What on earth are . . . youtiao?

It has been some time that I uploaded a ‘What on earth . . .’ post, so here is a new one. Youtiao literally means ‘oily stick’. That does not sound very appetizing, which would be inappropriate for a traditional food that virtually every Chinese likes. A rather long English rendition I have come across is ‘deep-fried bread stick’. This is more like a description than a translation. If I remember correctly, I have also once read ‘fritter’ as the translation for youtiao somewhere. That is certainly a convenient one, but our fritters are incomparable with youtiao. In line with the philosophy of this blog, let’s not translate this word then and get used to youtiao, as my regular readers should be used to mantou by now (in case you have forgotten this term, look it up using the convenient search function of this site).

Youtiao are deep-fried twists of dough. They are almost exclusively a breakfast food and are usually eaten with congee or with a bowl of steaming sweetened soy milk. The vendors get started at around 5 am and are still making them way past eleven, for all the late-risers. It’s so commonplace to see someone in pyjamas and flip-flops walking back home with a plastic bag filled with three or four youtiao for the family breakfast. The reason is that youtiao are delicious when then have just left the deep-fryer, but their texture quickly becomes rubbery with the lowering of the temperature. Making them at home is not a real option. It is a waste of oil and the oily fumes are not good for your walls, furniture, your clothes and anything else in your home. Better have a street vendor fry them for you in the open air.

Youtiao are fantastic when pulled fresh from the deep-fryer. The foot-long bread can be separated into two side-by-side pieces, with a crisp, almost waffle-like exterior, and a light and chewy interior. Like all fried things, the flavour depends entirely on the quality of oil being used and the freshness.

Youtiao are made from yeast dough, rolled flat, then cut into short narrow strips. Each strip is placed on top of a second, then pressed lightly together lengthways to make the join that can later be pulled apart after cooking. The baker then deftly twists and stretches them until they are the right length, and lays them side by side in the deep fryer until they are golden brown and nicely crisp.

                   

Here is a typical recipe for youtiao dough.

Ingredient dosage
wheat flour, sieved 500 g
yeast 1/2 teaspoon
sodium bicarbonate 1/4 teaspoon
water 1 1/4 cups
sugar, diluted in the water 1 teaspoon
salt 1/2 teaspoon

Special flour (improvers)

As I have reported in several posts on flour-based products, Chinese flour producers have developed specially formulated flours for youtiao. The motivation is not so much to encourage Chinese consumers to make their own youtiao at home, but to stimulate the industrial production of youtiao. The same applies to the development of flour improvers for youtiao. Several producers of flour improvers are offering improvers for youtiao, containing mixes of enzymes, improvers, starch, etc. A popular brand of youtiao flour is Beijing-based Guchuan.

This product lists the following ingredients:

Wheat flour, starch, sugar, salt, food additives (sodium bicarbonate, sodium pyrophosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate, calcium carbonate, citric acid)

An alternative for youtiao producers is to buy specially formulated flour improvers that can be added to plain flour. An example is that produced by Weihaili. You need to add 250 gr of Weihaili’s improver to 10 kgs of flour, together with 100 gr of salt and 6.5 litres of water.

The ingredients of Weihail are:

Sodium bicarbonate, suplhate, d-glucono-lactone, potassium tartrate, maize starch

Industrial production

The main challenge for industrial production is to retain the crispy texture of youtiao. Perhaps a workable solution would be a semi-finished youtiao that consumers can buy in their supermarket and heat in an oven or air-fryer.

An enthusiastic insider has attempted to calculate the maximum value of the youtiao market in 2019. With an urban population of 750 mln people, 65% of which consuming 1 youtiao every 10 days, paying RMB 2/youtiao, he arrived at an estimate of RMB 17.8 billion. Obviously, the market for any food item is big in China, but in this case it points at interesting perspectives for industrial producers.

There are several manufacturers of quick frozen classic youtiao. China’s leading producer of traditional snack food Sanquan, has developed a fennel flavoured youtiao. They are somewhat smaller than regular youtiao.

You can baked then off at home. Ingredients:

Wheat flour, water, vegetable oil, spring onions, fennel, salt, yeast, spices.

Whenever Sanquan comes up with a product, competitor Sinian can’t afford to lag behind. Sinian has launched a small type of youtiao that can be eaten with hot pot, hence the name Hot Pot Youtiao.

The ingredients listed are:

Flour, vegetable oil, water, salt . . .

That ‘. . .’ is not very nice to the consumers, but I will revert as soon as I have the entire ingredients list.

Youtiao are becoming a major growth product. Annual sales have increased from RMB 250 mln in 2015 to more than RMB 1 bln in 2018.

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.

Eggs – Chinese like them salty

Eggs are one of the oldest ingredients of food in China, witness the 2800-year old eggs on exhibition in Nanjing.

ancientegg

Chinese cuisine includes many dishes with eggs as the main ingredient; fried tomatoes with eggs probably being the simplest as well as the best known. Don’t forget to add a little sugar en chopped garlic, just before turning of the heat.

Eggs can also be used as a minor ingredient to add bulk and texture to a variety of dishes, sometimes as a replacement for meat.

Fresh eggs have special meaning to the Chinese. Eggs are auspicious food, a symbol of fertility, of longevity, of new life. The birth of a child is celebrated with the delivery of hard-boiled eggs to friends and relatives, often dyed a brilliant red in honour of the occasion. Eggs are also a part of the bride’s dowry, sent by her family on the wedding day to her husband’s home as a sign of her potential fertility. They reciprocate with a gift of live chickens.

Birthdays are also marked with noodles and eggs all over China, and even as an ethnic Chinese growing up abroad, I remember my grandmother making a bowl of vermicelli for me with a large egg on top, dyed bright red, of course.

However, eggs are a perishable product, which is why many rural families still keep chickens so they have a steady supply. Chinese have developed a few ways to preserve their shelf life. I am introducing three of these in this post

Pidan – 1000-year eggs

Pidan

First, let’s set straight the myth hidden in that Western term. They have not lain forgotten for 1000 years, despite the name. Instead, pidan, as they are known in Chinese, are carefully cured for several weeks to several months so that the albumen solidifies into a dark, transparent, gel-like semisolid while the yolk hardens slightly on the outside but remains molten in the centre. There are strict culinary standards on what makes a pidan a gourmet experience.

Pidan are always eaten with condiments. They may be served with sweet slices of pink pickled ginger, doused in sesame oil and vinegar, or smothered in minced garlic or chopped cilantro leaves.

The most common raw ingredient for pidan is duck eggs, valued for the size of the yolks and the generosity of the egg white. However, chicken or quail eggs are also used, but more for novelty rather than need. A good century egg often has a snowflake pattern on the outside of the white, an indication of a well-cured egg. Its fearsome colour is the result of a chemical reaction with the curing mix usually wood ash, salt and rice husks mixed with clay or lime.

Pidan as export product

Pidan can even become a lucrative export product. The Shiqian region of Guizhou has been producing pidan for over 600 years. The local government has realised its potential value and supported modern industrial production of its traditional pidan in 1993. The state owned enterprise was dissolved in 1995, but its manager continued the production as a private entrepreneur. The company currently produces more than 10 mln eggs p.a.  Shiqian pidan were already exported to other Asian countries, in particular Malaysia, but more recently exports to the US and Canada, with their growing Chinese population, have also increased.

Xiandan – salty eggs

Xiandan

Another popular staple is the salted egg, a pure white delight that is as visually attractive as its cousin is not.

Eggs from either chicken or duck are carefully wiped clean with Chinese liquor and placed in bottles of saturated brine. After a month to several weeks, the whites would have thoroughly absorbed the salt, and the yolks hardened into little golden globes.

Salted eggs are most often boiled and then split and eaten straight from the shell. They are also used for cooking. The salted egg yolks are vital ingredients in many seasonal foods, including the rice dumplings eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival and the sweet moon cakes during Mid-Autumn festival.

Chayedan – tea eggs

Chayedan

Tea eggs are usually prepared at home. Brew a pot of tea. You can use any Chinese tea, but a dark tea like Pu’er will taste stronger than green tea. Place the tea and tea leaves in a pot, add a piece of star anise, a stick of cinnamon and either some cloves or cardamom. Add soy sauce and enough water for the liquid to come halfway up the pot.

Wash about 10 eggs and place them in the pot to boil. After 15 minutes, remove the eggs and gently tap them to crack the shells. Turn off the heat and return them to the infusion. You want a marbled effect. The flavours and colours improve if you also break the membranes so the tea infusion can penetrate. Then wait, to allow the eggs to soak in the tea sauce for a few hours, preferably overnight. You’ll be rewarded for your patience with the most flavourful hard-cooked eggs you have ever eaten.

You can reuse the tea sauce to cook more eggs when the first batch is finished, but remember to either add more tea or soy sauce to adjust the seasoning.

Free range eggs redefined

Innovation in food is one of the core themes of this blog. A Chinese organic farmer in Taiyuan (Shanxi) has redefined the concept of ‘natural’ eggs, better known in the Western world as ‘free range eggs’. His term is ‘original eggs (tujidan)’, which he defines as ‘eggs resulting from natural insemination of the hen by a cock’. This is even more humane that simply allowing chickens to walk around freely.

Tujidan

The yolk of the resulting eggs is brighter yellow than those of mass-produced eggs and are said to be lower in cholesterol. Strictly speaking, this is not really innovation, but simply going back to basics. Still, it is a development worth pointing out.

Dried eggs – a novel product

The general trend in the Chinese food industry towards more convenient products has also affect this sector. Recently, Master Shen Food (Anhui) launched a ready to eat egg product: dried eggs. This is a truly innovative product. It imitates traditional Chinese dried bean curd, but is made from eggs, making it a more nutritious product. The ingredients:

Egg, fermented soy sauce (includes caramel colour), sugar, salt, flavours, lemon, food additives (MSG, disodium 5’-ribonucleotide, sodium pyrophosphate, sodium tri-polyphosphate, red koji red, sodium d-isoascorbate)

The brand name is also partly imitation: Master Shen is obviously alluding to the Master Kong brand instant noodles.

Export

China exports some of its egg products as well. Hubei province was China’s top exporter of for the 10th consecutive year in 2019, generating an income of USD 90 mln.

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.