Tomatoes in the Chinese kitchen and even more for export

The tomato belongs to a large group of plants of the nightshade family. Its cousins include potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers, all popular ingredients in China.

No one can pinpoint the exact dates these vegetables were introduced to China, but the general consensus is that they came through both the overland and maritime trade routes. The national output of fresh tomatoes for 2017 is estimated at more than 56 mln mt.

There is a chicken dish cooked by the Uyghurs in the north-western entry point of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region that combines almost all of them. Known as “big pan chicken” or dapanji, it is a rich, tomato-based stew with chunks of potatoes, lots of onions and plenty of bell peppers. That probably gives us a hint on the early beginnings.

Good ingredients are treasured by Chinese chefs who often go out of their comfort zones to seek them out. Foreign imports such as potatoes are now staples, and the chili pepper, too, has been naturalised.

The tomato’s brilliant colour and natural umami flavour have made it another essential ingredient. In fact, the classic sweet and sour dishes of southern China now depend mainly on the tomato, where it used to be the hawthorn fruit that coloured and flavoured in the past.

It used to be harvested only in summer, although it is now available all year round, thanks to bigger, better greenhouses and a countrywide logistics network that connects north to south and east to west. Xinjiang is currently by far the largest production region of tomatoes in China. This product has become so important, that China has started investing in tomato production in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

The northern Chinese mainly consume tomatoes raw, in thin slices liberally covered with caster sugar. More than a few Europeans have to grow accustomed to eating sweetened tomatoes. The most favoured hot dish with tomatoes is tomatoes with scrambled eggs (xihongshi chao jidan), which is everybody’s favourite. I used to travel in China with a Dutch client who was not a lover of Chinese stir fried dishes, but he did like scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

Tomatoes are now used to stuff dumplings, pairing with such stronger-tasting meats like beef and lamb, and is cooked down to a sauce for hand-cut noodles. It is not only used to accompany noodles, but is actually worked into the noodles themselves, like spinach.

The love of tomato-flavoured stews in north-eastern China can also be traced to the Russian influence of the past. For certain older generations, the only Western restaurants in the capital at that time served Russian food. For them, Russian food meant a strongly tomato-flavoured borscht, a hearty tomato and beef stew and minced-meat-stuffed cabbage rolls slowly stewed in a thick tomato sauce. That was the pinnacle of gourmet eating in restaurants with names like Old Moscow, or Kiev.

Times have changed. Modern Beijingers still love their tomatoes, but they are more likely to consume them as pizza sauce or over spaghetti. Modern chefs, many coming from overseas, have also introduced other new ways of eating tomatoes.

Tomato paste

The top industrial tomato product is tomato paste. If your mind connects tomato paste with Italy and Italian cuisine, you need to update your settings. China, in particular Xinjiang, has the world’s prime production region for tomato paste for a number of years. Several Italian companies import it in bulk an can the Chinese product in Italy, to export again as a ‘typically’ Italian product. However, the exports of tomato paste have been dropping, partly due to adverse weather conditions and partly to regional protectionism that is on the rise globally. China has exported appr. 852,000 mt of tomato paste in 2017. That is considerably lower than the top year 2011, when China exported 1,128,459 mt.

Tomato-based ingredients

Although exported could increase again, the Chinese tomato processing industry needs to look for tomato-based ingredients with a higher added value. One such product is lycopene. It is offered as a dietary supplement claiming to aid the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and prostate cancer.

A good indication of the current situation of any food ingredient in China is looking at the participants of the Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair (March 22 – 24, Shanghai). The following table shows exhibitors of various tomato-based products at that fair.

Product number
Sun-dried tomatoes 1
Dehydrated tomatoes 1
Tomato paste 3
Tomato powder 7
Lycopene 9

It seems that suppliers of tomato paste or dried tomatoes do not regard FIC as their typical trade fair. However, FIC is clearly the place to look for tomato powder and lycopene.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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Nothing sweeter than sweeter than sweet potato

You will find very few Chinese who do not like sweet potatoes, baishu ‘white tuber’ in Chinese. Story has it that the first sweet potato plant was smuggled into China from what was then Dutch colony of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. A sailor had stripped off its leaves and secretly woven the vine into the hessian ropes on board the ship.

It first took root in Fujian province, the mainland province closest Taiwan island. Here, it flourished in the rocky, mountainous terrain where it helped to fill stomachs in a land too poor for paddy planting.

Taiwanese like to cook sweet potatoes in rice porridge, and the people of Fujian took over that habit too. However, the sweet potato never grew into a real staple food in the sense that it completely replaced rice or wheat based staples used in the various cuisines of China. Apart from using it in rice and porridge, Chinese turned it into noodles, cooked it in sweet soups and made pies, dumplings, bread and cakes and little snacks from sweet potatoes.

Staple, but not really

Some ‘rustic’ restaurants, like Culiang Renjia ‘Home of Coarse Staples’, currently very popular in Beijing, serve a basket with a variation of rough staples as a rustic alternative for steamed rice or noodles. The basket includes purple yams, sweet and glutinous corn, Chinese yam, burdock and edamame, green soybeans, and . . . sweet potatoes. I don’t think that Chinese peasants ever used to have such baskets on their dinner tables, but it does give you more fibre and is more filling that steamed rice.

Sweet potatoes were also eaten as a snack. A typical street food in the cold North China winters is a sweet potato baked on a metal barrel. Nothing chases the winter chills away better than a piping hot sweet potato in your hands, skin slightly burned and dotted with droplets of caramelized juices.

Slices of sweet potato are dried in the open air, so they can be eaten as a between meal snack in the office, or during a long train ride. Sweet potato slices are no also available as packed food in the supermarket.

Other processed sweet potato products include hard grey glass noodles (for more on those see the posts on millet and lotus) that cook down to a translucent white that is much loved in winter hotpots. Sweet potato starch is a necessary ingredient in many desserts, as well as the secret to the signature oyster omelette famous in Fuzhou and the region of Chaoshan in Guangdong.

In recent years, an unexpected health fad – sweet potato leaves – has risen, thanks to the mighty webchat groups of consumers who consider themselves nutrition experts. In fact, in earlier years, poor peasants used sweet potato leaves as a cheap vegetable, but that may not be known by those amateur nutritionists. After harvesting, the leaves must be thoroughly washed to get rid of grit, since they grow low on the ground. Then the fibres must be stripped off the long stems, starting from the base of the leaf. It is a fussy, tedious task, but necessary. Otherwise, the leaves will be too stringy to eat.

In 2018, Korean confectionery and convenience foods producer Orion has launched a new type of sweet potato chips in China with a purple colour as distinctive feature.

Sweet potato profit

There are already companies specialising in processing sweet potatoes. A noted one of Tianyu Tuber in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Tianyu was founded in 1993 and has grown into a company with 760 employees and four subsidiaries. The company also operates the Tianyu Sweet Potato Research Institute and the Henan Sweet Potato Starch Research Institute and helps cultivate a sweet potato test field for the China Agricultural University. This clearly indicates that Tianyu is well embedded at local, regional and national levels.

Tianyu has a storage capacity for 50,000 mt of sweet potatoes p.a. and production capacity for 80,000 mt of sweet potato starch, 50,000 mt of various products (noodles, glass noodles), 10,000 mt of sweet potato drinks, and 2000 mt of sweet potato snacks. The company exports its products to 20 countries, including: South Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.