Goji berries – China’s red gold

Chinese superfruit

Following my post on shaji, I am writing one on another superfruit: goji berries. Goji berries are native to Asia, though some species of the plant can be found growing in North America. Goji berries belong to the nightshade family, which means that they are related to potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. They have a long history of use in China. According to an early legend regarding the goji berry and its value, a doctor more than 2000 years ago visited a village that consisted mostly of centenarians. After observing them for a time, the doctor noticed that the residents who lived the longest also had homes closest to the wells were goji berry trees grew. As the fruits ripened, they would fall off into the water and their nutrients would be infused into it. Villagers who lived near the wells would drink the water and benefit from its nutrients. There are multiple variations of this legend. Documentation of the benefits of goji berries begins with a book written the mythical doctor Shen Nong in the year 250 BC, the oldest book on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Another important Chinese book written by Li Shizhen in the 16th century also includes important information on the subject of the goji berry.

High-tech picking

Goji berries have become such an important crop in Ningxia, that Ningxia’s Science and Technology Department has developed a hand-held picking machine. In tests, the small machines can harvest 25 to 30 kilograms of goji per hour, with no more than 5% of the fruit damaged. It is 3 – 5 times more efficient than hand-picking. This link will lead you to a video demonstrating the machine.


Goji berries are known primarily for their nutritional value and health benefits. Some of the factors that make them famous for boosting health are:

  • Amino acids: goji berries provide 8 essential amino acids that your body cannot synthesize.
  • Zeaxanthin: goji contain a high concentration of an antioxidant called zeaxanthin, good for preventing certain eye diseases. According to various studies, a diet that contains goji berries can increase a person’s zeaxanthin levels by as much as 26%.
  • Vitamins: goji berries can provide you almost twice the vitamin A that you need in a day. It also has about a third of the daily recommended vitamin C.
  • Minerals: goji berries are rich in some important minerals including iron and potassium.

Geographic spread

Goji berries grow in a large area northwest China, but Ningxia is by far the largest producer. The following table shows the regional breakdown on the output of 2017 (dried berries).

Region output (mt)
Ningxia 108,500
Gansu 105,800
Qinghai 95,000
Xinjiang 66,600
Others 34,700

Steady growth

As goji berries have been such a valuable earner of hard currency, the Chinese goji production has grown steadily during the past years, as is shown in the following table.

Year output (mt)
2018 451,000
2017 410,600
2016 360,900
2015 293,200
2014 229,600


Although the demand on the world market is huge, the domestic demand is also substantial. After all, goji berries are a TCM, so have been used for ages. In fact, Western consumers got to know goji from China, like ginseng. The following table shows the export volumes of the same years as the production figures above.

Year export (mt)
2018 12,000
2017 12,600
2016 12,700
2015 9,800
2014 12,300

Goji as (health) food ingredient

Goji berries are no longer exclusively used in Chinese medicine. They have become an ingredient in a growing range of health foods and beverage. I will list a few in this section to give an impression of how goji is used by Chinese food technologists.

Also watch this video with examples of dishes with goji as an ingredient.

Herbal tea

This herbal tea by Laojin Mofang consists of dried longan slices, dates and goji berries. It is a refreshing beverage that lasts a long time, as you can add boiling water a number of times.

Halal goji drink

Qiye Qing turns goji berries into a cloudy orange-colored bottled beverage. The ad uses the alternative name for goji: wolfberries. The drink is certified halal. The manager, Mr. He Jun, believes this move is a great opportunity to cash in on the Middle Eastern and Central Asian markets. The picture shows an ad of this beverage. See my post on Halal food for more details.

The following photo shows a plant processing goji beverages.

In the course of 2020, China’s oldest still operative pharmacy, Tongrentang in Beijing, opened two cafes that serves coffee enriched with various medicinal herbs, including goji.

Goji as snack

With the increased interested in healthier food, dried goji berries have become an interesting snack. Check out this small helping of goji by Qilixiang.

I may add more products in the future.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.


China’s halal food

With a considerable native Muslim population, in particular in the West China region, Halal food has always been part of Chinese cuisine. Halal restaurants can be found in cities all over China. Look at this entertaining video on hand pulled noodles.

Virtually all Chinese university campuses include a separate Halal dining rooms for domestic and international Muslim students.

Other dishes from China’s Western region that are now available nationwide include; cooked mutton (shouzhua yangrou), mutton buns (yangrou paomo) and shaslik (yangrouchuan).

Many Chinese manufacturers of food ingredients are actively advertising their products as Halal certified, as is shown by this photo taken during the influential Food Ingredients China trade fair.


Halal food manufacturers in Northwest China want to become household names around the world. Eager for the economic rewards that breaking into the global market of 1.6 billion Muslims will bring, these firms want to be trusted by Muslim consumers around the world, especially in the holy city of Mecca. According to Wang Guoliang, Deputy Secretary General of China Islamic Association, the global halal sector is expected to reach US$ 6.4 trillion in 2018.

China should have the ability to become a major halal player. While the country is a net food importer, it’s competitive in niche food markets. In the late 2000s, China was the fastest-growing exporter of kosher products in the world. With more than 500 kosher-certified factories around China, fully half of China’s food exports to the United States, the world’s largest kosher market, are kosher. It is a remarkable accomplishment given that China has no indigenous Jewish communities. But China has a flourishing domestic halal industry of its own, valued at USD 20 billion, to serve its own Muslims, of whom there are about 23 mln.

National Standard

Chinese Muslims have become more vocative about lack of respect for Halal regulations. In Xi’an (Shaanxi), Muslim residents took to the streets in 2015 to protest the sale of alcohol in Halal restaurants. In Xining (Qinghai) a riot erupted in the same year after residents discovered pork products inside a halal bakery’s delivery van. During the Party Congress of March 2016, delegates from Muslim regions called for a National Standard (Guobiao) for Halal food.


Zhang Hongyi is an ambitious man. As the general manager of the Jingyitai Halal Food Company, located in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Zhang has plans to build a halal food factory in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). If his plans are a success, Jingyitai would become the first Chinese halal food manufacturer to make a direct investment in an Arab country. According to Zhang Hongyi, “Mecca is the center of the Muslim world, if we can tap into the market in Mecca, we would become trusted by Muslims all across the world, making it easier to enter other Muslim markets.”

Jinyitai Logo

China has a Muslim population of 23 mln, a tiny fraction of the 1.6 billion Muslims living around the world. With the support of the local authorities, halal food manufacturers in Ningxia have started to eye the world’s growing market for halal food and are eager to expand their businesses overseas to reach this potentially huge market.

Another Ningxia-based company, Bofeng Beef Group, has established a subsidiary, Bogong Halal Food Co. Ltd., with a capacity to process 100,000 cows p.a. into halal beef products, in 2015.

An example of a non-Muslim Han Entrepreneur moving into Halal beverages is Sun He, the manager of Qiye Qing (Wuzhong, Ningxia), a company that turns Ningxia’s iconic gouji berries, known in traditional Chinese medicine for their health benefits, into a cloudy orange-colored bottled beverage. The drink is certified halal under Chinese certification, meaning it contains zero percent alcohol — a surprisingly difficult technological achievement for factory-processed juices, which usually contain alcohol in trace amounts. The manager, Mr. He Jun, believes this move is a great opportunity to cash in on the Middle Eastern and Central Asian markets. The picture shows an ad of this beverage. The ingredients as listed on the label are:

Purified water, fresh goji juice, sugar, citric acid, goji honey.


However, how to gain acceptance from Muslim nations for halal food made in China is a major problem. Observers have said that China’s halal food manufacturers, who are mostly small- or medium-sized enterprises, face many difficulties in overcoming ideological and economic barriers to this kind of international trade.


Gansu province is also the home of a considerable Muslim population. A Chinese-Malaysian halal food laboratory has been officially set up in that region in 2015. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has launched a halal food programme with Malaysia, under which Gansu Province will lead its implementation, giving full play to the province’s strength in Muslim culture, science and technology, location, trade, industry and other aspects. Gansu will work closely with the Malaysian side in halal food processing and biological material research and certification in order to build an international-level halal food testing laboratory. With the laboratory construction seen as the turning point, Gansu will lead the establishment of China’s halal food industry technology innovation alliance, to build a platform for technical co-operation between China and Muslim countries.

It is peculiar to note that these innovative programs in the field of Halal food in China are concentrated in Ningxia and Gansu and not so much in Xinjiang, which has China’s largest Muslim community.

Late 2018, the Gansu authorities announced that the Gansu Provincial Administration for Market Regulation stated on its official website it will abolish four local regulations on halal foods and related producers. The four regulations include guidelines of general principles of halal food certification, halal dinning enterprises, halal dairy producers and halal wheat food producers. “The guidelines were published in March 2013 according to the uniform standards set by the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Yunnan and Ningxia Hui autonomous region,” said Wang Xueren, director of the Policy and Regulations Department of the Gansu Ethnic Affairs Commission. “Last year, Ningxia abolished the regulations.” The guidelines were published in 2013, which aimed to set nationwide uniform standards for halal foods, according to Xinhua’s report in 2013. However, it doesn’t seem to work well. “After five years’ enforcement, we didn’t find its great significance to the market,” Wang said. “Furthermore, the current market has changed greatly over the past years, which created disparities from the policies.” For instance, halal foods mainly refer to meat-sourced edibles, but the halal foods regulated in the guidelines published in 2013 also include soy sauce and vinegar, he said.

This measure follows the trend within the central government that Halal certification is a matter of (local) religious organisations and not a function of the secular administration.

Influence in the capital

Beijing is known for its wide range of local snacks. Many have been introduced by migrants from other regions settling down in the capital. One group became a major if unexpected influence on what Beijingers ate: the Muslim community, mainly Uygurs from Xinjiang who had traveled to the capital along the Silk Road with other merchants of West Asian origin. Muslims have a long history in Beijing. Uygur chefs brought their food with them because they couldn’t eat at non-Muslim restaurants. Soon, they established their own eateries – the famous mutton hotpot restaurants like Donglaishun. Their snack shops offered a variety of fried and baked pastries. Many adopted local ingredients and flavors, and again, over time, they became part of the city’s epicurean traditions.

No national household names

Beijing hopes to create national champions out of the hundreds of Chinese halal food companies already in operation. The industry is highly decentralized, with local companies, mostly without nationally recognized brands, serving pockets of Muslims thinly dispersed across the vast country. China lacks national halal standards – most certification occurs on the local or provincial level – and obtaining internationally recognised halal certification has posed a challenge. Malaysian halal certification is the gold standard, but globally, halal certification is still a new phenomenon. Many Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have poorly developed industrial sectors, and many halal consumers continue to rely on locally made products that they recognise and trust.

For Chinese halal food manufacturers looking to expand their businesses, going abroad has become a necessity. According to Li Ziran, the director of the Institute of the Halal Industry at Ningxia University, most halal food companies in China supply only the local market. Their scale is limited.

According to statistics issued by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, 97.3% of the 2,400 cities and counties in China surveyed have halal food industries, but the structure of the industry is atomized, lacking nationwide household names and leading companies.

The halal food market in Ningxia is typical of this trend. Statistics issued by Ningxia’s Bureau of Commerce show that there are 192 halal food manufacturers in Yinchuan, most of which have fewer than 100 employees. The majority of halal food manufacturers in Ningxia need to modernize their production facilities to be able to compete with Muslim food companies in other parts of the world, but cannot afford to do so.

Zhang Hongyi realised that this was necessary and in 2009 he transformed his company from a traditional pastry maker into a comprehensive halal food company that provides staple foods as well as frozen products. The introduction of new technologies was key to this transformation, and since 2010 Zhang has cooperated with the China Agricultural University (Beijing) on research into methods to prolong the shelf life of frozen noodles, dumplings and rice while maintaining their flavour.

Distrust and doubt

Analysts have said that the cultural differences between Chinese Muslims and Muslims from other countries, caused by many years of isolation, including ritual and customary differences, might make it harder for Chinese halal food manufacturers to be seen as “authentic.”

Ideological differences between the Chinese government and the Muslim world is another hurdle that Chinese companies that wish to sell food in Muslim countries have to get over. According to Zhang Hongyi: “The truth is that China is a non-Muslim country and its ruling party promotes atheism. Despite our assurances that we are a Muslim company and that we closely follow the doctrines of the Koran during our manufacturing process, [foreigners] distrust us and doubt our piety.”

However, the difficulty of adapting your product to a different kind of customer is still one of the largest problems for companies which expand abroad, halal or not. One halal food manufacturer that attempted to go abroad, Hongshanhe, produces chillies and hotpot ingredients in Wuzhong, and started to sell their products in Malaysia last year. But his attempts have not been met with much success.


“How to localize the food to cater to the tastes and consumption habits of the local customers was our main task,” Ma Zhanjiang, owner of the Hongshanhe, told the Global Times.

Wuzhong has 726,000 Muslims, 53% of the city’s total population. The city is planning to build China’s biggest domestic and international industrial zone for buying, processing and selling halal products.

The road to Mecca

Mecca has become the market of choice for Chinese halal food manufacturers looking to expand abroad.

Wang Guoqiang, author of the book The Halal Industry and Certification, agreed with Zhang and said that an effective way for Chinese halal food companies to open up the worldwide Muslim food market to their goods would be to gain recognition and be purchased by the Saudi Arabian government.

Every year, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj buys food and gives to pilgrims coming to the country. If a Chinese brand could become part of this, then they could gain the trust of Muslims around the world.

Last year, over 4 mln Muslim people gathered in Saudi Arabia to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holidays. Of the pilgrims, most of the were from Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt, as well as around 12,000 Chinese Muslims.

Each year, billions of dollars are spent in Mecca during the Eid al-Fitr holidays, according to statistics issued by the Saudi Arabian Chamber of Commerce.

Saudi Arabia, a wealthy nation with little agricultural resources, needs foreign companies to supply food for the people that come to its cities on pilgrimage.

But, it remains very difficult for Chinese firms to enter this market. Despite China being known as the world’s factory, its halal food exports only make up 0.1% of the world’s halal food market, according to statistics issued by the China Council For the Promotion of International Trade.

The lack of a nationwide halal food certification system, similar to what other Muslim countries have, has become a major hurdle for Chinese halal food companies looking to go global.

Most Muslim countries have had a sound certification system for halal food since the 1970s, and most Muslim countries recognize each other’s certification standards, while China has yet to lay out a nationwide halal food certification system.

Ningxia established China’s first halal food certification centre – the Ningxia Halal Food International Trade Certification Centre in 2009. As of this month, the centre has offered certification to over 100 companies and established a mutual recognition of halal food standards with seven countries, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Help to jump hurdles

“Some countries have used the certification system as a trade barrier to prevented Chinese companies entering their markets,” Ma Bing, director of the Ningxia certification centre, told the Global Times. The authorities in Australia have allowed local social organizations and certification companies to control the criteria for halal certification, which has made it more difficult for Chinese companies to know who to go to for certification, Ma said.

Sometimes, despite inter-governmental recognition of halal standards, civil groups still reject Chinese halal foods.


To help overcome these barriers, the authorities in Yinchuan have introduced measures to help its halal food manufacturers go global. In addition to setting up the Desheng Industrial Zone, which aims to be the centre of Islamic industries in Ningxia, it has launched preferential policies such as tax breaks for halal food manufacturers looking to expand abroad.

Zhang Hongyi’s plan is in line with President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt and One Road” development strategy that aims to encourage Chinese companies to expand abroad, especially into central and western parts of Eurasia.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

What on earth are . . . mahua?

Mid 2014, the China Daily carried an interesting article about a producer of a very traditional Chinese food, mahua (fried dough twists, whose name literally means ‘hemp flour’), that intends to finance its big plans through the modern means of offering its stock to the public.

This is an excellent occasion for a new item of my ‘What on earth are . . . ‘ blogs.

Guifaxiang, based in the northern port city of Tianjin, plans to make its debut on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

Founded in 1927, Guifaxiang would become the first publicly listed maker of such products in China if its plan wins approval.

The company realised more than 96% of its sales (RMB 462 mln in 2013) from the Tianjin market. 77% of this revenue was derived from mahua. It plans to raise RMB 570 mln through its initial public offering.

With the money raised, Guifaxiang plans to invest RMB 287 mln in expanding its production capacity. It produced 7748 mt of mahua last year, according to the prospectus.

The pictures in this blog show plain mahua and those produced by Guifaxiang

Mahua  Guifaxiang

The company also plans to speed up its expansion in China by opening 19 stores within three years of listing, with 10 stores in Tianjin, and nine others in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shijiazhuang, Shenyang and Xi’an.

Here is a basic traditional recipe for mahua


Regular flour 200 gr
Eggs 1
Baking powder 1.5 gr
Salt 2 gr
Water 50 gr
  • Put all ingredients in a bowl and mix until you have a smooth dough. Leave the bowl for 30 minutes with a lid loosely placed on top.
  • Roll out the dough and cut out strips. Twist the strips into the typical mahua shape.
  • When the oil has reached the proper temperature, first through in one. After its has changed colour, through in the other mahua.

Modern industrial recipes also use: yeast, emulsifiers, sweeteners, butter, butter and cream flavours and sugar.

So what are the financial prospects for this stock? According to the prospectus, the company sold the mahua at RMB 47 per kg on average, making a profit of RMB 27.66 per kg. That seems quite reasonable. However, Guifaxiang does not seem to expect a lot of foreign interest, as its website is exclusively in Chinese.

Good prospects(?)

However, Chinese analysts seem to have high hopes for mahua, usually ranked among the ‘leisure foods‘ in Chinese statistics. I recently picked up two reports dedicated to this traditional snack; one concentrating on volumes, the other introducing the ways local companies develop their own special types of mahua.

The following graph shows the development of the mahua market in the past few years. The unit is RMB 100 mln. The researchers estimate that the value of this market will rise to RMB 6 billion in 2016.


Regional varieties

Local variation manifests itself in flavour and texture. The main region, the Beijing – Tianjin area, produces relatively hard and crispy mahua. They are sometimes filled with sesame seeds or other additional flavourings. When you move on the west, to Shanxi, the mahua become softer, and are usually kept plain. There are also halal mahua in Ningxia.

Another region famous for its mahua is Shanzhou County of Sanmenxia (Henan). The sales of mahua have considerably increased the income for the farmers in Shanzhou. Mahua have been produced there in Daying village for generations and the snack can be dated back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The product has generated an output of RMB 28 million in 2015.

This map of China indicates the regions where mahua are popular, with small pictures of typical local variations in preparing and consuming mahua.


Mahua snacks

A number of companies have launched fingerfood-size mahua as snacks. The following picture shows those of Kaqile.


Wheat flour, glutinous rice meal, rice meal, vegetable oil, sugar, maltose, white sesame, black sesame, salt, additive (callcium carbonate)

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.