A Chinese food ingredient less known in the Western world is the yam (Dioscorea polystachya) literally called ‘mountain medicine’ (shanyao) in Chinese. It is sometimes called Chinese potato or by its Japanese name nagaimo. Eating Chinese yam (first scrape off the hairy peel) by itself is an acquired taste. They have a slightly hot flavour, different from the heat of chili peppers.
China has produced 48,189,000 mt of yams in 2019; good for 65.37% of the total global production. The name ‘Chinese yam’ is well deserved. The Chinese yam’s growing cycle spans approximately one year, and should be planted between winter and spring. The traditional methods growing it are: using smaller tubers, top cut of bigger tubers or through cuttings of branches. The first two methods can produce 20 cm long tubers and above. The latter produces smaller tubers (10 cm) that are usually replanted for the next year. Between 7 and 9 months of replanting Chinese yam tubers, their leaves start to get dry, which indicates that it’s time to harvest. In home gardens generally only what will be consumed is harvested, with the rest left in the pot in moist soil.
Chinese yam is also a herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The main health benefits it is known for is strengthening the spleen and stomach to aid digestion. Chinese yam also aids in lowering the blood sugar level. It can be used to treat diabetes or a good diabetic diet. Besides that, Chinese yam contains mild medicinal properties, unlike ginseng which could help to regulate sleep. Consuming Chinese yam helps to nourish kidneys and enriching essence as it contains a variety of nutrients which can strengthen the immune system of the body.
Study shows that Chinese yam has antioxidant properties which is beneficial as a daily supplement. Chinese yam extract helps in preventing disease which plaque build-up in the arteries. Chinese yam also is a natural slimming food. It has high fibre content to produce the feeling of fullness after consuming it.
Yam in cooking
Unlike most other yams, the Chinese yam can be eaten raw (grated or sliced). However, Chinese still usually cook yams, as they are much less interested in eating raw food than their eastern neighbours in Korea and Japan. To prepare fresh Chinese yams, it is recommended to rinse it under cool water before peeling the outer skin. Take caution while peeling as the slipper secretion makes it difficult to grip. Do not soak Chinese yams as it weakens the beneficial functions of the herb and washes the nutrients away.
The most common way to consume Chinese yams is cooking chunks of yam in rice congee. The yam adds texture to the congee, while the congee helps neutralising the sharpness of the yam. Dates are often added for their fruity sweet flavour.
Chinese yam can also be stir-fried alone with carrots, hot peppers dipped in hot pot or stewed pork rib soup.
One of the top delicacies in China is made from birds’ spit
Yanwo, or bird’s nest, has been regarded as a rare delicacy in China until recently, when the average spending power of Chinese consumers started booming. They are not the nests of any bird obviously, but the nests made by swiftlets (sea swallows, haiyan), with bird saliva as the main ingredient.
Hard to get
Edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive Chinese delicacies and tonics consumed by man. High quality whole clean white nests can come from Sabah, Thailand. and Vietnam and can retail at well over two thousand dollars a pound. For centuries, Chinese emperors, or m more precisely: their women, has been known to consume bird’s nest to enhance beauty and aid in disappearance of fine facial lines.
Bird’s nest are exclusively built by small birds known as swiftlets. They belong to the large family of the common swallow, but only nests from three species are edible. The nests are built from the bird’s salivary secretion which is abundant, particularly during breeding season.
These nests, often found clinging to the ceilings of caves as high as two hundred feet, are built by both parents expressly for raising their young. When the hatchlings are ready to fly off, the nests, found in many coastal caves of South East Asia including Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are then abandoned.
Some of most costly edible nests are known as red blood nests. These are commonly misunderstood. Many think the red is stains of blood from the birds; however, their reddish hue is not blood. It is simply ferrous material, that is iron from chemical interactions of various natural factors such as temperature, humidity and contents of the cave walls where the nests cling.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), bird’s nest influences lung, stomach, and kidney meridians, and improves appetite and complexion. Chinese commonly use them to aid recuperation from debilitating illnesses because of their easily digestible glycoprotein and other nutrients; also because of their as yet undiscovered bio-compounds.
Science cannot yet explain the healing powers attributed to birds nests. Protein is the most abundant constituent of the nests, which contain all of the essential amino acids. They also contain six hormones, including testosterone and estradiol. The nests also contain carbohydrates, ash and a small quantity of lipids. Research has indicated that the nests contain substances that can stimulate cell division and growth, enhance tissue growth and regeneration, and that it can inhibit influenza infections.
Recent scientific findings about bird’s nest characteristics highlight the presence of a unique profile of epidermal growth factor (EGF) believed responsible for repairing skin cells and tissue. This EGF is said to be responsible for their therapeutic benefits including enhancing a person’s complexion.
Techniques of processing are minimal for whole nests with few feathers, that is if they are white and relatively clean. Nests with lots of feathers, known as black nests, need extensive processing in what is considered a cottage industry. Typically this is a long, tedious, and labour-intensive task. Generally, a space in a building close to the where the nests are gathered is transformed into a simple factory. There, workers devote themselves to cleaning, drying, sorting, grading, and packing collected uncooked nests.
First, black nests are washed and soaked with warm water for up to forty-eight hours. Hot water can cause nests to expand and their strands to unravel. Too little water makes it difficult to extract the impurities. Next, tweezers are used to pluck the feathers and other foreign particles from the wet nests. Workers are trained to pick out only impurities and not destroy or remove actual nest strands. Hard corners of the nests are trimmed and removed using scissors.
Once the nests are completely cleaned and trimmed, their long strands put into cup-shaped metal molds; see an illustration of them on this page. This helps them retain their original shape; and they are air-dried without heat. Once dried, they are graded and packed for shipping. Each piece of processed, dried, raw bird’s nest usually weighs about three and a half to four grams; that is twelve- to fifteen-tenths of an ounce. To process a batch of black nests from raw to dried and to clean them can require three or four days.
Because edible bird’s nests can be prepared in many ways, in savoury soups, desserts with rock sugar, or infused with herbs, many Chinese and others enjoy bird’s nest dishes often during banquets and celebrations. When taken regularly, they are believed to improve a person’s overall physical health and their mental dexterity.
Preparing raw bird’s nest can be done in two ways. Premium white whole nests are made to look like a halved cup putting them in to a wire frame to shape them. The more affordable black nests are dried and molded into flat leaf-like pieces. To prepare them, the nest is rinsed quickly and then soaked in warm water to allow it to expand. Then it is either steamed or double-boiled for at least two hours. Tools and types of molded bird’s nest are also illustrated on these pages.
There are many recipes that use bird’s nests including those serving them as a soup, typically with lean chicken. Sometimes, other ingredients are added to enrich the soup. Many people love bird’s nest in dessert. One simple way is to add rock sugar with or without fruit. Some people add pitted dried red dates, lotus seeds, even white fungus. Others add coconut milk or pieces of other fruits such as papaya, mango, or pear.
The birds nest has even aroused the interest of famous Western chefs like Gordon Ramsay, as witnessed by this youtube video.
As hinted at the beginning of this blog, the consumption of birds nests has been affected considerably by the growing spending power of Chinese consumers. The birds nest trade increased 30 times between 2015 and 2017. The value of the Chinese bird’s nest market in 2019 was RMB 300 mln; double that of 2018!. While typical consumers used to be middle aged or seniors, the focus group has been shifting to the 18 – 25 year age group in recent years. Online shop Alibaba sold for RMB 1.48 billion of birds nests in 2017. What has been regarded as a tonic for wealthy ladies for centuries, is now within reach of most Chinese women. However, instead of eating the nests directly in the traditional way, birds nests are now made available in various presentation forms, including as ingredient for health foods and drinks and cosmetics.
China needs to import bird’s nests from South East Asia, mostly from Malaysia. The country imported 105.2 mt of bird’s nest in 2018, which increased to 183.2 mt in 2019. The Chinese government has currently approved 59 foreign companies to export birds’ nests to China (Malaysia: 34; Indonesia: 23 and Thailand: 2).
Today, bird’s nests can be pre-prepared and bottled for convenient culinary usage. It is important to purchase reliable brands ensuring that bird’s nests are of high quality. As is the case with many fancy foods in China, fake birds nest abound. Purchasing reputable bottled bird’s nest is not only easy, but it assures that the contents are made using real high quality edible bird’s nests. However, industrially processed bird’s nests are still marketed as fancy products, as shown by this ad of Yanzhiwo.
Birds nest products have become such a big business that The China Food Industry Association has founded a special Birds Nest & Collagen Branch in 2019.
Potable bird’s nest
A number of health beverage made from bird’s nest have been launched in China.
The latest development is that the Shanghai-based producers of birds nest health beverage: Yuwenqing (both company name and brand name) Birds Nest Water, announced that it was seeking a listing on the Shanghai stock exchange on August 15, 2017. I don’t want to vouch for the nutritional value of this drink, its ingredients are listed as:
Water, rock sugar, Malaysian birds nest
One cannot but wonder how much of the ‘birds nest water’ you can make from one nest. But this news does show that the birds nest is yet another TCM product that has successfully reinvented itself in the modern world of fast moving consumer goods.
Huarenai (Guangdong) has launched a bird’s nest drink in 2018 and launched it nationally during the annual National Food Fair in March 2019. The company name (also the brand name) is cleverly chosen, as it literally means: ‘Chinese Love It’.
The leading port of export of canned food from China is Zhangzhou – China’s Canned Food Capital (Chinese news source, 19/7/2016)
I have yet to find out when the first city in China started calling itself ‘the capital of . . .’, where … is a slot for a certain product (group), one of which that city is a national production centre. However, it now has become so important for the local economy, that it has almost become an official designation, bestowed by an industrial association.
Icons are an important aspect of the construction of social identity in Chinese culture. Chinese like to identify a famous person who they would like to become. More than a few Chinese start-up cyber-entrepreneurs are dreaming of becoming China’s Steve Jobs. Some even go as far as to try to emulate their hero’s behaviour, clothing, and speech.
In an analogous fashion, Chinese cities that are leading in a certain industry have started picking a similar foreign city, calling themselves ‘China’s …’ A city with a major car maker may call itself ‘China’s Detroit’. Unfortunately, there are several cities in China that are the home of a major automobile manufacturer, resulting in almost as many ‘Detroits of China’. So far, this has not led to conflicts between the various local governments. Detroit doesn’t care either. The city has lost most of its car-related industry and virtually turned into a ghost town.
Several posts of this blog are introducing the growing importance Chinese local governments attach to their local culinary specialties. A representative post is that about Jinhua ham. Jinhua ham is so typical for that region, that Jinhua has applied for DOC status for this product, meaning that only ham producers of Jinhua are allowed to market their ham as ‘Jinhua Ham’.
A city with a DOC-status food is likely to have a relatively large number of manufacturers of that product, and/or the top producer in that business. Instead of finding its icon elsewhere, such cities endeavour to become an icon themselves, by calling themselves ‘China’s Capital of <their typical product>’. Unlike in the case of China’s multiple Detroits, this has been a cause for chauvinist strive. As societal harmony is a top priority in China, the government has started to regulate such designation through the various sector associations. The most famous issue was giving Huhhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia the status of ‘China’s Dairy Capital’. It was initiated by Mengniu, a well-known company for the regular readers of this blog. Mengniu want Huhhot to be the first city to apply for that status, lest another city would be the first to do so. Huhhot itself was not too keen at first, but gave in at the end. Once the Dairy Association of China had recognised Huhhot as China’s Dairy Capital, no other city in China was allowed to refer to itself in that way. I am not sure if there actually is a penalty for violating this rule, but so far no other city has tried. To mark its status of China’s dairy capital, a large monument was put up in Huhhot.
In the remaining part of this post, I will list a few of the major Chinese food capitals. This list is by no means exhaustive and I will keep adding cities, whenever I encounter them in my scanning of the Chinese information streams. Some of these have a more or less official status, i.e. they are bestowed by the relevant sector association. However, most still seem to be self-assigned. This is probably why there are several capitals for some products.
This list may turn out quite useful. If you want to know quickly were a certain food is produced in China, this list can guide you directly to a/the major region. You will have to look further (e.g. using this blog’s search engine), but this is a good start.
It has been a while since I posted a ‘What on earth . . .’ blog introducing a traditional Chinese food. So here is a new one.
In essence, zongzi are pyramids of glutinous rice with various types of fillings, wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves.
Traditional sticky rice dumplings are eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (approximately late-May to mid-June).
According to popular belief, eating zongzi commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the state of Chu during the Warring States period (5th century B.C.). Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried unsuccessfully to warn his king and countrymen against the expansionism of their Qin neighbors. When the Qin general Bai Qi took Yingdu, the Chu capital, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan’s grief was so intense that he drowned himself in the Miluo river after writing the Lament for Ying. According to legend, packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent the fish from eating the poet’s body.
Many Chinese still prepare zongzi at home, but it is more convenient for the modern city dweller to buy them from a professional street vendor.
Zongzi are currently produced by machines, though they still cannot be produced completely automatically. To cope with the enormous demand during the season, zongzi makers simply hire more people to make them, as is shown in this video recorded at Wufangzhai (see below).
Stir-fry pork for a few minutes. Add chestnuts, soy sauce, rice wine, ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of sugar, star anise and five spice powder, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove pork and chestnuts from liquid and set aside.
Boil peanuts until tender (30 minutes to 1 hour).
Soak mushrooms until soft. Clean and trim stalks. Cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Stir-fry with a little liquid from pork stew.
Chop up dried radish finely and stir-fry with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and garlic.
Stir-fry spring onions until fragrant.
Stir-fry shrimp for a few minutes.
To a large wok or bowl, add rice, peanuts, radish, shrimp, spring onions, a little liquid from the stew mixture and 2 tablespoons of oil. Mix well.
Soak bamboo leaves in warm water for 5 minutes to tenderise, before washing thoroughly in cold water.
Wet strings to make them more pliable.
Take 2 leaves with leaf stem or spine facing out. Overlap them lengthwise in inverse directions (pointed end of one leaf facing the rounded end of the other).
With both hands hold leaves about 2/3rds of the way along their length. At that point bend them so that they are parallel lengthwise and also overlap. This should produce a leaf pouch that you cup firmly in one hand.
Add a small amount of rice mixture, compressing with a spoon.
Add 1 piece each of pork, chestnut, mushroom, duck egg yoke.
Add more rice until you have nearly a full pouch. Compress firmly with a spoon.
Fold leaves over the open top of zongzi, then around to side until zongzi is firmly wrapped. Zongzi should be pyramid shaped with sharp edges and pointed ends. Trim off any excess leaf with scissors.
Tie up zongzi tightly just like shoes laces with a double knot. Normally they are tied to a bunch of zongzi.
Steam for 1 hour, unwrap and serve.
Traditionally, types of zongzi are divided into savoury and sweet.
Sweet zongzi flavours include plain zongzi, red bean zongzi, horse bean zongzi, date zongzi, rose zongzi, melon zongzi, red bean and lard zongzi, and date paste and lard zongzi.
Savoury zongzi flavours include salted pork fat zongzi, sausage zongzi, ham zongzi, dried shrimp zongzi, and diced meat zongzi.
Then there the many regional varieties.
Generally, Guangdong zongzi are large in size and have special shapes. They are either sweet with walnuts, dates, or bean paste as a filling, or savory with ham, egg, meat, or roast chicken as a filling.
Roast pork zongzi and soda zongzi from Xiamen and Quanzhou are famous as two typical types of Fujian zongzi. To make roast pork zongzi, use top-grade glutinous rice and fill with roast pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, lotus seeds, or braised pork soup. Locals often eat these zongzi with garlic, mustard, red chili sauce, and other condiments. Soda zongzi are made of glutinous rice and soda lye. After steaming for several hours, they are best cooled and refrigerated. When eating soda zongzi, people often add honey and syrup. Bean zongzi, very popular in Quanzhou, have a mixture of beans and glutinous rice as a filling.
Ningbozongzi, in the shape of a quadrangle, include many varieties, such as soda zongzi, red bean paste zongzi, and date paste zongzi. The most famous are soda zongzi, made of glutinous rice soaked in soda water, then wrapped in yellow reed leaves.
Jiaxingzongzi, in the shape of a triangular pyramid, use fresh meat, red bean paste, or eight treasures (choice ingredients of certain special dishes) as fillings. When wrapping this kind of zongzi, people put a small piece of fatty meat into the glutinous rice.
Sweet tea zongzi use stewed sweet tea to soak the glutinous rice. This type of zongzi have a bright color, a soft taste, and a sweet flavor. Generation after generation of people in the western mountainous area of Zhejiang Province have followed the custom of boiling zongzi with sweet tea, boiling rice with sweet tea, and cooking rice porridge with sweet tea. Even in the famous novel, Dream of Red Mansions (one of the four most famous classical literature works of China), sweet tea zongzi and rice are mentioned several times.
Beijing Zongzi, a representative type of zongzi in north China, are small and rectangular. In the countryside people are accustomed to making zongzi using jujube (date) and sweet bean paste as fillings.
People in Guangxi prepare zongzi in the shape of a big pillow, each one weighing over half a kilogram. People in the Guilin region prefer small, pillow-shaped zongzi. People in northern Guilin make zongzi in the shape of a dog’s head. Also the fillings used differ from one place to another. People around Guilin city often add a little baking soda to the filling to make the zongzi tastier, while people in Quanzhou County (northeast Guilin Prefecture) like to soak the glutinous rice in straw-ash water for additional flavoring.
Shanghai zongzi have a variety of shapes and fillings. Vegetarian zongzi made by Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant include mushroom zongzi, broad bean zongzi, and red bean zongzi. Some types of Muslim zongzi are offered by the Muslim restaurant Hongchangxing. Its beef zongzi are the most popular among locals.
Just like the moon cakes, zongzi have been adopted by many hotels and restaurants a prestige products, which innovative fillings and nice gift packaging. Many of Beijing’s five-star hotels offer a mixture of traditional and innovative versions of zongzi. There are traditional red jujube and mashed bean fillings, along with fresh pork and egg yolk, and five-spice beef stuffing. Creative combinations include milk and eggs, and shiitake mushrooms with chestnuts. Rice in the dumplings is supplemented with yellow rice, taro and “eight treasures” (babao, as in babao porridge), referring to a mixture of healthy seeds and fruits. The pictures show two types of such signature zongzi.
Cashing in on the vegetarian trend
Snack maker Bee & Cheery (Baicaowei) entered the zongzi market with zongzi containing plant-based meat in April 2020. This launch fitted in the booming interest in artificial meat at that moment.
The industrial age
Zongzi do not want to lag behind other traditional foods like dumplings, moon cakes or mantou in entering the age of industrial production. A special feature of industrial zongzi is that the state regulations forbid using any additive like preservatives or colorants.
A pioneer producer is Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan) that has already been reported on in several of my posts (please use the search function of this blog). Sinian has introduced the term ‘national zongzi’ (guozong). This may sound quite pretentious, but so far no one has challenged that designation. Its packaging also carries the phrase ‘Chinese flavour (zhonguo wei)’. As Sinian is not allowed to work with texturisers and artificial flavours, or sweeteners, the company using selecting the best natural ingredients as its main means of innovation.
In spite of the above mentioned regulation, ‘zongzi improvers’ are available in China. The producers are not liberal in revealing the ingredients of their compounds, restricting themselves to generic substances:
The following table shows an industrial recipe for ‘eight treasure (babao) zongzi.
Candied green beans
Candied black beans
Candied white beans
Candied red beans
The beans and peas are all candied versions. Interestingly, this recipe is much simpler than the above mentioned DIY recipe. The source of this recipe may have held back some flavouring ingredients, but this may indicate the effect of the improver.
Another innovator is Shurongbang, also located in Zhengzhou. Shurongbang has developed sausage shaped zongzi, packed in metal foil, that can be baked in the same way (and using the same equipment) as hot dog sausages. The main raw material used by this company is sweet potato.
Top 10 Zongzi of 2016
The following table lists the top 10 most popular zongzi of 2019 selected by the industry.
Among these brands, Sanquan and Sinian appear in several posts of this blog (use the Search function of this site) as top producers of frozen snacks. Ganso is mentioned in the post on biscuits and Daoxiangcun in the one on mooncakes.
China’s top producer of snack food Sanquan (Zhengzhou, Henan) has launched a series of zongzi of its own in 2018, adding several novel flavours for this traditional food, including coffee, pineapple, coconut, and grapefruit.
It is interesting to see how traditional Chinese culture is regaining recognition, also in areas where people used to look down on things of the past. High end fashion stores, selling brands like Prada, started in China by positioning themselves as part of a modern, i.e. Western, life style. The Chinese affluent still like to show off their branded clothes and accessories, but are getting proud again of being Chinese. The high-end Niccolo Hotel, in the mountain city of Chongqing has started selling its own fancy zongzi in 2020. Interestingly, Niccolo is translating the product as ‘dumpling’ in English, a term reserved for another traditional Chinese food.
Famous brand looking for robot
Wu Fang Zhai, a time-honored brand of zongzi, is based in Jiaxing of Zhejiang province. Founded in 1921 with a small workshop, the enterprise now produces over 1.8 million zongzi each day at peak times during the Duanwu Festival.
The custom of eating zongzi during the festival in Jiaxing dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As the technique for making zongzi in Jiaxing gradually developed, zongzi produced here became more popular around the country, especially meat zongzi. The technique for making of Wu Fang Zhai zongzi was placed on the list of national intangible cultural heritage in 2011. While an automated assembly line has replaced much of the manual work, the part of wrapping zongzi is still done by hand. Recently, the company announced that it is looking to spend RMB 10 million to develop robots that can replace humans to make zongzi. The materials for making zongzi are specially chosen from high-quality sources. The rice is from Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, the leaves wrapped around the zongzi are from high mountains in Jiangxi province, and the meat filling is made of selected pork hindquarters from exclusive pig farms in Henan and Zhejiang provinces.
Likoufu, a subsidiary of the Guangzhou Restaurant Group, has developed an instant type of zongzi. It needs to be stored at -5 to 0 degrees. Consumers can eat it immediately after buying. Chinese consumers will need some time to get used to eating zongzi cold, but in the subtropical climate of Guangzhou, instant zongzi can be perceived as an alternative for
Big business online
Zongzi have also entered the cybershelves of the various online retail platforms. 2018 was a top year in that respect. Tmall has sold 108 mln zongzi during around the 2018 Duanwu Festival. Online business facilitates compiling statistics. Competitor Jingdong reports that meat-flavoured zongzi made up 56% of the zongzi it sold, date-flavoured 23%, bean-flavoured 13% and chestnut-flavoured 6%.
Combine them with other traditional foods
Wufangzhai (Jiaxing, Zhejiang) has launched a zongzi pack in 2018 that contains 10 zongzi and 4 salty duck eggs. I am not sure if this will help sell more zongzi, but at least it is innovative.
The existence of a category like leisure food in Chinese food statistics is rooted in the laid back nature of Chinese culture
Entering a typical Chinese supermarket and looking around at the distribution of foods and beverages on the shelves, one indication that may strike you as unfamiliar, of even odd, is ‘Leisure food’, xiuxian shipin in Chinese.
Leisure and food are a match made in heaven in any culture, but there is no nation that created a more harmonious marriage between those two concepts than the Chinese. Visit any historic site in a Chinese city, and you will be amazed about the choice of snacks and drinks that are on sale in small shops or by street vendors.
When you then zoom in on the domestic tourists, you will have a hard time spotting one who is not eating or drinking, or at least visibly carrying food in their bags, ready to take it out and have a bite.
Before getting to those sites, or scenic spots, you need to travel. China is a huge country, so travelling can take time, and the best way to kill time in any culture is . . . eating. Chinese airports, train stations and long distance bus terminals are genuine food streets, offering everything the easily bore passengers may want to keep themselves, and their facial muscles in particular, busy. Eating has thus become the favourite way to pass the time on long haul rides in China.
Chinese high school and university students are also an important consumer group of leisure foods. Bakery products and meat snacks are their favourite foods during breaks.
All this has led to the coining of the category leisure food in the Chinese food industry.
It has become an officially recognized term. The library of Eurasia Consult has a collection of Food Industry Yearbooks starting with 1985 until the early 2000s, when the Internet rendered those paper information carriers unnecessary. Leisure Food is a separate section in those books, like the separate shelf for those products in Chinese supermarkets.
Leisure food is a hybrid collection of foods comprising:
What I especially like in this division is the category of ‘gifts’. It always a nice gesture to bring home local delicacies when returning from a trip. And with a country as large and varied as China, there are more local specialties than a person can bring home in a life time. Moreover, gifts play a key role in Chinese culture. This is why Chinese airports and larger railway stations sell local foods in fancy gift packaging. People do not buy those to eat themselves, but to give them to relatives and friends.
The following graph shows the market shares of various categories of leisure food of December 2019.
Market size and value
There are more than 4000 manufacturers of leisure food in China.The leisure food industry in 2018 was worth RMB 1029.7 bln; up 12%. Insiders expect that the value of this market will reach RMB 1298.4 bln by 2020.
It is an interesting market for suppliers of food ingredients. Preservation is key term here, not only referring to keeping the bugs out, but also the preservation of the flavor, color and texture.
This sector is also an interesting market for suppliers of food packaging machinery. All of the above mentioned products need to be packed in small portions, that can be conveniently stowed in ones pocket or hand bag. The preferred size is the single-portion package; a pack you open and empty in one leisurely moment, without the need to close and seal it for the next moment.
Trends for 2017
Leisure food should be tasty, novel and healthy. Snacks are by definition tasty. Consumers will only make repeat purchases and remember the brand if a snack is delicious. Chinese consumers are eager to try new leisure foods. As long as a product is novel and interesting, they are willing to give it a go. As Chinese are becoming increasingly health conscious, growing numbers place great emphasis on the nutrition facts of nibbles, such as those that are low in sodium, sugar and fat. This also includes additives in general. If more flavourings are added in order to create exciting taste, it can may Chinese consumers, who are now avid readers of ingredients lists, suspicious.
Small Packs are the trend. A very prominent trend is packs are getting smaller and smaller. Factors driving the growing demand for leisure food in mini packs are convenience, hygiene, pricing and visual impression. Mini packs can satisfy consumers’ demand for “convenient and hygienic one-off consumption”. They are particularly popular with female consumers who prefer snacks that can be eaten in one go. With large packs, if the food inside cannot be consumed straight away after they are opened, some consumers would not want to eat it again afterwards as they would consider it to be neither fresh nor hygienic.