Balancing the Five Flavours (and one more)

The ability to perfectly balance flavours is what separates a chef from a cook

If the goal of eating and drinking is to maintain and improve health, then the typical single most important element in food would be nutrition. The Chinese, however, focus on colour, fragrance, taste and form in food, looking for refinement in food vessels and elegance of the dining environment, demonstrating an artistic spirit. Hence, from the beginnings of documented history, the Chinese advocated the philosophy of ‘harmony between the five flavours (wuweitiaohe)’. It could be related to the core concept of Confucianism: ‘harmonious society (hexie shehui)’. The Chinese invented ways to adjust blended ingredients and spices for a wide variety of tastes. Revolving around the ‘five flavours, which are sourness, sweetness, bitterness, pungency and saltiness, dishes can evolve into more than hundreds of different flavours.

Saltiness xian

Of the ‘five flavours’, saltiness is the principal flavour. It is the simplest and simultaneously the most crucial. Salt is needed to heighten any flavour in foods. Without it, any delicacy cannot emerge in its full glory. But from a health perspective, salt should not be taken in excessive quantities. The most important salty ingredient is obviously salt. However, soy sauce is of almost equal importance as a salty seasoning in Chinese cuisine. Soy sauce is a good example of how a few other flavours can be deftly used to cut the raw edges from pure salt.

Some salty ingredients: salt, soy sauce – regular.

Sourness suan

Sourness is also an indispensable taste in foods, especially in the northern part of China, where water supply is heavy in minerals and strong in base. So, in order to induce better digestion of food, vinegar is often used in cooking. It can also arouse appetite. Sour taste can also neutralize fishy odour and greasiness. At banquets with strong grease and heavy meat dishes, sour dishes are usually added to neutralise the greasy mouthfeel (ni in Chinese). They come in many varieties. Not only are the sour tastes of plums, fruits and vinegar different from one another, just the different types of vinegar are distinguished by its production areas, different ingredients and different production techniques, thus causing quite drastic differences in taste. Usually, the northerners regard mature vinegar made in Shanxi as orthodox, whilst the people in the Jiangsu-Zhejiang area appraise the Zhenjiang-made rice vinegar as authentic. The most typical of all places eating vinegar is the province of Shanxi. Many families there are skilled at making vinegar from crops and fruits. Their everyday meals are even more dependent on vinegar. A very interesting thing is that in the Chinese language, the word “vinegar” is used to represent the feelings of jealousy between men and women. Slang, such as ‘eat vinegar(chi cu)’ for being jealous and ‘vinegar jar (cugangzi)’ for a jealous person, are universally understood in both the north and the south.

Some sour ingredients: bitter melon-fresh, vinegar, lemon, lime, dry wine, cranberry, wild cherries.

Pungency xin

Pungency is the most stimulating and complex of the ‘five flavours’. Sometimes Chinese use ‘pungent-hot (xinla)’ as one word. In actuality, pungency and hot (la) have major differences. Hot is sense of taste, stimulating the tongue, throat and nasal cavity. Instead, pungency is not just a sense of taste as it involves sense of smell as well. Pungency is mostly obtained from ginger, while hot and spicy usually denotes the use chili pepper or black pepper. Since hot peppers were a foreign product, there was no mentioning of ‘hot’ in ancient Chinese cooking, instead it was generalised as pungency. Ginger not only neutralizes rank taste and odour but can also bring out the great taste of fish and meats. So, ginger is a must-have when preparing fish and meat. There are also principles to using hot peppers. We should not merely seek for the degree of hotness but should rather use saltiness and natural essence of food as fundamentals, so that the hot and spicy taste comes out multi-staged, full of great aroma and not too dry. In addition, garlic, scallion, ginger and other spices can also kill bacteria, so are great for cold dishes with dressing.

Some pungent ingredients: ginger, black pepper, chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, radish, cardamom.

Bitterness ku

Bitterness is rarely used alone in cooking but is a valuable asset. When making simmered or braised meats, adding tangerine or orange peel, clove, almond and other seasonings with a light bitter touch can rid the meat of unpleasant taste and smell, and awaken the original flavour of the food. Black foods usually also have bitter flavour notes. Traditional Chinese medicinal theories believe that bitterness is helpful for the stomach and produces saliva. Some people really enjoy bitter taste in foods, such as in the Sichuan-style ‘Strange Taste (guaiwei)’ type of foods, which have the bitter elements.

Some bitter ingredients: bitter melon-ripe, Seville orange, soy sauce-thin, garlic-raw, star anise, dry mustard, radicchio, mustard greens, endive, arugula.

Sweetness gan

Sweetness has the effect to cushion the effect of other basic flavours, whereas saltiness, sourness, pungency and bitterness are all too strong, they could be remedied by sweetness. When making dishes of other tastes, sugar can improve and embellish. However, using large amounts of sugar is not recommended, as too much sugar can be nauseous. Since many spices can produce a sweet flavour and they all taste quite different, much of the culinary world hails cane sugar as the orthodox sweetness.

Some sweet ingredients: sugar, honey, coconut, bell peppers, apples, grapes, raisons, hoisin sauce, cooking wine, garlic-cooked dates, onions-cooked, rice-cooked, bing cherries.

Freshness xian

What is not listed in the ‘five flavours’ but still holds an important status in the culinary world is the ‘freshness’, now better known as umami, factor. ‘Freshness’ is the most tempting flavour in food. Most foods all contain an ‘essence’ but it is often dormant, so making soup is often the way to awaken the taste. Chicken, pork, beef, fish and ribs can all be used as soup stock. When the unpleasant tastes and smell are eliminated during the soup-making process, the essential flavour is fully exposed by adding just a touch of salt. Stock not only can be enjoyed directly but can also be used to make other plain foods taste great. Such foods include shark’s fin, sea cucumber, bird’s nest, bean curd and gluten, which all must be cooked with essence soup to achieve its mouth-watering taste. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is an artificial essence. Its synthetic nature makes it impossible to compare to naturally made stock. So skilled chefs usually do not care for it.

Medicinal flavours

Five tastes in harmony, with flavour as the top priority, bringing direct pleasure to the tongue. At the same time, it is a good health-protecting and body-regulating method. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theories state that pungency can regulate bodily fluids, blood and qi, and can be used to treat bone and muscle pain from coldness, kidney problems and so on. Sweetness can nourish, soothe, and improve emotional mood. Honey and red jujubes are also great tonic foods for those who have a weak and frail physique. Sour taste can cure diarrhoea and produce saliva to stop thirst. Sour vinegar can prevent colds, while eggs boiled in vinegar can stop coughing. All these are folk cures with adequate modern medical recognition. Bitterness can release heat in the body, improves vision and detoxify the body. Five tastes in harmony is an important factor to great health and long life. The picture shows that sour is linked to the liver, bitter to the heart, sweetness to the spleen, pungency to the lungs and saltiness to the kidneys.

Compound flavours

Chinese cuisine is apt in mixing and blending flavours. Spices and other seasoning ingredients can be combined in endless ways, but a small number of the them have become such favourites of Chinese chefs, that they have got used with various types of foods. An example introduced in an earlier post is yuxiang, ‘fish flavour’. In that post, I introduced the basic recipe and a number of variations developed by food technologists. This post adds another dimension to the understanding of such generic compounds: the mix of basic flavours: yuxiang is relatively hot, but the right combinations of saltiness, pungency, sourness and sweetness can bring out the delicacy of the peppers while containing excessive sharpness.

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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Guoba – from nuisance to delicacy

Many of mankind’s finest delicacies have been discovered by accident; sometimes literally. Cheese has probably been discovered when milk had been stored in a calf’s stomach sufficiently long enough for the rennet in the stomach to produce curds.

Problems cooks, professional or at home, often meet when preparing starchy foods in a frying pan is that part of it sticks at the bottom of the pan, forming a relatively hard layer that proves tough to get rid up. Scrubbing it is the only solution.

However, as long as the stuff that is stuck at the bottom is not too black and burnt, it can actually be very tasty. The physical-chemical reaction produces a whole range of aromachemicals that please the taste buds and the nose (though perhaps less so the eyes).

A waiter in a Spanish restaurant in Rotterdam once told me that the rice stuck at the bottom of the pan is the part they like best of their national food paella.

Pan is guo in Chinese and to stick ba. The phrase ba guo, getting stuck to the pan, is a negative cooking term. However, Chinese have also developed a liking for rice fried that way, and those two words turned around, guoba, have become the designation of a tasty snack.

Guoba as a dish

Guoba is a form of rice that is actually scorched or hard cooked to change its colour and texture. Guoba is popular in many forms of Chinese cuisine, particularly in Sichuan cooking. It is known by many names in different areas of China and surrounding countries, and may even be found worldwide in areas where Chinese cuisine is presented and appreciated.

GBnatural

Initially, guoba was made by burning or heavily cooking rice to the bottom of a wok or pot. When the cook took out the rice, the leftover rice was used in various dishes. Later, demand for this sort of rice dish led to the commercial preparation of blocks of this crisped rice.

Any kind of Chinese dish can be served with guoba. Some common forms of this scorched rice food include sweet and sour dishes, as well as other international Chinese favorites like lo mein, chow mein, or other dishes. The usual choices of meat, seafood, and vegetable elements like tofu and bean curd apply to many guoba dishes.

One thing that guoba offers to cooks is the chance to include a different kind of presentation based on the shape and texture of the rice. Cooks can serve the guoba, with heavy sauces or other elements, in blocks, or crumble the rice onto the plate. The scorched rice stands up to all sorts of innovative culinary uses, which makes it popular in many restaurant kitchens, especially where innovative aesthetic presentation is a part of the culinary strategy.

Another form of this food is a “sizzling rice soup” that has become common in some parts of the world. This is not the usual form of the food, so some cooks, even authentically Chinese ones, may not be aware of the use of scorched rice in this particular soup. The general use of the scorched rice in a thinner soup or broth is another way that the rice can be served for a contrasting taste experience.

Snack

Regular readers of my blog will already have noticed that Chinese are masters in re-creating modern snack food (or in their own terminology: leisure food) from traditional dishes. This is also the case with guoba.

Already in the 1980s, Chinese snack makers launched small squares of guoba with various flavours as the Chinese alternative to the Western potato crisps. When I was stationed in China for my company, we regularly served guoba with the aperitifs when entertaining Dutch or other international guests. The all loved them.

ShGuoba

The first picture shows a package of guoba produced by Xishilai Food (Shanghai) and come in: chili, beef, five spices and BBQ flavours. The ingredients listed:

Rice, maize, vegetable oil, salt, crystal sugar, MSG, spices, additives (food flavours, rising agent, antioxidant).

GBerge

The alternative is onion-flavoured guoba produced by Sha’erge (Crazy Brother) from Dongguan (Guangdong). It has black rice as one of its ingredients, which is advertised as ‘black pearls’ or ‘the king of rice’, due to its nutritional qualities. The producer claims that this product contains vitamins A and B as well as calcium, potassium and magnesium. Ingredients:

Rice, black rice, refined vegetable oil, soybeans, starch, eggs, shortening, refined pork fat, salt, MSG, onion spices.

Guoba as market for flavour mixes

Some flavour houses have already discovered the guoba industry as a separate market segment and have develop special seasoning mixes for guoba. Beijing-based Shanwei Puda Food supplies 4 types: five spices, beef, BBQ and cumin. The ingredients list provided for the cumin mix is as follows.

salt, sugar, MSG, spices, cumin powder, food additives (not specified)

The manufacturer advises a dosage rate of 4% -6% of the weight of the end product.

Innovation: peanut guoba

Guoba has already developed as a generic type of snack in the Chinese food industry. The concept is now further stretched to guoba made from other raw materials than the traditional. Zhenyuantong (Huzhou, Zhejiang) has launched a peanut guoba. The ingredients list reads as follows:

White sesame seeds, peanuts, maltose syrup, flour, vegetable oil, coconut meat, coconut milk powder, salt.

PeanutGuoba

The company also produces: melon seed guoba:

Melon seeds, crystal sugar, flour, vegetable oil, salt.

and:

White sesame seeds, crystal sugar, flour, vegetable oil, chili oil, salt.

We are eagerly awaiting the following product to add to this post!

Eurasia Consult’s database of the Chinese food industry includes 59 producers of various types of guoba.

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.

 

Favourite Chinese flavours – Yuxiang – Fishy without fish

Spice mixes are big business in China. The increasing pace of life and the rapidly expanding spending power of Chinese consumers renders spending a few hours in the kitchen per day to prepare the obligatory three hot family meals a day less and less attractive for Chinese.

However, these changes do not affect the Chinese demand for authentic flavours. Sure, an occasional Big Mac or a helping of Hot Wings from KFC is great, but in general food still has to look, feel, smell and taste as the real thing, regardless how fast it gets.

After my ‘What on earth is . . .’, I am therefore launching another series in this blog: Chinese flavours. I will introduce a number of generic classic Chinese flavours, and how they are implement in ready to eat, or ready to cook, products.

This kick off item introduces my own favourite: yuxiang (literally: ‘fish flavour’). There is actually no fish involved in this spice mix, but apparently it strikes the Chinese palate as fishy. It has reddish brown colour, combines al basic flavours: sweet, sour, salty and spicy and the three main pungent spices: ginger, onions, and garlic.

It can be combined with a number of macro-ingredients like pork, beef, fish and it can even be used to render foreign ingredients like potatoes Chinese.

The basic recipe

Here is a standard recipe for yuxiang sauce.

  • Ingredients: seeped chili pepper or hot douban (see our item on douban sauce), salt, soy  sauce, (rice) vinegar, sugar, MSG, ground ginger, ground rice, onions, stock, watered starch, cooking rice wine
  • Preparation: mix all ingredients with some cooking oil and stir fry until fragrance and colour appear, then add the starch mixed with water. The yuxiang sauce if almost immediately ready.
  • Attention: the taste and colour should not become caramel-like, so do not overcook.
  • Application: yuxiang sauce can be combined with various meats and vegetables. First cook the fresh ingredients and add the sauce once they are done, to avoid overcooking the sauce.

Ready to use products

Now have a look at a few industrial foods using yuxiang sauce:

YXeggplant

Guangzhi Food Yuxiang Eggplant Rice

The photo of the lid already shows what the product looks like inside: cooked rice and eggplants cooked with yuxiang sauce.

YXamano

Amano Yuxiang Eggplant

This is yuxiang eggplant in what Chinese like to call a ‘soft can’, and aluminum foil pack, without rice.

YXlee

Lee Kum Kee Yuxiang Sauce

Good old Lee Kum Kee would not want to lag behind and offers a ready to use yuxiang sauce in a pot.

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.

 

Potato growing & processing in China

Few people know that China has already been the world’s largest potato production and consumption country since 1978.

The humble potato, a staple of many a European nation, used to have only a supporting role in Chinese cuisine, even though it has been grown in China for about 400 years. Known as tudou (literally: ‘earth bean’) in colloquial Chinese, or malingshu (‘horse bell tuber’) in more formal texts, the potato traces its history in China to the Ming dynasty, and was popularised by French missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

As the name indicates, potatoes used to be seen as a vegetable in Chinese cooking. In home style cooking, in particular in Northwest China, where the potato is an indigenous crop, chunks of potato are added to stews, particularly with beef.

Chefs have created some deep fried delicacies, including tasty little patties and a finely shredded version of the French fry, which is sheer indulgence. Most common in the home and (home style food) restaurants, is the “tudousi“. This dish might come with strips of pork, slices chili, and pickled vegetables.

Image

Some cooks are even combining the foreign potato with very traditional Chinese flavours like the famous yuxiang (fish flavour) spice mix, creating dishes like yuxiang potatoes, shown in the picture below.

YXpotato

The ultimate dish in this series should be: Sweet and Sour Potatoes, a potato variation on the most typical of Chinese dishes in overseas Chinese restaurants: Sweet and Sour Pork.

SweetSourPotatoes

However, potatoes have started to challenge the great staples: millet, wheat and rice in China in recent years. The arrival of Western style restaurants and in particular fast food chains, have introduced potato dishes to virtually all urban Chinese. The countryside can be expected to follow soon.

Potato growing

China’s market year 2017/18 fresh potato production is forecast at 97 mln mt. The top regions, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, are good for 45% of the national volume.

The following table shows the regional output of potatoes in 2015.

Region Volume (mt)
Gansu 2,146,000
Inner Mongolia 1,883,000
Sichuan 1,612,000
Guizhou 1,503,000
Yunnan 1,444,000
Chongqing 1,017,000
Heilongjiang 565,000
Shaanxi 561,000
Ningxia 423,000
Hubei 415,000
Liaoning 383,000
Shanxi 362,000
Qinghai 362,000
Hebei 348,000
Hunan 285,000
Jilin 237,000
Fujian 231,000
Zhejiang 163,000
Guangdong 162,000
Anhui 49,000
Tibet 5,000

Potatoes are getting so important in China that the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange (ZCE), one of China’s two agricultural commodities exchanges, intends to introduce potato trade. ZCE is reporting problems with obtaining the necessary permits from the China Securities Regulatory Commission and other relevant central authorities, that are said to need time to “consider more about the development of the market”.

The ZCE has been mulling over the launch of the product for quite a long time. The exchange disclosed its plan to introduce potato futures trading in early 2012, saying the contract was set to be launched by the end of that year. Later that year, the agricultural authorities of Gansu province said all preparations for potato futures had been completed.

Potato growing as poverty relief

Guizhou and Gansu province are expanding the amount of land they have planted in potatoes in accordance with a Ministry of Agriculture plan which calls for around 6.7 mln hectares of them by 2020. One out of 100 towns or villages in under-developed Guizhou province is Lutang, which now has much of its land for potato growing. The head of the village, Zhang Wei, says they have 1.15 mln kgs of top quality potatoes that they plan to distribute to farmers for free to use on 200 hectares of land. Local authorities say that as many as 60 percent of the households in the area living with poverty see the potato planting as a good method to help them generate income and two special cooperatives have been set up to keep prices stable and to ensure income. The planting area is expected to reach just over 660 hectares by 2018.

Frozen French fries

Only 10% of the national output is further processed into various (semi)finished products.

In the last three years, China’s rapidly changing lifestyles and eating habits have resulted in a booming fast-food industry. Chinese consumers, especially those who live in large urban areas, have accepted Western-style fast-food restaurants that serve French fries and other popular side dishes as a way of life in China.

China’s market year 2017/18 frozen French fries (FFF) production is forecast at 250,000 mt, a 10% increase from markt year 2016/17, driven by strong domestic demand. Experts forecasts China’s market year 2017/18 FFF imports at 120,000 mt, about a 5% decrease, due to increased domestic production. The United States continues to dominate China’s FFF import market.

Frozen French fries require raw materials compliant with strict requirements, such as shape, starch content, sugar content, and color. Therefore, processors usually contract with farmers to produce potatoes which meet certain quality conditions. After a poultry disease outbreak and other problems in that industry, which affected Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, the largest buyers, production of frozen french fries has decreased considerably. Although the scare seems to be over, production is not expected to rise considerably soon.

Foreign investors

Still, a market like this is bound to attract international investors.

  • JR Simplot established in 1992 in Beijing’s Fengtai district, is a joint venture between US-based JR Simplot , McDonald’s and Beijing Agricultural, Industrial and Commerce General Company and primarily produces french fries and hash browns for McDonald’s and other East Asian customers. It was fined a record RMB 3.9 million for water pollution in April 2015.
  • McCain Foods started construction of a French fry processing facility in Harbin (Heilongjiang) in 2004. The new company, which was registered in the Harbin Economic and Technological Development Zone, was McCain’s first processing facility in Asia.
  • Aviko has a production facility in Minle (Gansu) since 2008, and in June 2014 signed another project in Zhangjiakou (Hebei), near Beijing. The latter is a partnership with Snow Valley Agriculture.
  • Conagra has acquired TaiMei Potato Industry Limited, a potato processor in Shangdu (Inner Mongolia) in July 2014.
  • Farm Frites has signed an agreement with Inner Mongolia Linkage Potato Co. Ltd. in September 2014, to set up a joint venture in Chifeng (Inner Mongolia). The Joint venture will build a new french fry factory and target the premium segment of the Chinese french fry market. Inner Mongolia Linkage Farm Frites Co. will be for 75% owned by Linkage, while Farm Frites will own 25%.

Top 3 brands

Instead of looking at volumes, this blog prefers to introduce ‘top brands’ from a popularity perspective. Here are the top 3 french fries chain outlets according to a Chinese consumer site.

1 Calbee Crazy Potato Calbee

2 Tudou Xinyuan (Potato Wish) TudouXinyuan

3 Mofa Tudou (Magic Potato) MagicPotato

 

Potato starch

China’s 2017/18 season potato starch production is forecast at 540,000 mt, a 20% increase from the previous year. Imports are forecast at 41,000 mt, up 10%. On September 16, 2017, China’s Ministry of Commerce extended the countervailing duties levied on potato starch imported from the EU for another 5 years. Potato starch imports from the EU are subject to countervailing duties ranging from 7.5% to 12.4%. The countervailing duty is not the only duty that applies to EU potato starch exports to China. The countervailing duty is in addition to an anti-dumping duty ranging from 12.6% to 56.7%, dating back to August 2006. The anti-dumping duty is up for review in February 2018..

Top Chinese producers of potato starch are:

Company Location
Huaou Starch Inner Mongolia
Lantian Potato Gansu
Beidahuang Potato Heilongjiang
Yundian Starch Yunnan
Weston Potato Qinghai

 

Potato chips

Industry sources estimate China’s market year 2017/18 sliced potato chip and fabricated potato chip production at 450,000 mt and 350,000 mt, a 7% and 13% year on year increase, respectively. The total turnover of this product group was RMB 29 bln in 2017.

Potato chips have become a popular snack food in China. Most international players are studying their options, and some of them, like Pepsi (Lay’s), have started local production. However, not any potato will do. Each must be precisely the right variety, grown into an ideal shape and size and available on the exact schedule necessary to supply the chip factories in Beijing and Shanghai. Potatoes grown by local farmers don’t always make the cut. Unless they are handled as delicately as eggs, they risk bruising — a common side-effect of China’s manual farming techniques and crude distribution methods. To ensure the yellowish color of its Lay’s chips, Pepsi also requires potatoes to

be low in both sugar and water content. The ideal specimen is about as large and round as a baseball. Even now, Pepsi’s two farms still produce only about 40% of the potatoes Pepsi needs in China.

Other major potato chip brands (manufacturers) in China are: Calbee (Calbee), Lay’s (Pepsi), Oishi (Liwayway) , Shanghai House (House), Carrefour (Jishijia). P&G has negotiated with a potential partner in China for the local production of Pringles.

Top 3 brands

Here are the top 3 potato chips brands according to another Chinese consumer site.

1 Lay’s Lays

2 Capico Capico

3 Pringles Pringles

Capico is the only domestic brand in this list. Its producer, Dali Foods (Fujian) got listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in November 2015. Dali is also one of China’s top producers of biscuits.

The following screenshot shows how the major brands seem to imitate Pringles’ packaging, while offering their chips for a significantly lower price.

PotChipsComp

Mashed potato

The Chinese drive for developing novel foods is limitless. Baiguyou (Wuhan) has developed a range of instant mashed potato products under the Painini brand. It is packed in cups that can be filled with boiling water like cups of instant noodles. The product is available in several flavours, including: beef, walnut, curry, chicken, pumpkin, etc.

Potato-based instant noodles

Chinese researchers are developing a recipe and production process for instant noodles in which part of the wheat flour is replaced by potato flakes. This fits the efforts of the Chinese government to make the potato one of the country’s staple foods (see below) and will enhance the nutritional contents of instant noodles, possibly breaking the ‘junk food image’ of instant noodles. The following ingredients list appears in one of their publications.

Ingredients  ration (%)
Wheat flour 65
Potato flakes 35
Salt 2
Water as needed
Gluten 5
Complex phosphates 0.3
Sodium alginate 0.3
Soda 0.15

No such product has yet appeared on the market, but it is interesting to learn about these efforts.

Exports

The first Chinese potato chips were exported to the US in the course of 2015. However, it was not Capico, but Chak Chak, produced in Fuxin (Liaoning). Chakchak chips stand out by their bright colours, produced using natural anthocyanin. It is interesting to observe that an innovative product like Chak Chak can beat a generic version of the product (Capico) in getting accepted on the global market.

Chakchak

Potato as staple?

A discussion has started in China to improve the status of the potato as staple food. Vice-Minister of Agriculture Xu Xinrong posted a remarkable statement on the ministry’s website on January 9, 2015, entitled ‘strategies for turning potatoes into a staple’. In this concept, potatoes will gradually become China’s fourth largest staple food, after rice, wheat and maize. Xu Shaoshi, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (an organization under the State Council), picked this up and added that potatoes will be mixed into bread, steamed buns and noodles to suit Chinese consumers’ taste and habits. the Ministry of Agriculture is planning for 50% of China’s annual production of potatoes to be consumed as a staple food on the domestic market by 2020.

As an emerging staple food in China, potatoes have to compete with bread, as introduced into our post on the position of bread in China elsewhere in this blog.

The Institute of Agro-Produce Processing Science & Technology of the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences is developing new applications of potatoes as staple food. One of the products in the pipeline is flour consisting of 35% whole potato powder and 65% wheat flour. Using machines also developed by the Institute, a range of pastas can be produced. In cooperation with Haileda Food (Beijing) it has developed a type mantou that consists for 30% of potato. The product was launched on June 1, 2015. The potato buns are yellower and harder than traditional versions. But they are more nutritious, containing extra vitamins and dietary fiber and less fat. The researchers have announced that they next step in this R&D project is to increase the potato content to 40% and further to 50%. Other potato products will also be developed, like: noodles, or bread.

 World Potato Congress in China

The 9th World Potato Congress (WPC) has been held in Yanqing county in northwest Beijing from July 28 to 30. More than 3000 representatives from over 30 countries around the world gathered in the capital for the top event by the global potato industry. More than 50 domestic and foreign well-known experts presented academic reports about the industry. Latest products and technologies were displayed during the event. There was an experience area showcasing potato food such as potato chips and potato mud to visitors. China Potato Expo, China Potato Congress and an international symposium on potato products and industrial development ran parallel to the WPC.

China Potato Expo 2016 was held in Kunming (Yunnan), June 27 – 29.

Experimental zone in Beijing suburb

Yanqing county in the northern suburb of Beijing is an ideal area to grow high-quality potatoes. The climate is perfect and the soil should produce bumper yields of the vegetable. Already the county has cultivated more than 10 varieties of potatoes at the seed stage. It is also the home of the newly established China branch of the International Potato Centre, a global scientific research organization that seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries. The centre will be China’s first international agricultural research institution and will serve the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Beijing Xisen Sanhe Potato Co, one of the country’s largest seed merchants, have also set up shop in Yanqing, where they have been working on new strains of potatoes. The research and development at their facilities, and the new International Potato Centre should help increase production not only in the area but in the rest of the country. Plans are also underway to open a high-tech scientific park for potato research in Yanqing. The project will be a joint venture with neighboring Zhangjiakou in Hebei province.

Beijing Hengde Jiahui Equity Investment Co。 is looking to fund agricultural and food firms focusing on the potato industry, and has set up a center in Yanqing county.

Dutch potatoes in Inner Mongolia

HZPC of the Netherlands has signed an agreement with Geruide Potato Co., Ltd. (Inner Mongolia) to establish a potato growing base in Taipusi (Inner Mongolia). The joint venture was announced to start on January 1, 2016, and was projected to produce 50,000 mt of potatoes p.a. Although not officially announced, I assume that HZPC’s thinking is based on the expectation that it will become the main supplier of the above mentioned foreign potato processing plants in the region. However, so far (last check April, 2018) the project does not seem to have started yet.

Potato songs

Feng Xiaoyan, 52, a potato farmer-turned-entrepreneur, has even commissioned multiple potato-themed songs to help promote the consumption of potatoes. On a recent day, Ms. Feng appeared on a local television station to sing a warbling tune expanding on the tuber’s delights. “Fry up a plate of slivered potato, eat a slice of potato flatbread! Potatoes are our fortunate eggs, potatoes are our fortunate eggs.”

Potato research institute

Yunnan Normal University intends to set up a Potato Research Institute. The univeristy stated that the establishment of the Potato Research Institute is in line with the national development strategies of positioning the potato as a staple food, and is also in accordance with Yunnan’s development plan for a green economy, food safety, and plateau agriculture. It has set up a virus-free potato seed repository, with more than 1,200 germ plasma cultivated in China and abroad. It’s one of the largest in China in terms of potato genetic diversity.

Drinking potatoes

Mengjian Biotech (Inner Mongolia) has developed a health drink made from potatoes. The beverage has a high content of Superoxide Dismutase (SOD). It is not clear when the drink will be available for consumers.

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.

 

Bread in China – from snack to staple, though still for the young urban

Western style baked bread is not a staple of the traditional Chinese diet, but it has been quickly catching up among China’s urban middle class during the past 20 years, in which China’s baking sector has grown by 10% annually, and bread has been the main driver product.

According to a staff member of the bakery chain BreadTalk, 80% of their clientele were foreigners, when she started working there in 2005. This has changed completely, and now Chinese are the main customers.

A product for the young and the affluent

When you take the time to observe the activities at any bread store in a Chinese city, you can observe that at least three quarters of the regular domestic patrons are (young) professionals, white collar workers. Older people still regard bread as something that is foreign. They do not dislike it, but it is something you consume occasionally, as a snack.

Moreover, bread is still regarded as relatively expensive. Teenagers and students like to ‘hang out’ in and around bread and cake shops, because they like to cozy ambience that all chains like to create. However, they only occasionally actually buy Western style bread or pastry, because it is too expensive.

Chinese like it soft

When bread first started to come up in the mid 1980s, the preferred type was the soft, white bun, with a relatively sweet flavour. It had to be extremely soft. As one European bakery technician with whom I used to travel through China put it like this:

‘Chinese bread should be made of such a texture, that you can put it in an ordinary envelope, put a stamp on it and send it to your friend. When your friend opens the envelope, the bread should restore to its original shape’

This has started to change recently. Chinese consumers are gradually learning to appreciate more salty types of bread, bread with harder crusts, and whole grain bread.

Bread is also gaining ground in the breakfasts of more and more urban Chinese, replacing porridge, fried dough sticks (youtiao) and steamed bread (mantou).

The sandwich is starting to replace the bowl of (instant) noodles a Chinese office worker typically eats for lunch. The advantage of bread over these traditional breakfast and lunch items is time: you can buy a week’s supply of bread, while traditional breakfast and lunch need to freshly prepared.

Facts & figures

The Chinese consumed 2 mln mt of bread in 2016. That is a lot, but the per capita consumption of bread is approximately 2 kg p.a. (in the urban regions about 3.2 kg), compared to 10 kg in Japan and 9 kg in Taiwan. Insiders expect that the Chinese bread consumption will gradually rise to the level of Taiwan, which means that the growth potential is enormous.

According to the above estimates, the current Chinese bread consumption already exceeds 1 million mt p.a. This would grow to 9 million mt p.a., if the population would remain the same. If we apply the Chinese estimate for the population by 2020, the Chinese bread consumption would rise to 12.5 million mt p.a. The estimated development is reflected in the following table.

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Market structure

Bread is a localised business in China. There are very few regional suppliers, let alone producers that sell on a nationwide scale. It is also still a very Chinese business. Multinationals are present, but do not dominate. The largest bakery company in the world by far, Grupo Bimbo, has a very small presence in the market with just one plant.

One of the few companies with such a status is Mankattan Food Co., Ltd. Mankattan has been established by the Belgian Artal Group in 1995. Mankattan has achieved a large market share through direct distribution of bread products to retail, food service and school locations. The main company is located in Shanghai, with subsidiaries in Beijing and Guangdong, giving it production centres in China’s most densely populated regions.

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Another successful example is Taoli (Toly) Bread (Shenyang, Liaoning). However, Taoli also produces traditional Chinese bakery items like mooncakes and zongzi. Still, the fact that the word ‘bread’ is part of the company indicates that it is its leading product. Taoli was listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in December 2015.

TaoliBread

Several domestic and foreign bakery chains are gaining ground on large Chinese bakery companies like Christine and Holiland. The South Korean chain Paris Baguette now has 37 stores in China, the Taiwanese chain 85°C Bakery Cafe has about 145, the Singaporian venture BreadTalk 170, and the South Korean chain Tous les Jours 140. Starbucks Coffee is also developing in this direction in China. A good sign of the growth potential of this sector is that BreadTalk’s net profit increased 91% in 2017 to RMB 21.85 mln.

Some experienced players from Hong Kong have also expanded to the Mainland, like: Queen’s Cake Shops, Maxim’s and Aji Ichiban, which may sound Japanese, but has Chinese founders.

A common feature of all chains in this category is that they tend to be located in office buildings and high end shopping centres, close to their largest market segment.

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Case study: Euro Bakery, an ambitious Dutch investor

Euro bakery, a 130 staff bakery in the Beijing region founded by Dutch investor Henny Fakkel, recently received a loan from the Netherlands Finance Development Company (FMO). The bakery is now expanding its business with a long-term EUR 2 mln loan from FMO.

Euro bakery specialises in traditional as well as new-style bread and cake variations, from European-style big loaf bread, rolls, whole wheat sourdough breads to pastry varieties, muffins and cookies, Danish pastry and also cheese savoury cookies. The bakery did well over the past years to tap into the growing popularity of bread products in China’s capital. The bakery factory of 135 staff caters for cafes like Costa coffee, Pacific coffee, and for companies like IKEA, International schools, Compass Group, Sodexo, airport catering, Pizza Express, embassies, hotels, restaurants and wholesalers.

EB2

 

Euro bakery has come a long way since Henny Fakkel and Grace Wang started the business in 2006. The bakery has managed to extend its large-client base to 60, and with a staff of 135, the bakery produces seven days week and distributes its products all over China via 450 delivery points.

Euro bakery wants to expand to 4000 m2 and build its own bakery education institute to train itd staff and disadvantaged young people to give them the chance to follow a baking course.

Frozen technologies

Insiders believe that the penetration of frozen technologies in baked goods will increase in the future. In China, where labour is abundant and cheap, it may be counterintuitive to see penetration of a high-end technology for production of baked goods growing. However, increasing complexity and diversity of products in industrial bakeries is driving the requirement for frozen solutions. It is already deployed in 20% of western style baked goods in the country.

In the artisanal sector, which is about 56% of the Chinese bakery industry by value, the penetration of frozen technologies is very low. The highest penetration of frozen technologies is in branded/packaged baked goods. This trend is changing and we are seeing many local and medium-sized bakery companies also interested in frozen technologies. Ingredient manufacturers should be wary not to miss these opportunities for specialist ingredients for frozen bakery products.

 

Key target for food ingredients

Bread is pointed out by Northern Sunlight, China’s largest distributor of food ingredients, as one of the most interesting growth markets.

This is corroborated by a the Director of the China Food Additives Association (CFAA), who claims that he regards Bakery China as the most prominent competitor of CFAA’s Food Ingredients China (FIC). Bakery China is organized annually in May, covering 9 halls of the Shanghai New International Exhibition Centre. Apart from baking products, it  also covers ice-cream and pasta and all ingredients for the entire product range.

Virtually all Chinese bakers are using bread improvers, compound ready-to-use ingredients, comprising enzymes, emulsifiers and a various other additives. I have already introduced the structure of the market for flour and baking ingredients in a previous blog. You can see more details there.

Here is the ingredients list of Mankattan Coarse Grain Toast Bread:

Wholegrain wheat flour, water, HFCS, shortening, yeast, bran, salt, gluten powder, flavour, additive [bread improver (starch, vitamin C, enzymes, calcium propionate)].

The way the ‘additive’ is broken down in individual ingredients is prescribed by law. Although not stated verbatim, it indicates that the producer does not purchase those ingredients separately, but buys a ready-to-use bread improver.

Other ingredients include various shapes and textures of fruits (e.g. dates), vegetables, nuts and meat, cheese powder, yeasts, nutrients for fortification, flavours, special oils or fats, fresh butter, cream, shortening, starch and modified starch, chocolate in various presentations, dairy based ingredients, and much more.

Eurasia Consult’s database includes 941 industrial producers of bread.

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.