Nothing sweeter than sweeter than sweet potato

You will find very few Chinese who do not like sweet potatoes, baishu ‘white tuber’ in Chinese. Story has it that the first sweet potato plant was smuggled into China from what was then Dutch colony of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. A sailor had stripped off its leaves and secretly woven the vine into the hessian ropes on board the ship.

It first took root in Fujian province, the mainland province closest Taiwan island. Here, it flourished in the rocky, mountainous terrain where it helped to fill stomachs in a land too poor for paddy planting.

Taiwanese like to cook sweet potatoes in rice porridge, and the people of Fujian took over that habit too. However, the sweet potato never grew into a real staple food in the sense that it completely replaced rice or wheat based staples used in the various cuisines of China. Apart from using it in rice and porridge, Chinese turned it into noodles, cooked it in sweet soups and made pies, dumplings, bread and cakes and little snacks from sweet potatoes.

Staple, but not really

Some ‘rustic’ restaurants, like Culiang Renjia ‘Home of Coarse Staples’, currently very popular in Beijing, serve a basket with a variation of rough staples as a rustic alternative for steamed rice or noodles. The basket includes purple yams, sweet and glutinous corn, Chinese yam, burdock and edamame, green soybeans, and . . . sweet potatoes. I don’t think that Chinese peasants ever used to have such baskets on their dinner tables, but it does give you more fibre and is more filling that steamed rice.

Sweet potatoes were also eaten as a snack. A typical street food in the cold North China winters is a sweet potato baked on a metal barrel. Nothing chases the winter chills away better than a piping hot sweet potato in your hands, skin slightly burned and dotted with droplets of caramelized juices.

Slices of sweet potato are dried in the open air, so they can be eaten as a between meal snack in the office, or during a long train ride. Sweet potato slices are no also available as packed food in the supermarket.

Other processed sweet potato products include hard grey glass noodles (for more on those see the posts on millet and lotus) that cook down to a translucent white that is much loved in winter hotpots. Sweet potato starch is a necessary ingredient in many desserts, as well as the secret to the signature oyster omelette famous in Fuzhou and the region of Chaoshan in Guangdong.

In recent years, an unexpected health fad – sweet potato leaves – has risen, thanks to the mighty webchat groups of consumers who consider themselves nutrition experts. In fact, in earlier years, poor peasants used sweet potato leaves as a cheap vegetable, but that may not be known by those amateur nutritionists. After harvesting, the leaves must be thoroughly washed to get rid of grit, since they grow low on the ground. Then the fibres must be stripped off the long stems, starting from the base of the leaf. It is a fussy, tedious task, but necessary. Otherwise, the leaves will be too stringy to eat.

In 2018, Korean confectionery and convenience foods producer Orion has launched a new type of sweet potato chips in China with a purple colour as distinctive feature.

Sweet potato profit

There are already companies specialising in processing sweet potatoes. A noted one of Tianyu Tuber in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Tianyu was founded in 1993 and has grown into a company with 760 employees and four subsidiaries. The company also operates the Tianyu Sweet Potato Research Institute and the Henan Sweet Potato Starch Research Institute and helps cultivate a sweet potato test field for the China Agricultural University. This clearly indicates that Tianyu is well embedded at local, regional and national levels.

Tianyu has a storage capacity for 50,000 mt of sweet potatoes p.a. and production capacity for 80,000 mt of sweet potato starch, 50,000 mt of various products (noodles, glass noodles), 10,000 mt of sweet potato drinks, and 2000 mt of sweet potato snacks. The company exports its products to 20 countries, including: South Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

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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Black is beautiful – also in food

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).

BlackTreasures

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.

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.

 

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.