What Chinese food lovers love most

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Instant noodles; I guess these are all instant noodles, minus the turkey noodles.
  5. Self-heating pots; these are ready to eat foods that can heat up by themselves through a chemical reaction started by squeezing the bottom.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Hot and sour glass noodles; glass noodles are made from starch rather than flour; they are flavoured with pickled vegetables and chili.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Strawberries; like the cherries above, a berry regarded as a rare delicacy.
  12. 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.
  13. Potato crisps; no comments needed.
  14. Nuts; same; this category has been made famous by the products and marketing campaigns of Three Squirrels, introduced in several posts of this blog.
  15. 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.
  16. Ice cream; no comments needed.
  17. Chocolate; ditto.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.

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 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

Traditional Chinese snack food

Earlier in this blog I posted an item about leisure food, a typical food group in Chinese food industry statistics. This is a very broad range of foods that Chinese eat while on holiday, sitting in their favourite chair in front of the TV, in the stadium watching their team play, and virtually all other occasions that they are not eating a proper meal.

The Chinese do have their own traditional snacks, which is a subset of the leisure foods. In the light of the over general nationalist trend in China after President Xi and his new crew rose to power, Chinese are also getting more aware of ‘their own’ traditional snacks.

However, the same applies to those snack foods as I reported earlier about a food like instant noodles, or steamed bread (mantou): they need to be packed in pocket-sized easy to carry and ready to eat portions, while preserving the original texture, taste and flavour.

That is a major challenge for the Chinese food R&D community, but it is worth the effort. The production of traditional Chinese snack food has increased from approximately 1.93 million mt in 2004 to almost 3.88 million mt in 2014. The market value rose from RMB 54.008 billion to RMB 387.532 billion.

In the remainder of this post, I will list the categories of traditional Chinese snack food as usual distinguished in Chinese statistics.

Nuts, seeds and other roasted goods

Nuts do not need further explanation. Roasted goods (chaohuo) are melon seeds, pine seeds, peanuts, and other plant seeds that are roasted to increase flavour and digestibility. The value of this market segment is expected to reach RMB 105.3 billion in 2020.

NutsSeeds

China has produced a total of 4,506,500 mt of seeds in 2018; broken down in the following table.

Type volume
Sunflower seeds 3,250,000
White melon seeds 711,500
Sweet melon seeds 545,000

An interesting company to watch in this business is Three Squirrels (Sanzhisongshu). Three Squirrels is the pin-up kid in China’s snacking segment. Launching in 2012, it took just 65 days to become the top nut seller on Tmall and today it’s China’s best-selling food brand online. The company’s turnover has grown from RMB 924.473 mln in 2014, RMB and 2.043 bln in 2015 to RMB 4.42 bln in 2016. Most of this success is due to its online sales and its vast network of region distribution centres. It has achieved this all while charging a premium above most of its competitors.

Three Squirrels plays to Chinese consumers’ love of cute furry animals by cleverly incorporating its cartoon mascots into everything it does, from branding to customer service. Images and videos of the squirrels attract engagement rates far beyond most of its competitors online. It has created an army of advocates who earn social credit filling their WeChat feeds with images of their mascots, selfies with their products and even positive experiences with customer care. Three Squirrels also transforms consumption into an experience providing nutcrackers and a suite of other add-ons.

       

The latest stunt by Three Squirrels is linking up with Monlot, a Bordeau-based vinyard acquired by the Chinese movie star Vicky Zhao. Check out this picture of Monlot Three Squirrels. It is an interesting ruse to embed a Chinese-owned foreign vinyard in the local food industry.

Some nuts are assigned medicinal qualities in traditional Chinese medicine. An example is the wild almond (Semen Armeniacae Vulgaris; ‘shanxingren (mountain almond)’ in Chinese). They are said to have antipyretic functions and help bowel movements. A noted producer of wild almonds is Fangxu Food (Beijing).

A recent trend in the Chinese nut market is small packagings. more “one day pack” nuts have appeared in the market since 2016, and accounted for 25% of the market size in 2018. First tier and second tier cities made up nearly 45% of the entire “one day pack” nuts consumer market of 2018. and consumers born between 1990 and 1995 formed the bulk of the consumers.

Preserved fruits

I already dedicated a post one of them: huamei. Preserved fruits fall under foods that have been invented in times that there was no cooled storage or other way to preserve fruits. They have become part of the local diet particularly in North China, with its cold winters. The northern preserved fruits are drier; those in south stickier. The value of this market segment rose from RMB 17.014 billion in 2004 to RMB 105.066 billion in 2014.

PresFruits

Dried and preserved meat

The top product in this group is beef jerky, although shredded pork (rousong) could be almost as big. The latest invention in this range is a series of duck products (tongues, feed, necks, gizzards, hearts) that I introduced in my post on Peking Duck. The value of this market segment rose from RMB 7.763 billion in 2004 to RMB 45.289 billion in 2014.

DriedMeat

Bean products

Chinese love to chew on all kinds of dried and roasted beans, so it has become a separate category of snack foods. The most famous are the fennel flavoured beans (huixiangdou) that have been eternalised by Lu Xun’s short story Kong Yiji. They are small green soy beans toasted with cinnamon, fennel and other spices. On the basis of huixiangdou, a Shanghai shopkeeper invented a new variety called wuxiangdou ‘five spice beans’. They are broad beans with a firmer texture, a white skin, and white pulp. They are roasted with five ingredients: fennel, citrus, cinnamon, sugar and essence, to reach a unique mix of flavours. The value of this market segment rose from RMB 5.890 billion in 2004 to RMB 46.204 billion in 2014.

ProcBeans

Other

The bulk of the remaining traditional snacks are dried or wet pickled or preserved vegetables. The typical way to preserve vegetables is by fermentation. An example, zhacai, has been introduced in an earlier post.

DriedVegFrt

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 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

 

Babao Porridge – food that enlightens

Babao Porridge (Babaozhou, Babaofan), a sweet rice porridge stuffed with dates, lotus seeds and other fruits, is an extremely interesting example of a traditional product revived by industrial production. The concept of babao is used in more traditional foods, e.g. zongzi, filled steamed rice cubes wrapped in leaves, which are introduced in a separate post of this blog.

Image             Image

Present day Babao Porridge is derived from a southern type of porridge called Laba Porridge. La refers to the La month, the last month of the lunar calendar and ba (‘eight’) to the eighth day of that month. On the 8th day of the lunar 12th month people used to prepare a porridge using eight or more ingredients to celebrate the end of the year. Another story explains the custom as a Buddhist tradition.

Laba porridge was first cooked as a sacrifice for ancestors and gods during Laba Festival as a part of winter worship. In an agricultural society, the 12th month or layue (腊月) was a time when families consumed some of their stores from the harvest season. Cooking a porridge with rich and varied ingredients is a way to celebrate a prosperous harvest for the year, in hopes of a better one to follow.

Just like Christmas overtaking the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when Buddhism arrived in China, it stamped its own influence on this local tradition. For Buddhists, Laba Festival is also Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.

The legend says that Shakyamuni, after 6 years of seeking enlightenment by living frugally, once sat down under a tree, dead tired. A woman herding cows saw him and prepared a simple porridge for him using course cereals and wild fruits. Shakyamuni was so revived from eating a bowl of that porridge, that he immediately gained enlightenment. From that day on, Buddhist Temples prepared a similar type of porridge on the 8th of each 12th month.

With the increasing pace of life, modern Chinese are less and less willing to spend several hours a day in the kitchen. This includes less frequently prepared foods like Babao Porridge.

The basic production process is easy enough. The raw materials are mixed and cooked, cooled and then packed in cans, similar to those used to pack soft drinks. In this way, the porridge can be easily consumed as a convenient food, while travelling, as a snack during office work, etc. A plastic spoon is usually attached to the can, so the traveller does need to pack a metal spoon from the kitchen either.

Buddhist monestaries have to abide by the law as well, so more and more temples are producing laba porridge in a semi-industrialised clean way, to ensure that the faithful do not have to pay dearly for enjoying a bowl of laba porridge with food poisening. On the way, it earns the monestary a lot more income as well.

Formulation

The most essential aspect of the production of Babao Porridge is the combination of emulsifiers and thickeners. Babao Porridge consists of a viscous liquid part and solid parts. Manufacturers need to formulate the product in such a way, that the solid parts are more or less evenly distributed over the liquid part upon opening of the can.

A number of Chinese manufacturers of emulsifiers and thickeners supply products specially formulated for Babao Porridge. Some sources propagate CMC as the most appropriate thickener for this application.

A combination of CMC and a low calorie high intensity sweetener to replace the sugar will not only provide an authentic mouthfeel, but also decrease the caloric value.

Industrial recipes for so called ‘low calorie Babao Porridge,’ proposed by manufacturers of ingredients use sticky rice as the macro-ingredient, where part of the rice can be replaced with pumpkin. Various combinations of fruits (dates are most popular) and nuts (including peanuts) are added. Frequently suggested micro-ingredients and additives: pumpkin powder, xylitol, oligoxylose, CMC, konjac powder, and EDTA.

As a result of all the recent food safety problems, Chinese consumers have become more aware of ingredients and started asking if one food really needs so different ingredients. A recent article (24/9/2014) criticises the use of xanthan in one brand of Babao Porridge. Xanthan is known in the porridge industry under the nickname zhoubao, literally: ‘porridge treasure’. The reporter believes it is a means to hide the lack of skills of the manufacturer to produce a proper porridge.

Top brands

The following brands are recognised as China’s top brands for Babao porridge

Yinlu   PorrYinlu

The Yinlu Food Group was established in Xiamen (Fujian) in 1985 as producer of canned food and beverages. It is still one of China’s top producers of protein drinks. It now operates production units in Shandong, Hubei, Anhui and Sichuan. Nestlé has acquired a controlling stake in Yinlu, nut has announced that it intends to sell that stake again early 2020.

Wahaha   PorrWahaha

The Wahaha Group was established in Hangzhou (Zhejiang) in 1987 as a private company operated by a school, producing tonic for school children. The founder and CEO, Mr. Zong Qinghou, is currently one of China’s richest entrepreneurs. Wahaha has 150 subsidiaries in all regions of China, employing 30,000 people. It ranks among China’s top 500 companies in 2014 It is a relatively new player in this market, but has rapidly risen to this position. The range includes a babao porridge sweetened with xylitol. Wahaha has started a new campaign for its canned porridge range in January 2015, stressing that the company is being loyal to the Chinese tradition of porridge making. The following picture says that Wahaha’s Babao Porridge ‘tastes just like mother used to cook it’

WahahPorr

Wahaha has launched another type of nutritious Babao Porridge mid 2018, under the Qingzhi brand.

Ingredients:

Koji, plant sterols, sugar, glutenous rice, barley kernels, red beans, maltitol, black rice, peanuts, red kidney beans, hulless barley, tremella, lecithin, sucrose ester, fatty acids, sodium tri-polyphosphate, acesulfame-k, EDTA-2Na, sucralose, water

Qinqi   PorrQinqi

Based in Guangzhou (Guangdong), Qinqi was the first in China to launch Babao porridge in cans, which created the market for ready to drink Babao porridge. Although no longer the number one brand, Qinqi still bears the honorary name ‘porridge king’.

Qinqin   PorrQinqin

This brand is owned by the Xinxin Food Group, established in Yangzhou (Jiangsu) in 1991, by a local factory and a Taiwan investor. It produces a range of convenience foods, including Babao porridge.

Tongfu   PorrTongfu

The name of the producer, Tongfu Bowl Porridge Co., Ltd., betrays that it is dedicated to producing exactly that: porridge in (plastic) bowls. Tongfu was the first to introduce this type of packaging in China. It is considerably lighter than the canned version. It is located in Wuhu (Anhui)

Corona was good for Babao porridge

Babao porridge sales went through the ceiling during the first quarter of 2020, when the entire Chinese nation went into quarantine at home. It turned out to be the ideal corona food, besides instant noodles and other packed fast foods.

Eurasia Consult’s database 30 producers of Babao Porridge.

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 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.