What Chinese food lovers love most

There are different Chinese expressions for people who love food in Chinese (as there are in English). A classic, more highbrow, term is meishijia, literally: ‘a person knowledgeable of good food’. This term is close to the English concept of gourmet. People like this do cook, but prefer to indulge in the better restaurants. The not only have good taste, but also do not lack of cash to fund their likings. In recent years, the term chihuo has become popular. It literally means ‘eat merchandise’. As I prefer an English translation over keeping a Chinese word untranslated, I will use the equally popular English term ‘foodie’ as the, more or less, equivalent for chihuo.

Like Western foodies, their Chinese counterparts do not just like to eat because they crave food, but because they have an interest in new flavours and textures, foods that are linked to things that are fashionable in other sectors of life, like art. They are focused on convenience and leisure foods, but although do not necessarily reject junk food, they are especially interested in novel foods that are ready to eat or at least easy to prepare, but are also healthier than the traditional street food. Attractive packaging is also valued.

Chinese foodies can be unexpectedly traditional in their taste. In many posts of this blog, I have mentioned the special status attached to imported food, which often has a special section in the larger Chinese supermarkets. The novel foods that Chinese food bloggers introduce are often improved, i.e. better packed, more nutritious, versions of traditional Chinese foods. In fact, you can get a good impression of what Chinese foodies like by surfing to the Trends page of my blog. All items introduced there have been taken from the accounts of Chinese food bloggers.

That page is serviced irregularly. I post a product that strikes me as interesting.  Recently (12/3/2020), Tmall, one of China’s leading online shops, has published a Top 20 Products like most by chihuo. I will share that list with you here, with a short explanation of each item. It will give you a valuable insight in what Chinese foods buy online now. The only point for attention in interpreting this list is the possible influence of the corona virus epidemic on this list. I will take it for granted here. Whenever Tmall publishes an update, we will be able to compare the new list with the one introduced here.

  1. River-snail noodles; a dish from Guangxi made from pickled bamboo shoots, dried turnip, fresh vegetables and peanuts and served in a spicy noodle broth flavoured with river snails.
  2. Turkey noodles; these are actually ordinary instant noodles originating from South Korea, so quite spicy. The Chinese media have shown contests in turkey noodle eating in 2019, which is probably the reason for the popularity of this product. Chinese love games and contests.
  3. Cherries; mind that the Chinese term here is chelizi (a transliteration of the English word) and not yingtao, the regular Chinese word. I have not (yet) detected a difference between berries offered in China under the name chelizi and those marketed as yingtao, but the former are praised a rare treasures. Well, as long as it sells.
  4. Instant noodles; I guess these are all instant noodles, minus the turkey noodles.
  5. Self-heating pots; these are ready to eat foods that can heat up by themselves through a chemical reaction started by squeezing the bottom.
  6. Spicy strips; this is real junk food. They are strip made from a starchy product mixed with chili. Reports have been published exposing the bad average quality of the hot strips, but they remain popular snacks.
  7. Self-heating hot pot; this is a special type of self-heating pot, emulating the popular hot pots eating in restaurants all over China. These usually are soups with chunks of meat, fish and vegetables.
  8. Hot and sour glass noodles; glass noodles are made from starch rather than flour; they are flavoured with pickled vegetables and chili.
  9. Boneless chicken claws; chicken claws are a regular item in the Cantonese dim sum; boneless prepared chicken claws are easier to eat as a snack.
  10. Hot pot stock; I already mentioned above that hot pot is immensely popular; hot pot restaurants and now also many seasoning companies, are producing chunks of fat with all the seasoning in it; just throw it in your pot at home, heat it, and have a feast.
  11. Strawberries; like the cherries above, a berry regarded as a rare delicacy.
  12. Milk tea; this fashion has started in Taiwan, entered China in the South, but has now also reach the North; milk tea comes in an endless array of flavours, and is often spiced up with bits of dried fruit, chunks of jelly, etc.
  13. Potato crisps; no comments needed.
  14. Nuts; same; this category has been made famous by the products and marketing campaigns of Three Squirrels, introduced in several posts of this blog.
  15. Custard tart; this is an example of a reasonably traditional product that has suddenly become fashionable; the custard tart (danda) is a Portuguese influence on the Cantonese dim sum. In case you didn’t know: Macau used to be a Portuguese colony. This is the second dim sum in this list that has gained national popularity.
  16. Ice cream; no comments needed.
  17. Chocolate; ditto.
  18. Hand-pulled pancake; this is plain version of the onion pancake popular in Taiwan. It consists of several thin layers that are easily pulled off when you pick them up, hence the name. A reason for their popularity could be that it is easy to combine them with any dish. You can wrap a few spoons of the dish in a pancake and eat it with your hands, as a Chinese type of wrap.
  19. Haidilao; this is the only brand name in the list, and not one of a food, but of a hot pot restaurant. By now, even inattentive readers will have noted that hot pot is a popular type of food and Haildilao has grown into the leading chain in this business. What puzzles me is how you can get Haidilao from Tmall. Perhaps Tmall can also be used to book a table.
  20. Thin cream; Chinese traditionally do not like dairy products and the main reason is that most of them have a problem with the creamy taste of milk. The very fact that thin cream appears in this list, even though at the end, is a revolution. However, its main use is raw material for whipped cream, in which the creamy flavour is partly masked by the added sugar.

This is what a hand-pulled pancake looks like

Well, this is the Top 20 most popular food products purchased from Tmall mid March, 2020. I will refrain from guesses and inferences about what it could mean for suppliers who want to cash in on this reasonably affluent segment of the Chinese market. Most of them will be able to make that step and Eurasia Consult is always there to help out.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

Formulated milk beverages in China

Even though dairy has been incorporated in several traditional regional cuisines, China is not known as a typical dairy nation. However, the industry has been developing rapidly during the previous decades, in spite of a number of food safety problems that have received global attention. The main reason is that Chinese, with support of the national government, strongly believe in the nutritional value of milk. Already in 2006, the prime minister stated that ideally every Chinese should drink one glass of milk per day.

China produced 35.31 million MT of raw milk in 2013. In the same year, the nation produced almost 23.36 million MT of liquid milk (in China, this term usually comprises fluid milk and yoghurt).

Still, a high volume of milk is consumed by the food industry. This is because, in spite of the healthy image of dairy, the average Chinese consumer still finds the taste of milk hard to appreciate.

Designer beverages

The combination of these facts, high nutrition + disagreeable taste, has created a very unique market segment in the Chinese dairy industry, including a broad variety of beverages with milk as their main ingredient, combined with a number of flavours and nutrients. We will refer to this product group as formulated milk beverages (FMB).

FMB can be further categorized in a number of ways. First of all there is the distinction between fermented and non-fermented beverages. Fermented FMB have a more sour taste and often contain probiotics.

Another subtype is what the Chinese industry refers to as ‘protein drinks’. These beverages used peanuts, almonds, soybeans, etc., as their main ingredients. They have a thicker texture than the average soft drink. A number of protein drinks combine milk with peanuts, red beans, or other of these protein ingredients, which makes them part of the scope of FMB.

These macro ingredients are usually supplemented with a number of other ingredients that can be divided in three main types:

  • Flavours: achieving the targeted flavour of the end product. Red bean milk will obviously contain red beans, but also needs a small amount of red bean flavour
  • Sweeteners: Chinese like their drinks sweet, so sugar is an ingredient in the bulk of FMB. However, with the growing awareness of the harm of excessive sugar intake, part or all sugar can be replaced by a combination of artificial sweeteners
  • Texturizers: texture is an essential aspect of FMB, and especially the protein beverages. Chinese consumers expect a creamy, thick, texture. Even Chinese who do regularly consumer plain fluid milk expect such a creamy mouth feel. Some Chinese ‘plain’ liquid milk products therefore contain small quantities of thickeners, to ensure that consumers do not suspect it to be diluted milk.
  • Nutrients: FMB are all marketed as nutritious products, healthier alternatives for the regular soft drinks. Milk, beans, fruits (e.g. dates; you will find a recipe in the linked blog), and vegetables already add to that nutritious impression, but special nutrients can be added as well. These include the regular vitamins and minerals, but also herbal extracts from traditional Chinese medicine, like Lingzhi fungus (Ganoderma).

Here is a representative example: Strawberry Flavoured Milk Drink

Produced by: Zhujiang (Pearl River) Beverage Company, Zhongshan, Guangdong

Image

Ingredients:

Main ingredients water, sugar, whole cream milk powder, strawberry juice
Sweeteners acesulfame‐K, sucralose
Flavour ingredients citric acid, strawberry flavour, monosodium glutamate
Other ingredients potassium sorbate, monascus colour

 

Many readers will doubt the nutritional value of a product like this, compared to simply drinking a glass of milk, which should be a lot cheaper as well. However, for the time being, this can be expected to be the mainstream in ‘dairy products’ in China.

Also see the dairy section in our item on cost price break down of several Chinese food and beverage groups.

New development: combination with probiotics, organic salt

Probiotics have become a pet ingredient in Chinese formulated dairy beverages. The total turnover in 2015 of probiotic milk drinks was RMB 11.98 billion, up 14.9% compared to 2014.

Huishan Dairy (Liaoning) has launched a new range of fermented dairy drinks with fruit and vegetable juice under the brand name Huawo. The company thus combines two major ‘healthy’ trends in the Chinese food industry: probiotics and natural juice, in one product.

Huawo

Haocaitou (Fujian) has launched a dairy drink with probiotics and natural lake salt imported from Australia, that it markets as a sports beverage.

Rusuanyan

Also look at the Xiaoxixi vinegar milk with pineapple vinegar introduced in my post on new vinegar-based foods and beverages.

A special subtype in this category are the imitations of Yakult. This Japanese product is so successful worldwide, that a number of Chinese companies have not been able to resist the urge to launch similar products. A recent one in this category is Yili (Inner Mongolia), that launched its Meiyitian lactic acid drink early 2018.

Government support

A discussion has been going on in the Chinese media whether these beverages should be allowed to be marketed as dairy products. The government has supported the industry in this debate by officially allowing these drinks to use ‘XX milk’ a product names in October 2014. In this way, the producers are allowed to position their products with a healthy image.

The trend for 2018: healthier formulations

Three Chinese dairy companies are ending the year by launching healthy dairy specialties. It is hard to say if these launches are incidental, or that they are part of a concerted action. However, these beverages can be regarded as examples of the new generation of formulated milk drinks. These beverages are not only formulated to mask the less attractive flavours of milk, but also add several functional ingredients.

Mengniu: A2 beta-casein pure milk

A2 milk is cow’s milk that mostly lacks a form of beta-casein proteins called A1 and instead has mostly the A2 form. Milk like this was brought to market by New Zealand’s a2 Milk Company and is sold mostly in Australia, New Zealand, China, United States and the United Kingdom. Mengniu has selected 2000 cows from its Future Star (Weilaixing) Farm as designated producers of A2 beta-casein milk. It is marketed as a healthy milk for children.

Yili: Changqing (clearing bowels) flavoured fermented milk

The meaning of the product name speaks for itself

Ingredients: raw milk, oat fruit jam (³8%), crystal sugar, thin cream, concentrated milk protein, hydroxypropyl distarch phosphate, pectin, DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono(di)glycerides), agar agar, lactococcus lactis, lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, lactococcus lactis subsp. diacetyl, streptococcus thermophiles, lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus rhamnosus.

Kedi: Soy milk milk

The English translation is rather unfortunate. The Chinese name, Doujiang niunai, literally means ‘soy sauce cow milk’, but soy sauce refers to a different product in English, and our default milk is cow milk, so we usually leave the ‘cow’ unmentioned, while we speak of ‘soy milk’, due to the colour of the liquid. Anyway, it is a combination of milk and (non-GMO) soy milk powder. In Kedi’s own words, it is the best of both.

UniPresident, non-dairy specialist has launched a Papaya Milk in March 2018

Eurasia Consult has a database of more than 130 formulated dairy drinks and their manufacturers + a large number of recipes for formulated dairy products that circulate among Chinese food technologists.

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.