Trains are a vital means of transportation in China. Although domestic air travel is as common in China as in 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.
Chinese train travelers are usually 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Special train meals
Some Chinese railway authorities have started looking at Japanese companies specialising in train food. These are packed easy to heat meals that can be offered to train travellers, much like airplane food, but slightly simpler in terms of logistics. The following photo shows how a railway-related company in Qingdao (Shandong) is preparing train dishes.
Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.