look at history of vegetarianism in China.
Not all about Buddhism
Most Chinese people would be familiar with an ancient quotation from their high school textbook: “people who eat meat are shallow minded.” The quote is from the ancient book of Zuo Zhuan, the earliest annals in China. “People who eat meat” refers to the privileged that belong to high class, for only noble people were recorded to have access to eat meat in ancient China for a certain period of time.
According to Book of Rites (Li Ji), a historical record written during the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), the kind of meat people ate was closely related to their social status. Only emperors could eat beef every day. Hereditary rulers and noblemen often had mutton and could enjoy some beef on the first day of each month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Most of the time, the common people only had meat-free meals. However, the book also recorded that the nobles needed to stay away from meat when they were on a fast. When somebody died in the family, they went without meat during mourning.
When Buddhism first entered China later in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), there were no strict rules about monks’ eating habit. However, emperor Xiao Yan from the Southern Dynasty (420-589) changed everything. He strongly promoted vegetarianism in Buddhist temples by issuing an order to force monks to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, and abstain from alcohol.
Some temples also became well-known for their delicate vegetarian food. In Qing Bai Lei Chao, a book from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), four such famous temples were mentioned: Fa Yuan Temple in Beijing, Ding Hui Temple in Zhenjiang, Bai Yun Temple in Shanghai, and Yan Xia Dong in Hangzhou.
The Qi Min Yao Shu written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), widely recognised as one of the earliest agricultural books in China, recorded 11 vegetarian recipes. The vegetables mentioned in the book included spring onion, leek, wax gourd, mushroom and eggplant. Later vegetarianism became relatively popular in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). According Meng Liang Lu, a book from the Song Dynasty, there were even shops that specialized in vegetarian cakes. The book recorded about 25 kinds of meat-free cakes made from dates and chestnuts.
Vegetarian food not only enjoyed more categories, but also more lovely names since the Song Dynasty. There was a kind of cake, named “cakes make cats drunk”, recorded in a book Qing Yi Lu from the Song Dynasty. The cake was made from peppermint and dill, two plants with a strong odour.
Lifestyle food – meat from plants
Vegetarian food gradually became a more delicate choice for ancient Chinese. Li Yu, an aesthetician who was also good at literature, from the Qing Dynasty, praised the vegetarian food as the most valuable delicacy. “In my opinion, beef, mutton and fish are not as good as meat of wild animals. However, the taste of the latter ones cannot compete with vegetables,” Li said in his Xian Qing Ou Ji, a book about his opinions on drama, dance, costume, makeup, architecture and food. Having said that, a typical feature of Chinese vegetarian cuisine is that it aims to perfectly imitate meat. Vegetarian duck looks like duck, tastes like duck and has a texture like duck. The picture shows an example with beancurd sheet (doupi) to imitate the skin.
Chinese people had less eye for vegetarian food during hard years of the republican era and the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, the increase of the living standard of ordinary people increased so much, that they were too happy with the new access to meat, that vegetarian was part of another universe. It was during the post 80s, 90s and even 00s, Chinese consumer interest shifted for subsistence to personal health and body care.
On Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, there are more than 50 groups on vegetarianism. Users discuss the vegetarian lifestyle or share vegetarian recipes in such groups. Many vegetarians also write blogs to share their daily meals with readers, among which, some even publish their own recipes.
Benniao and Tudouni, two vegetarians based in Beijing and Chengdu, came to know each other on the internet through sharing vegetarian recipes. They set up a blog, Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians, on Sina Blog in 2006. Since then, they have been posting their recipes for vegetarians. In 2008, their first cook book Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians was published. The book provides about 200 vegetarian recipes according to the vegetables sold in four seasons. Its sequel about another 180 vegetarian dishes came out in 2010. Xiao Bai, a post-1980s vegetarian cook, attracts 30,000 followers on Douban and around 40,000 followers on Sina Weibo. From 2011, she began sharing on Douban the photos of the meat-free dishes she made. The food was aesthetically featured in the pictures, which soon attracted a lot of attention. One year later, her first cook book, Record of Vegetarian Xiao Bai, was published.
Industrially manufactured vegetarian dishes have also become a lucrative market. This picture shows industrially produced vegetarian duck bites.
Vegetarian restaurants can now be found in all Chinese major cities.
Beijing-based Zhenmeat Food has launched plant-based lobster and plant-based fried meat in June 2020. The company was set up by US-trained entrepreneur Vince Lu Zhongming. The brand name, which is a play on the Chinese characters for “precious” and “meat”, reflects the company’s mission to create a precious plant-based alternative that tastes just like meat. Zhenmeat plant-based products include sausages, steak, faux meat mooncakes and meatballs. The vegan-friendly products are made out of a mixture of plant proteins, including pea, soy, brown rice, and protein sourced from mushrooms. This picture shows mooncakes filled with Zhenmeat’s plant-based meat.
Vegetarian food has become so popular that even a Chinese meat processor like Jinzi Ham (aka King’s Ham) has launched artificial meat products like these vegetarian beef patties.
China’s three top manufacturers of plant based meat generated a combined turnover of RMB 390 mln in 2018.
China’s top instant noodle maker Chef Kong has launched a Buddhism-inspired type of vegetarian instant noodle in 2020, branded as Ai Chi Su, ‘Love Eating Vegetarian’.
Still, it is a little too early to talk about a solid trend. A recent Chinese survey shows that September 2019 saw a high in discussions about artificial meat in the Chinese online social media (app. 40,000 items) . The line then showed a downward slope to appr. 10,000 in December; staying on that level during the first months of 2020.
Plant-based ‘meat’ mooncakes and chicken burgers
Mooncakes stuffed with artificial meat will hit the market in China for the first time in September 2019. The product has been developed by a lab team from the Beijing Technology and Business University and vegan meat brand Starfield. The first batch will be put on sale in Starfield outlets in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong province.
Starfield’s plant-based chicken burgers are now available at most of domestic fast food chain Dicos’ 2600 outlets.
Foreign fast food following suit
KFC launched its vegetable protein based Golden Nuggets in China in March 2020.
Vegetarian food is also regarded as an exciting option by part of the more well-educated and high-income Chinese city-dwellers. They are embracing plant-based and clean meat as a healthier, more nutritious, and exciting option. In fact, they prefer plant-based and clean meat more than the Americans. According to a study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, more Chinese were ‘very or extremely likely’ to buy clean meat when compared to the Americans and Indians. The number of Chinese who were “very or extremely likely” to purchase clean meat was twice as much as the Americans at 59.3% versus 29.8% and 10% more than the Indians. When it came to plant-based food, all three groups expressed a higher rate of acceptance. Yet, the number of Chinese who were ‘very or extremely likely’ to spend on the product was again nearly twice as much as the Americans at 62.4% versus 32.9%, while that of Indians were slightly higher at 62.8%.
Another sign that vegetarian food is making its way in China is the start of vegetarian cooking courses. This picture is an ad for such a course launched in April 2019 in Shanghai. The small print words in red say ‘nutritious and healthy’.
Vegetarian as charity
The best-known restaurant among Chinese vegetarians is the non-profit Yuhuazhai, a loose federation of charities established (according to business legend) in 2011 in Jiande, Zhejiang province, by an elderly restaurateur who invested his life savings to help save animal lives. Volunteers soon followed and opened their own Yuhuazhai restaurants; by 2017, there were nearly 700 kitchens called Yuhuazhai nationwide. With the help of social workers and volunteers, Yuhuazhai has given out over 580 mln free meals without any coordination, economic interest, or real affiliation among all the branches – not even a registered trademark. According to Southern Weekly, the earliest founders of Yuhuazhai discussed the latter issue but decided that it was unlikely that a corporate interest would risk sullying their own image by stealing a charitable icon.
Certification and other rules
With the increase of production and consumption of plant-based meat products, China has promulgated various rules and regulations regarding labelling and certifying these products. In 2021, the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFTS), a government-affiliated industry body under the CAST, released China’s first-ever voluntary standards for labeling and verifying plant-based foods, the General Principles forPlant-Based Food (the “General Principles”).In May 2022, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a non-governmental organization affiliated with the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), released the China Vegan Food Standards, the first set of voluntary standards for vegan foods to be published in China. You can read more about this aspect of the business on this site.
Coffee has been reported on before in my post on Pu’er. People have been talking about the Chinese market for ready to drink coffee a lot since then. Apparently it is a topic that is on people’s minds, so I have bundled their remarks in this dedicated post.
An emerging coffee nation
China is gradually emerging as a coffee producing nation. The country’s current annual production is approximately 100,000 mt, 98% of which takes place in Yunnan, the home province of Pu’er, and the remaining the island province of Hainan.
By the end of 2010, China had 135 coffee processing companies, the geographic distribution of which is can be found in the following table.
This shows that the processing still mainly takes place in the most developed regions and not in the locations where the coffee is grown. However, the Pu’er post shows that the main multinational players have set up shop in Yunnan.
The Chinese have never acquired a habit of brewing coffee at home, which creates a fertile ground for two types of products: coffee shops where you can enjoy your favourite brew (see my post on that market), and Ready To Drink (RTD) coffee products, introduced in this post.
Applying the Chinese instant tea model to instant coffee
Between 2008 and 2013, instant tea has been the driving force in the Chinese tea market, increasing sales by USD 1.7 billion. To date, the popularity of instant tea is almost entirely a Chinese phenomenon, as China accounted for 92% of Asia-Pacific’s instant tea sales in 2013. Instant coffee on the other hand, is immensely popular throughout the region, with China accounting for just 15% of the overall market in 2013. As instant coffee shares many of the attributes that have driven the success of instant tea in China, namely the replication of foodservice options, flavour malleability, convenience, and a young consumer base, applying the innovative packaging of instant tea to coffee may spell further success for Asia’s already booming instant coffee market.
Instant tea in China is composed almost entirely of instant ‘milk teas’ that aim to replicate the sweet flavours of popular street stall/kiosk and café operators like Happy Lemon, Jack Hut, and ChaTime. Popular flavours include red bean and jasmine green, while some also include bobas (tapioca pearls found in bubble tea) for added texture. To make the beverage accessible through retail channels, manufacturers use single-serve packaging of on-the-go paper cups filled with a sealed pouch of instant tea and a straw.
The sweet flavour profile of these milk teas, and economical price tag compared to their on-trade equivalents, makes them particularly popular with younger Chinese consumers. The accessible format and price of instant tea enables young consumers to partake, albeit indirectly, in fashionable foodservice.
Aware of the influence of younger demographics, Chinese manufacturers including the Guangdong Strong and Zhejiang Xiangpiaopiao are deliberate in their marketing, positioning the products specifically to Chinese youth, through fun packaging, and celebrity endorsements. Xiangpiaopiao is awaiting approval for its IPO before the end of 2015.
Is China the future for instant coffee?
In the past decade, the instant coffee market has actually expanded at rates of 7 to 10% a year, according to the Global Coffee Report; the International Coffee Organization projects a 4% global volume growth between 2012 and 2017.
The country that historically drank about two cups of coffee per year per person is now the fourth-largest global market for ready to drink coffee in terms of volume. The reason? Convenience. A 2012 poll found that 70% of Chinese workers said they were overworked and more than 40% stated they had less leisure time than previous years. Plus, most new buyers are used to boiling water to make tea, often owning just a teapot and not the appliances needed to make a fresh pot of coffee. By 2017, the Chinese RTD coffee market is projected to increase by 129% in volume. A recent study estimates that the value of the Chinese RTD coffee market will be RMB 18.6 bln by 2020.
Like many food innovations, the origin of instant coffee has several claimants.
Instant coffee is tapping into a new market: tea drinkers. As of 2013 in Great Britain, tea bag sales dropped 17.3% while sales of Nescafé instant coffee went up in supermarkets by more than 6.3%. The country known for it’s tea and crumpets may be making a similar transition to China’s tea-drinking population.
Nestlé SA led the Chinese market with 70.8% share in 2017, followed by Suntory at 4.9%, Uni-President at 3.3%, and Starbucks at 3.1%. Coca-Cola re-entered the category with its Georgia brand. Its marketing has improved the brand image and the product’s visibility. Nestlé’s Nescafé, a strong category leader, hired Chinese actress Angela baby for TV advertisements, which boosted sales. Starbucks and Ting Hsin (PepsiCo’s local distributor and bottler) agreed to jointly produce and distribute RTD coffee. Suntory and Huiyuan also set up a joint venture to market RTD coffee and RTD tea. In 2015, Hui Yuan was the largest local player in off-trade volume sales terms.
In terms of flavor, the most popular one is latte, accounting for over 54% of off-trade volume sales in 2015.
Coffee as ingredient
Europeans still mainly think of coffee as a beverage made by infusing ground coffee beans with boiling water. The real coffee lovers drink it black, hot and bitter. Those who find that a little too intimidating can dilute it with milk. As most Chinese still have a problem with pure coffee, even with the heavily diluted americanos served by Starbucks or Costa Coffee, a number of coffee flavoured beverages have appeared on the Chinese market. The most recent one Maoyuan Coffee by Wahaha (Hangzhou, Zhejiang).
Multinationals follow suit
A recent development in this market is a strategic alliance between Starbucks and Tingyi. Tingyi, a leading food and beverage producer, has signed an agreement with Starbucks to manufacture and distribute the latter’s RTD products on the Chinese mainland. Tingyi is a well-known supplier of instant noodles and biscuits. According to the agreement, Starbucks will help Tingyi, which makes the well-known Master Kong brand of instant noodles, with coffee expertise, brand development and future product innovation. Tingyi will manufacture and sell the Starbucks RTD portfolio in China, said a statement from Starbucks.
But it will take a lot more than a fancy Starbucks product to convince Americans to drink products like this one sold in China: Nestlé’s instant coffee with jelly.
A multinational like Coca Cola cannot afford to miss out on the popularity of tea beverages in China. The company is marketing its RTD coffee brand Georgia in China.
Taiwan-based manufacturer of snack food, Want Want, had already started looking for divesting opportunities in the beverage industry, when it launched its own RTD coffee brand ‘Mr. Bond’ in 2018. When I am writing this (June 2018), it is still too early to judge the success of this product.
Costa has to follow suit
Costa Coffee could not afford to neglect this market and launched a range of ready-to-drink coffee beverages in China late March 2020.
Jingdong Top 5
China’s leading online store Jingdong keeps track of the top selling brands of any product type the platform has on offer. The following list are the 5 best selling ready to drink coffee brands in 2020
Three of the top 5 are international brands, which indicates that it still is a relatively foreign product group. Nongfu Spring is China’s top bottled water brand, but has been expanding to other types of beverage in recent years. Nongfu launched a new type of RTD coffee, branded Yirgacheffee (Tanbing) in 2022 (see the next photo). Chef Kong is the leading instant noodle brand, but has also diversified into beverages a few years ago.
The instant noodle seems to be able to reposition itself every few years.
Instant noodles: winners in corona time
In the present times, when governments, companies and people around the globe are bearish about the economy, employment and even the timely supply of food, there are also winners. One big winner in China is the instant noodle. After this special corona vignette, you can read the regular post, which starts with the information that the Chinese instant noodle consumption has started rising again with a few percent annually, after a period of decline. That decline followed a much longer period of spectacular growth. Chinese consumers seem literally fed up with instant noodles and were eagerly looking for a larger variety of instant foods. The manufacturers fought back bravely, launching new types of instant noodles with a broader spectrum of flavours and more and fresher ingredients. Read the details below.
Then came the corona virus, changing the ways Chinese bought and consumed food. This gave an enormous boost to instant noodles. Check out the increase of the sales figures of the first 2 months of 2020 of the top producers, compared to the sales in the same period of 2019.
China has produced 2,246,998.4 mt of instant noodles in the first 5 months of 2020; Henan was the largest region good for 19.54%.
The industry is eagerly taking this opportunity up and is now advertising its modernized types of noodles. I am selecting a few of the most representative aspects.
Broad range of flavours
The regular blog text
One of the most intriguing headlines I read in the Chinese food industry media when I started this blog is in the shape of a question: ‘have instant noodles past their peak?‘ The national output of instant noodles in 2014 was 10,256,640 mt, down 1.55% compared to 2013. Total sales of instant noodles in 2015 decreased with 6.3% and the turnover with 2.6%. The market saw an increase of 0.9% in 2016, positive for the first time since several years. The volume of 2017 increased with an additional 2.8%, but plummeted again in 2018. The value of the market was worth RMB 143.546 billion in the first half of 2019; up 7.75% again. The leading companies filed increasing turnovers for again for 2018 (see below). The market is extremely volatile, but there is a trend towards sanitation, in which the top players grow, while smaller companies disappear.
According to a survey conducted mid 2017, the largest market segment are consumer of the age group 23 – 28, followed by the section 29 – 35. In both groups, women consume significantly more than men.
The following table shows the development of the Chinese instant noodle output from 2010 thru 2018.
China has produced 5.13 mln mt of instant noodles in 2021; down 6.8%.
The market has been dominated by 4 main players for many years. The following tables shows their market shares from 2005 to 2017. An interesting detail is that the first 2 are Taiwan-based.
Whether instant noodles are on retreat is indeed a bold question. If there is one Chinese food product that has seemingly conquered the world in the sense that it is known and available in supermarkets on all continents it is instant noodles.
Yes, soy sauce was know in most Western countries long before the first pack of instant noodles appeared on the shelves of our supermarkets and yes, instant noodles are probably a Japanese invention. However, it was that huge neighbour of Japan that posed the single largest market for this convenience food and it was through the Chinese diaspora that it ended up in supermarkets in regions like Europe, North America, or Australia. The products on offer in Western shops are not only imported from Asia, but also partly produced by Western companies like Unilever’s Unox brand.
One theory says that the rise of instant noodles was partly caused by the mass movement of surplus rural labour to the Chinese cities. Instant noodles became the favourite food of the migrant workers. It was cheap, tasty and easy to prepare. Migrants have now accumulated enough wealth to move on to more healthy foods, causing a drop in instant noodle sales.
Another surprising factor influencing the decrease of instant noodle consumption in China is booming development of the high speed rail network. In a special post on train food in China, I have reported that railroad stations are important points of sales for instant noodles. However, with the shortening of the time between any two cities, the demand for instant noodles decreases proportionally. This comes on top of the rise in living standard, which makes Chinese rail travellers buy more fancy lunch boxes, on the expense of cheaper instant foods.
Market not endless
The market for instant noodles in China seemed to be growing endlessly. From a convenience snack it has become a regular meal for many white-collar workers. The growing spending power in the Chinese created an ever-larger number of new adaptors for this food. The following video gives an impression about the an instant noodles production line.
What we could notice during the past few years was that the manufacturers of instant noodles had to go into ever-larger lengths to create new flavours and textures, new additions like dried pieces of meat that could be rehydrated like the dried vegetables that were a more traditional ingredient of instant noodles. With hindsight, this can be regarded as a sign that the consumers were getting a little bored and needed to be stimulated again.
Against the background of the many food scandals of recent years, Chinese consumers have grown more conscious of food safety and healthy food in general. While instant noodles are not unhealthy, it is surely not healthy food. Major players are noticing that the need to rid their product of the ‘junk food’ image.
All top manufacturers have already switched from fried to boiled instant noodles, reducing the fat content, which also decreases the need for antioxidants.
Another recent trend is that several producers of instant noodles, even market leader Master Kong, have started diversifying, adding soft drinks or other foods (like biscuits) and beverages to their product range. Their strategists may have read the signs on the wall.
Master Kong, a brand of Taiwan-based Tingyi, is the absolute leader in this market. In 2013, the company operated 23% of all instant noodle production lines in China, was good for 46.6% of the national turnover of the industry and produced 34.5% of the national volume. Moreover, Master Kong was the fastest selling Chinese brand in 2013, for the second time in row. 91.4% of the respondents in the survey had been in contact with the brand. That even this company has stopped placing all its eggs in the instant noodle basket is telling. Tingyi is reporting a serious drop in net profit in 2014. The net profit of the 3rd quarter of 2014 was 13.85% lower than in the same period of 2013.
Tingyi, the owner of the Master Kong brand makes half the instant noodles eaten annually in China, yet revenue is stagnating as middle-class consumers abandon the salty, fatty cups for healthier options. Tingyi is on a mission to reinvent the humble noodle, pouring millions of dollars into customer education, food science, Olympic Games sponsorships and “Kung Fu Panda” movie shorts to convince diners the cheap meal can be part of their gastronomic aspirations. “We want to continue to grow up, and ‘premium up,’ with our Chinese consumers,” Richard Chen, Tingyi’s chief technology officer, said at the company’s Shanghai research centre. “In a couple of years, we will be able to reach the gold standard, which is when you can’t tell our noodles apart from what you would get in a noodle shop.”
The latest innovative move of Master Kong to keep its leading position is launching two sister varieties based on Western flavours: black and white pepper steak.
Innovators at Tingyi once focused on practical advancements such as foldable forks and double-layer packaging so working-class Chinese could wolf down noodles on their commutes. Now, they work out of an RMB 500 mln research complex in Shanghai, with Tingyi tapping the nation’s top food-science university programs and partnering with Japanese companies such as Itochu Corp. to develop chemical-free flavorings and palm oil-free noodles. Master Kong’s turnover of 2018 was RMB 60.686 billion; up 2.94%. Its turnover for instant noodles was RMB 23.917 billion; up 5.73%.
Master Kong launched a range of power bars, marketed as breakfast replacers early 2020.
The company also divested into various beverages. Master Kong’s turnover in the first half of 2020 was RMB 32.934 billion; but only RMB 14.910 was derived from instant noodles.
Master Kong’s main competitor is another Taiwanese company: Uni-President. While Master Kong is still the leader, it is struggling with decreasing sales (-1.51% in the first half of 2014), while Uni-President is still showing, low, increasing sales (1.3%).
There could be some truth in the predictions of the author of the above-mentioned article. We need to wait and see how this market develops. For the time being it remains huge. UniPresidents’s turnover in China of 2018 was RMB 21.772 billion; up 4.6%. Its turnover for instant noodles was RMB 8.425 billion; up 5.7%.
Master Kong launched yet another new range of instant noodles in the summer of 2016; this time with a broader spectrum of dried vegetables and meats. These ‘healthier’ noodles are advertised using a famous actor.
We can also see an increase in regional variation in these production and sales statistics. The biggest decrease in output during the first half of 2014 was in Sichuan (-46.75%), and the largest increase in Guangxi (27.38). These figures are much higher than the slight decrease in the national output, so perhaps we are witnessing a regional shift in production, that is temporarily creating a downturn on the national level.
Chinese food scientists have also taken up the idea to enhance the nutritional image of instant noodles. One group is picking up the Chinese government’s idea to make potatoes the nation’s fourth staple foods and is developing a recipe and production process for instant noodles in which part of the wheat is replaced by potato. See my blog on potato processing for more details.
Baixiang Food Group (Zhengzhou, Henan) is developing more tasty products with better raw materials and production techniques. The company uses a special technique to freeze-dry noodles at -30 C to lock the nutrients in fresh noodles. When cooking, the noodles will be able to restore the original taste and texture after boiling. The company is increasing its investment in research and development by building more advanced labs, upgrading facilities, and attracting more talents. Baixiang has also established research institutes in South Korea and Japan.
A brand with a story: Nanjiecun
Wang Hongbin from Nanjie, a village in Henan province, was among the first in his village to travel overseas. In 1988, Wang, then in his 30s, had a chance to visit Japan, where he had his very first taste of instant noodles. A year after his return, a company in the nearby city of Pingdingshan bought two production lines for instant noodles, but their efforts to popularize the convenience food failed. Wang and some friends from Nanjie took over the factory and founded Nanjiecun Co. Targeting people in rural areas and students, the noodles were priced at RMB 0.5 per packet: cheap, but not very cheap in a country where many rural people still earned less than RMB 3 a day. Nevertheless, soon everyone was talking about Nanjie noodles. Nanjiecun’s star rose and the village was soon one of the wealthiest in the country. A full industrial cluster grew up around instant noodles, including print shops and seasoning and packaging factories. Production lines increased from two to 36. Annual capacity now can reach 120,000 packets per line. In 2017, the company sold noodles worth RMB 600 mln. About RMB 80 mln of that came from online sales. Nanjiecun has set up an R&D centre to develop new flavours. As the following picture shows, Nanjiecun is hooking on to the current craze for spicy food. Moreover, for those who can read Chinese: note that this flavour is linked to Beijing. The history of Yanjing Beer elsewhere in this blog shows that linking your product to the nation’s capital can be a winning strategy.
Food delivery offers more variety
The rise of food delivery has also played a role in the declining fortunes of the instant noodle industry. Food delivery gives consumers access to quick meals of more diversified tastes. Users of food delivery services reached 295 mln by the end of June 2017, a 41.6% increase from the end of 2016, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Food delivery services have even reached high-speed trains (see the previous paragraphs). In mid-July 2017, 27 major railway stations across China launched a pilot on-demand food delivery service for high-speed trains passing through the stations.
Nissin severs ties with Jinmailang
Nissin has sold its interest in three joint-venture operations for RMB 450 mln to partner Jinmailang late 2015. Nissin said that in the future, the company would focus on expanding its business in China through local subsidiaries, without elaborating on exactly why the agreement had been ended. Insiders note that there is a growing preference for foreign brands of instant noodles, particularly in the larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which bodes well for Nissin.
Africa the new frontier?
However, wouldn’t it be an interesting thought that some time in the near future, the consumption of instant noodles in the Western countries could be higher than in China?
Or will the Asian manufacturers succeed in reviving this product with more, and in particular healthier, formulations?
Anyway, I just (Aug. 27, 2014) read an interesting news item on a Chinese food industry site, with an even more intriguing title than the one this blog starts with: ‘Chinese instant noodles are attacking Coca Cola in Africa‘. It starts by reporting that a cup of instant noodles (see the above illustration) is already replacing the traditional corn porridge Kenkey as the typical breakfast in urban Ghana. The reporter then conjectures that Chinese instant noodles are pushing Coca Cola from its position as the leading foreign food and beverage product in that country. Food for thought indeed.
Export to . . . Chinese tourists
A report released jointly on Sept 28 by Alibaba’s Alitrip and Internet finance platform Wacai showed once and for all that Chinese tourists have a true, unswerving love for instant noodles. The report noted that up to 31.29% of Chinese tourists have packed instant noodles in their luggage when going abroad, and 58.24% have bought instant noodles after reaching their outbound destinations. The report shows that 66.14% of tourists born in 1970s pack instant noodles in their luggage, whereas the number is reduced to 53.82% for those born in the 1980s, and 50.96% for babies of the 1990s.
Still a newcomer
Early September 2014, Taiwan-based Wantwant Group suddenly announced that it intends to enter the instant noodle market. Wantwant is a major producer of candy, flavoured dairy beverages, snacks and other leisure food, but so far completely unfamiliar with instant noodles. The only link I can see so far is that the above mentioned top players also originate from Taiwan. Master Kong and Uni-president have not yet reacted to Wantwant’s announcement.
High end experiments
Uni-president attempted to open up a new market segment for its instant noodles by launching a line priced at RMB 30 per cup early 2016. The experiment failed utterly, and the products were recalled within a month after launch.
Flavour maker Haoji (Sichuan) has relaunched its non-fried instant noodles in November 2016. This instant noodle product — branded 99 Love, or phonetically “long-lasting love” in Chinese — is marketed as a healthy product that is made primarily from wheat, corn, buckwheat and potato sourced from high-altitude unpolluted areas; it is steamed, as opposed to fried, during the manufacturing process. An earlier launch failed, because Chinese consumers were apparently not ready for such an innovative product.
However, instant noodles have will remain to be the absolute favourite for one application: quick relief in times of disasters. When parts of China are shut off from the rest of the country due to floods or earthquakes, it is always possible to get a supply of light-weight instant noodles to the disaster area to prevent people from starving.
Instant noodles will remain an important pillar in the Chinese food industry, but it is a mature market and the main players will be fighting fiercely for a few percent for some time to come.
Instant noodle restaurants – are you serious?
Chinese are masters in turning anything around and market it as something completely new. One entrepreneur has played this trick on instant noodles and opened a restaurant annex convenience store chain named Nonoodle (bufangbianmian in Chinese). You can purchase a wide range of instant noodles there and a few other snacks and drinks, but you can also eat your instant noodles in the dining space. The English name Nonoodle is not a literal translation. In Chinese, instant noodles are called fangbianmian, ‘convenient noodles’. So, bufangbianmian literally means ‘inconvenient noodles’. The entrepreneur is suggesting that cooking water, soaking the noodles with the condiments in water, and wait until the noodles are more or less ready to eat is actually not that convenient. Why not let a ‘cook’ prepare the noodles of your choice for you. After the meal, you just go away, home or to another destination. The trick works, as long lines of young consumers can be seen at Nonoodles any time of the day. Amazing.
Corona virus facilitating the revival of instant noodles
When almost all urban Chinese were locked up inside their homes for a few weeks early 2020, it actually was a major boost for instant noodles. It is light, so easy to take home in large quantities. It is tasty and, in combination with some vegetables, chunks of meat, an egg, etc., can be a quite nutritious easy to prepare meal. However, the inventive Chinese invented a broad variety of dishes with instant noodles as the main ingredient. The following picture shows one example of such a novel dishe.
Eurasia Consult’s database includes 342 producers of instant noodles.