There are different Chinese expressions for people who love food in Chinese (as there are in English). A classic, more highbrow, term is meishijia, literally: ‘a person knowledgeable of good food’. This term is close to the English concept of gourmet. People like this do cook, but prefer to indulge in the better restaurants. The not only have good taste, but also do not lack of cash to fund their likings. In recent years, the term chihuo has become popular. It literally means ‘eat merchandise’. As I prefer an English translation over keeping a Chinese word untranslated, I will use the equally popular English term ‘foodie’ as the, more or less, equivalent for chihuo.
Like Western foodies, their Chinese counterparts do not just like to eat because they crave food, but because they have an interest in new flavours and textures, foods that are linked to things that are fashionable in other sectors of life, like art. They are focused on convenience and leisure foods, but although do not necessarily reject junk food, they are especially interested in novel foods that are ready to eat or at least easy to prepare, but are also healthier than the traditional street food. Attractive packaging is also valued.
Chinese foodies can be unexpectedly traditional in their taste. In many posts of this blog, I have mentioned the special status attached to imported food, which often has a special section in the larger Chinese supermarkets. The novel foods that Chinese food bloggers introduce are often improved, i.e. better packed, more nutritious, versions of traditional Chinese foods. In fact, you can get a good impression of what Chinese foodies like by surfing to the Trends page of my blog. All items introduced there have been taken from the accounts of Chinese food bloggers.
That page is serviced irregularly. I post a product that strikes me as interesting. Recently (12/3/2020), Tmall, one of China’s leading online shops, has published a Top 20 Products like most by chihuo. I will share that list with you here, with a short explanation of each item. It will give you a valuable insight in what Chinese foods buy online now. The only point for attention in interpreting this list is the possible influence of the corona virus epidemic on this list. I will take it for granted here. Whenever Tmall publishes an update, we will be able to compare the new list with the one introduced here.
- River-snail noodles; a dish from Guangxi made from pickled bamboo shoots, dried turnip, fresh vegetables and peanuts and served in a spicy noodle broth flavoured with river snails.
- Turkey noodles; these are actually ordinary instant noodles originating from South Korea, so quite spicy. The Chinese media have shown contests in turkey noodle eating in 2019, which is probably the reason for the popularity of this product. Chinese love games and contests.
- Cherries; mind that the Chinese term here is chelizi (a transliteration of the English word) and not yingtao, the regular Chinese word. I have not (yet) detected a difference between berries offered in China under the name chelizi and those marketed as yingtao, but the former are praised a rare treasures. Well, as long as it sells.
- Instant noodles; I guess these are all instant noodles, minus the turkey noodles.
- Self-heating pots; these are ready to eat foods that can heat up by themselves through a chemical reaction started by squeezing the bottom.
- Spicy strips; this is real junk food. They are strip made from a starchy product mixed with chili. Reports have been published exposing the bad average quality of the hot strips, but they remain popular snacks.
- Self-heating hot pot; this is a special type of self-heating pot, emulating the popular hot pots eating in restaurants all over China. These usually are soups with chunks of meat, fish and vegetables.
- Hot and sour glass noodles; glass noodles are made from starch rather than flour; they are flavoured with pickled vegetables and chili.
- Boneless chicken claws; chicken claws are a regular item in the Cantonese dim sum; boneless prepared chicken claws are easier to eat as a snack.
- Hot pot stock; I already mentioned above that hot pot is immensely popular; hot pot restaurants and now also many seasoning companies, are producing chunks of fat with all the seasoning in it; just throw it in your pot at home, heat it, and have a feast.
- Strawberries; like the cherries above, a berry regarded as a rare delicacy.
- Milk tea; this fashion has started in Taiwan, entered China in the South, but has now also reach the North; milk tea comes in an endless array of flavours, and is often spiced up with bits of dried fruit, chunks of jelly, etc.
- Potato crisps; no comments needed.
- Nuts; same; this category has been made famous by the products and marketing campaigns of Three Squirrels, introduced in several posts of this blog.
- Custard tart; this is an example of a reasonably traditional product that has suddenly become fashionable; the custard tart (danda) is a Portuguese influence on the Cantonese dim sum. In case you didn’t know: Macau used to be a Portuguese colony. This is the second dim sum in this list that has gained national popularity.
- Ice cream; no comments needed.
- Chocolate; ditto.
- Hand-pulled pancake; this is plain version of the onion pancake popular in Taiwan. It consists of several thin layers that are easily pulled off when you pick them up, hence the name. A reason for their popularity could be that it is easy to combine them with any dish. You can wrap a few spoons of the dish in a pancake and eat it with your hands, as a Chinese type of wrap.
- Haidilao; this is the only brand name in the list, and not one of a food, but of a hot pot restaurant. By now, even inattentive readers will have noted that hot pot is a popular type of food and Haildilao has grown into the leading chain in this business. What puzzles me is how you can get Haidilao from Tmall. Perhaps Tmall can also be used to book a table.
- Thin cream; Chinese traditionally do not like dairy products and the main reason is that most of them have a problem with the creamy taste of milk. The very fact that thin cream appears in this list, even though at the end, is a revolution. However, its main use is raw material for whipped cream, in which the creamy flavour is partly masked by the added sugar.
This is what a hand-pulled pancake looks like
Well, this is the Top 20 most popular food products purchased from Tmall mid March, 2020. I will refrain from guesses and inferences about what it could mean for suppliers who want to cash in on this reasonably affluent segment of the Chinese market. Most of them will be able to make that step and Eurasia Consult is always there to help out.
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.