Black may be the colour of evil, even in Chinese culture, but for food it is a sign of superior nutrition
Black food has become a focus in the Chinese health food market in recent years. Black food refers to the natural melanin containing foods, whether derived from animals or plants. The natural melanin content causes a dark, dark purple, or dark brown colour. Some foods have a dark skin, while others are black at the end, inside or outside, such as black goji, black rice, black sesame seeds, black fungus, mushrooms, seaweed, kelp and laver. Manufactured black food, such as plum sauce, bean curd, soy sauce, cured egg etc., are meant to stimulate people’s appetite through their colour, but do not count as real black food.
The scope of what counts as black food is not strictly defined. The Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Biotechnology is one of the earliest domestic research institutes specialising in black food. It defines black food as having a relatively dark natural colour, rich in nutrition, and structurally acceptable to the human physiology as food. This definition excludes artificially black foods such as soy sauce.
Black foods contrast with food groups of other colours:
White food: bread, noodles, etc.; main nutrients: starch, sugar and other carbohydrates;
Red food: pork, beef, lamb, chicken and rabbit; main nutrients: protein, fat;
Green food: green vegetables and fruits; main nutrients: a variety of vitamins and cellulose;
Black food: black rice, black beans, turtle, black fungus, black mushrooms; main nutrients: protein, fat, amino acids, vitamins.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), black foods nourish the kidneys. They are rich in anti-oxidants and can therefore prevent several types of cancer and slow down aging. They strengthen the brain and lower blood pressure. The fact that shining black hair has always been regarded as a sign of physical health in China certainly also plays a role in the positive image of black foods in China.
Five Black Elements
The most conspicuous producers of black foods in China is the Five Black Elements (Heiwulei) Group in Guangxi. The company was founded in 1984 as the Nanfang Children’s Food Factory by Mr. Wei Qingwen. The name Heiwulei was adopted a decade later. The term itself originates from the Cultural Revolution, denoting five types of bad people (‘black categories’) in society: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, rightists. Mr. Wei loved black sesame paste, which was his company’s first product. Now, the company is producing ‘Eight Black Treasures’ (Heibazhen): black rice, black beans, black fungus, black mulberry, black corn, black dates, black sesame and black seaweed (laver).
Black milk powder
Yili Dairy has launched Tooran black milk power in 2021, containing powdered black sesame, black goji and mulberry fruit as well as walnut peptides. It won the ‘best functional dairy’ award on the 2021 World Dairy Innovation Awards.
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 oldest Chinese carbonated beverages dates from 1874
Soft drinks is undoubtedly a Western concept. However, the history of domestic carbonated beverage in China is longer than many people may believe. The most famous soda beverages launched before 1949 are:
Most of the HQ locations were cities with considerable numbers of foreign expats.
The Chinese typology of foods and beverages is one of the recurrent themes in this blog. The typical way in which such products are divided in categories in a certain region provides an interesting look on the influence of the local culture on eating and drinking.
This post will continue with this topic with the typology of beverages. This typology has even been officially laid down in a State Standard (GB), GB10789 to be precise. It discerns the following types.
These are relatively new in China and still strongly connected to the Western lifestyle. China’s oldest carbonated drink: Beibingyang (Northern Ice Sea) has been revived recently, which I have introduced in a separate post on the reappearance of old brands.
Although not a Chinese invention, this category is much more popular in China than elsewhere in the world. They have also been introduced separately in a previous post. Protein beverages are relatively viscous liquids made from various nuts or beans, or milk, or a combination. A number of them include probiotic cultures.
Paying a lot of money for something that you can get from your tap for a much lower price has also taken on in China. China’s bottled water market is expected to reach 490 mln hls of total annual consumption by 2020. The retail value of bottled water in China for 2019 is estimated at RMB 346.2 billion. Apart from the large number of branded water, new mineral water brands keep appearing in China. Many are profiling themselves with the location of their source. The trend of 2015, e.g., in this category was mineral water from Tibet.
Some statistics of the past 5 years
The following table shows the market shares of major brands in 2017
A new variety was added to the category of bottled water by Nongfu Spring in February 2022: bottled boild water (baikaishui). This type is inspired by traditional Chinese medicine. TCM attributes many healing and nutritional functions to water that has been brought to the boil and then cooled to drinking temperature.
Tea is China’s national drink, but still, tea beverages have been introduced from overseas. When foreign ice teas were launched in China, many beverage makers tried to concoct their own versions. Tea beverages with various fruit flavours appeared one after another.
A rapidly growing subcategory are the milk teas, based on traditional milk or butter teas drunk by Mongolians and Tibetans.
The pictures shows the Sizhou brand milk tea, with the following ingredients:
In the course of 2018, China’s tea aficionados have embraced a new trend, one that is encapsulated in the growing popularity of the milk tea brand, Hey Tea. Originally sold in a tiny alleyway in Jiangmen, southern China’s Guangdong province, the brand went viral on social media because of its signature “cheese” series — a cup of hot tea topped with light cheesecake mix. Since then, Hey Tea has developed into a franchise with more than 80 outlets in 13 cities across the country. In large urban centres such as Shanghai and Beijing, customers routinely wait for hours to get their hands on a cup of cheese tea. Hey Tea’s cheese-inspired beverages are just variations of the same milk-topped teas available at many urban teashops in China. Fresh milk, skimmed milk, and cream cheese are blended and poured on top of iced tea to create a layer of creamy froth about 3cm thick.
Milk tea is becoming such a huge market that ingredients suppliers have started to prioritise it in their R&D. FrieslandCampina Kievit, e.g., is conducting research to develop the optimum dairy ingredients for Chinese milk tea. Aspects considered include: tea type, milkiness, sweetness and mouthfeel.
A new development in the Chinese tea beverage market is mixed tea drinks. Representative brands are: Teaka (tea + coffee), Chef Kong’s tea + milk, Cha pi (tea + fruit juice) and Hongchajun (tea + probiotics).
Multinationals like Coca Cola cannot afford to miss out on the popularity of tea beverages in China. The company has launched a range of tea drinks branded Chunchashe ‘Genuine Tea House’. It is marketed as not containing sugar, but still leaving a sweet aftertaste. It comes in green, black and Wulong flavours.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is making an effort to cash in on the increasing interest in health foods among Chinese consumers, as has been introduced in earlier posts. The market value was estimated at more than RMB 40 billion late 2015 and is expected to grow to close to RMB 20 billion in 2020.. A very prominent application of medicinal herbs as food ingredients are the herbal teas that have become popular during the past few years. The first and most popular, Wanglaoji, is still based on a traditional recipe. Later herbal teas are marketed as modern health or functional beverages, comparing and competing with Western drinks like Red Bull. A very recently launched product in this category is Good Night (Wan An), produced by Wan’an Technology Co., Ltd. (Beijing). Ingredients are said to include:
natural GABA, theanine, chamomile and spina date seed
Wanglaoji launched its own cola drink, Wanglaoji Cola, in January 2018. The company promoted it during the Davos Summit.
The value of the Chinese tea beverage market in 2020 exceeded RMB 100 billion.
Coffee being such a recent arrival in China, so closely linked to a Western lifestyle, it seems odd to find it as an officially sanctioned subcategory of beverages. However, they have become quite popular. Perhaps they are easier on the Chinese palate than the basic black brew. The have been introduced in this blog before, in a separate post.
This category includes drinks made from the juice of vegetables and fruits, in various degrees of concentration. Cereal based drinks are also included. A subtype that is especially popular in China is called ‘fruit tea’ (guocha) in Chinese. The best English translation would be ‘nectar’. The are relatively viscous drinks with carrot or hawthorn pulp as the main ingredient.
In 2016, China’s fruit juice retail volume was 134.47 mln hls and retail sales reached RMB 100.914 billion, up 1.88%. Main brands in the Chinese fruit juice market include Uni-President, Chef Kong, Nongfu Spring, and Huiyuan. China’s top producer in this category is Huiyuan Fruit Juice (Beijing). The company was once an acquisition target of Coca Cola, but the deal was vetoed by the Chinese cartel watchdog. Huiyuan recently launched a range of juices in Malaysia under the Yami brand.
The latest addition to the fruit nectars is Zaoshanzha, a drink made from dates and hawthorn by Haoxiangni.
In terms of taste, orange juice is still the largest category of the fruit juice market in China, There are some differences in taste between the north and the south in China. Apple, peach and pear consumption is relatively high in the north market. Pure juice (‘not from concentrate’) is the growth point in this industry. Chinese women have greater demand for juice, which is related to the pursuit of a healthy figure.
Another popular new subtype is formed by the fruit vinegars. These beverages have become in vogue in the years 2015 – 2016 as health products that help burn fat. In the early stage, it looked as if they would become a success, cashing in on the general trend towards more healthy food in China. However, the tide seemed to turn mid 2018, when a prominent brand, Tiandi Nr. 1 (Tiandi Yihao)’s semi-annual report showed a turnover almost half that of the same period of the previous year.
The literal translation of the Chinese definition of this category is: drinks made by combining food flavours, sugar or sweeteners, or acidifiers. We probably could also refer to these as: designer beverages. It is not always easy to distinguish these from other categories. If you boil tea leaves and the add other flavouring ingredients to the filtered liquid, you would have a tea beverage. However, a drink whose ingredients list includes tea extract, would count as a flavoured beverage.
These include sports drinks and other functional beverages. This category started to boom in the course of 2016. As a result, Red Bull is confronted with an ever growing number of domestic competitors in China. One of the frist challengers (August 2016) was a vitamin drink by Want Want, presented in a gold-coloured can.
This product category is getting so popular, that a dairy company like Yili launched an energy drink of its own in April 2018: Huanxingyuan.
These are sold in powdered from and infused before consumption. There is at least one traditional Chinese drink typically sold as such: suanmeitang or sour plum drink (literally: soup). A more recent, but still traditional, product is instant soy milk. Many members of the other categories are now also available in powdered form.
The picture shows Yiben brand suanmeitang, which contains the following ingredients:
Senke Beverages has launched an innovative type of suanmeitang adding traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, marketed as ‘Lotus Leaf Suanmeitang‘, in the summer of 2018. Apart from quenching thirst, it is said to lower cholesterol and have a certain slimming effect.
Daring launches – low survival
Chinese beverage makers are quite daring in launching newly developed products on the market, where Western multinationals would organise more pilots to test the products’ reception by consumers. However, a recent survey by the China Food Industry Association reveals that only 5% of newly launched Chinese beverages survive. I guess that is test marketing the Chinese way.
How do Westerners appreciate this?
Are you getting bored with my academic stories? No problem, you can now relax watching this home brew video in which a Western lady living in China introduces here own favourite Chinese beverages.
Here is another Top 5, but then of the most bizarre Chinese drinks.
Latest trend: odd flavours
The structure of the Chinese soft drinks market is undergoing rapid changes. Consumers are developing an awareness of personality, paying more attention to individual needs and preferences. This has created a market for what Chinese have started to call ‘odd flavour water (guaiweishui)’. Laoshan, China’s first and for a long time only producer of mineral water, has launched Baishecaoshui (literally: white snake grass water). It is based on Baishecao (oldenlandia). Hey Song Sarsaparilla from Taiwan is also gaining popularity. The current top producer of mineral water, Nongfu Spring (see above), has also launched odd flavour drinks: Oriental Leaves (Dongfang Shuye), which does not contain herbal extracts, but a mix of flavourings and nutrients, and Red Pointed Leaves (Hongse Jianye), which contains extracts from American Ginseng, green tea and bamboo. This market is extremely volatile. The survival rate of new drinks is generally about 10%, and is now dropping to 5%, according to recent market studies. These products are catering to the young and young Chinese consumers have a low brand loyalty where food and drinks are concerned.