Vegetarian food in China

the Chinese market for alternative meat is already the largest in the world, with sales nearing USD 910 mln in 2018 compared with USD 684 mln in the U.S.

Buddhism is closely associated with vegetarian eating. Some records of monks eating beancurd-based “vegetarian meat” date back as early as the Song Dynasty in the 10th century. It was known as fanghuncai or literally “imitation meat dish.”

However, although Buddhism has been an influential religion in China for centuries, vegetarian restaurant or food products are not that abundantly and overtly available. During the celebration of the 1st anniversary of the China Vegetarian Cooking Association on June 6, 2018,, it was revealed that there were about 4000 vegetarian restaurants in China. This is still relatively low, as the total number of restaurants is estimated to be 5 mln.

A fellow student of mine who has been a vegetarian all his life once returned from a visit to China even skinnier than he already was. He claimed that he regularly had problems in China to find genuinely vegetarian dishes in restaurants as Chinese often use small quantities of meat, in particular pork, to flavour food.

Another reason could be that vegetables have always played a bigger role in Chinese cuisine than in meat-based European cuisines. But Chinese also believe in a well-balanced meal, so a few vegetable-based dishes need to be complemented with some meat or seafood. Leaving out animal protein altogether does not result in a balanced meal. As a result, most Chinese perceive their cuisine as ‘mainly’ vegetarian. According to an estimate of Xinhua News Agency, there are are now around 50 million vegetarians – about 3.5% of the population. Tang Li, founder and head of the Chinese Vegetarian Association, predicts that in the future, China will become the number one vegetarian country. The association, a non-profit organization that promotes the benefits of a vegetarian diet, was established in 2007, and is made up of ordinary vegetarians, entrepreneurs, activists, and nutritionists.

Xiao Changjiang, head of the Cardiovascular Department at the Hunan Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine Affiliated Hospital, believes that a vegetarian diet is more suited to the Han Chinese than a carnivorous one. “As a farming people, the Chinese had adopted a plant-based diet since ancient times,” Xiao says. “We are less tolerant to meat than nomadic people. Since the 1980s, the massive supply of meat has resulted in people eating much more of it.” In April 2017, Xiao promoted a “one vegetarian meal per week” plan by providing free vegetarian dishes to both patients and hospital staff. “It’s an experience-based activity,” Xiao explains. “We invite the patients to try the meal and then explain the benefits to them. This will make it easier for them to accept.” The scheme has so far served more than 7,000 people, and the feedback has been “pretty good”.

November 25 marks the World Vegetarian Day, which is an excellent excuse to have a look at history of vegetarianism in China.

Not all about Buddhism

Most Chinese people would be familiar with an ancient quotation from their high school textbook: “people who eat meat are shallow minded.” The quote is from the ancient book of Zuo Zhuan, the earliest annals in China. “People who eat meat” refers to the privileged that belong to high class, for only noble people were recorded to have access to eat meat in ancient China for a certain period of time.

According to Book of Rites (Li Ji), a historical record written during the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), the kind of meat people ate was closely related to their social status. Only emperors could eat beef every day. Hereditary rulers and noblemen often had mutton and could enjoy some beef on the first day of each month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Most of the time, the common people only had meat-free meals. However, the book also recorded that the nobles needed to stay away from meat when they were on a fast. When somebody died in the family, they went without meat during mourning.

When Buddhism first entered China later in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), there were no strict rules about monks’ eating habit. However, emperor Xiao Yan from the Southern Dynasty (420-589) changed everything. He strongly promoted vegetarianism in Buddhist temples by issuing an order to force monks to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, and abstain from alcohol.

Some temples also became well-known for their delicate vegetarian food. In Qing Bai Lei Chao, a book from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), four such famous temples were mentioned: Fa Yuan Temple in Beijing, Ding Hui Temple in Zhenjiang, Bai Yun Temple in Shanghai, and Yan Xia Dong in Hangzhou.

Vegetarian dishes

The Qi Min Yao Shu written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), widely recognised as one of the earliest agricultural books in China, recorded 11 vegetarian recipes. The vegetables mentioned in the book included spring onion, leek, wax gourd, mushroom and eggplant. Later vegetarianism became relatively popular in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). According Meng Liang Lu, a book from the Song Dynasty, there were even shops that specialized in vegetarian cakes. The book recorded about 25 kinds of meat-free cakes made from dates and chestnuts.

Vegetarian food not only enjoyed more categories, but also more lovely names since the Song Dynasty. There was a kind of cake, named “cakes make cats drunk”, recorded in a book Qing Yi Lu from the Song Dynasty. The cake was made from peppermint and dill, two plants with a strong odour.

Lifestyle food – meat from plants

Vegetarian food gradually became a more delicate choice for ancient Chinese. Li Yu, an aesthetician who was also good at literature, from the Qing Dynasty, praised the vegetarian food as the most valuable delicacy. “In my opinion, beef, mutton and fish are not as good as meat of wild animals. However, the taste of the latter ones cannot compete with vegetables,” Li said in his Xian Qing Ou Ji, a book about his opinions on drama, dance, costume, makeup, architecture and food. Having said that, a typical feature of Chinese vegetarian cuisine is that it aims to perfectly imitate meat. Vegetarian duck looks like duck, tastes like duck and has a texture like duck. The picture shows an example with beancurd sheet (doupi) to imitate the skin.

Chinese people had less eye for vegetarian food during hard years of the republican era and the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, the increase of the living standard of ordinary people increased so much, that they were too happy with the new access to meat, that vegetarian was part of another universe. It was during the post 80s, 90s and even 00s, Chinese consumer interest shifted for subsistence to personal health and body care.

On Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, there are more than 50 groups on vegetarianism. Users discuss the vegetarian lifestyle or share vegetarian recipes in such groups. Many vegetarians also write blogs to share their daily meals with readers, among which, some even publish their own recipes.

Benniao and Tudouni, two vegetarians based in Beijing and Chengdu, came to know each other on the internet through sharing vegetarian recipes. They set up a blog, Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians, on Sina Blog in 2006. Since then, they have been posting their recipes for vegetarians. In 2008, their first cook book Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians was published. The book provides about 200 vegetarian recipes according to the vegetables sold in four seasons. Its sequel about another 180 vegetarian dishes came out in 2010. Xiao Bai, a post-1980s vegetarian cook, attracts 30,000 followers on Douban and around 40,000 followers on Sina Weibo. From 2011, she began sharing on Douban the photos of the meat-free dishes she made. The food was aesthetically featured in the pictures, which soon attracted a lot of attention. One year later, her first cook book, Record of Vegetarian Xiao Bai, was published.

Industrially manufactured vegetarian dishes have also become a lucrative market. This picture shows industrially produced vegetarian duck bites.

Ingredients: soy beans, salt, cooking wine, chili

Vegetarian restaurants can now be found in all Chinese major cities.

Beijing-based Zhenmeat Food has launched plant-based lobster and plant-based fried meat in June 2020. The company was set up by US-trained entrepreneur Vince Lu Zhongming. The brand name, which is a play on the Chinese characters for “precious” and “meat”, reflects the company’s mission to create a precious plant-based alternative that tastes just like meat. Zhenmeat plant-based products include sausages, steak, faux meat mooncakes and meatballs. The vegan-friendly products are made out of a mixture of plant proteins, including pea, soy, brown rice, and protein sourced from mushrooms. This picture shows mooncakes filled with Zhenmeat’s plant-based meat.

Vegetarian food has become so popular that even a Chinese meat processor like Jinzi Ham (aka King’s Ham) has launched artificial meat products like these vegetarian beef patties.

China’s three top manufacturers of plant based meat generated a combined turnover of RMB 390 mln in 2018.

China’s top instant noodle maker Chef Kong has launched a Buddhism-inspired type of vegetarian instant noodle in 2020, branded as Ai Chi Su, ‘Love Eating Vegetarian’.

Still, it is a little too early to talk about a solid trend. A recent Chinese survey shows that September 2019 saw a high in discussions about artificial meat in the Chinese online social media (app. 40,000 items) . The line then showed a downward slope to appr. 10,000 in December; staying on that level during the first months of 2020.

Plant-based ‘meat’ mooncakes

Mooncakes stuffed with artificial meat will hit the market in China for the first time in September 2019. The product has been developed by a lab team from the Beijing Technology and Business University and vegan meat brand Starfield. The first batch will be put on sale in Starfield outlets in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong province.

Foreign fast food following suit

KFC launched its vegetable protein based Golden Nuggets in China in March 2020.

Exciting option

Vegetarian food is also regarded as an exciting option by part of the more well-educated and high-income Chinese city-dwellers. They are embracing plant-based and clean meat as a healthier, more nutritious, and exciting option. In fact, they prefer plant-based and clean meat more than the Americans. According to a study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, more Chinese were ‘very or extremely likely’ to buy clean meat when compared to the Americans and Indians. The number of Chinese who were “very or extremely likely” to purchase clean meat was twice as much as the Americans at 59.3% versus 29.8% and 10% more than the Indians. When it came to plant-based food, all three groups expressed a higher rate of acceptance. Yet, the number of Chinese who were ‘very or extremely likely’ to spend on the product was again nearly twice as much as the Americans at 62.4% versus 32.9%, while that of Indians were slightly higher at 62.8%.

Another sign that vegetarian food is making its way in China is the start of vegetarian cooking courses. This picture is an ad for such a course launched in April 2019 in Shanghai. The small print words in red say ‘nutritious and healthy’.

Vegetarian as charity

The best-known restaurant among Chinese vegetarians is the non-profit Yuhuazhai, a loose federation of charities established (according to business legend) in 2011 in Jiande, Zhejiang province, by an elderly restaurateur who invested his life savings to help save animal lives. Volunteers soon followed and opened their own Yuhuazhai restaurants; by 2017, there were nearly 700 kitchens called Yuhuazhai nationwide. With the help of social workers and volunteers, Yuhuazhai has given out over 580 mln free meals without any coordination, economic interest, or real affiliation among all the branches – not even a registered trademark. According to Southern Weekly, the earliest founders of Yuhuazhai discussed the latter issue but decided that it was unlikely that a corporate interest would risk sullying their own image by stealing a charitable icon.

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.

What on earth are . . . zongzi?

It has been a while since I posted a ‘What on earth . . .’ blog introducing a traditional Chinese food. So here is a new one.

In essence, zongzi are pyramids of glutinous rice with various types of fillings, wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves.

Traditional sticky rice dumplings are eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (approximately late-May to mid-June).

According to popular belief, eating zongzi commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the state of Chu during the Warring States period (5th century B.C.). Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried unsuccessfully to warn his king and countrymen against the expansionism of their Qin neighbors. When the Qin general Bai Qi took Yingdu, the Chu capital, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan’s grief was so intense that he drowned himself in the Miluo river after writing the Lament for Ying. According to legend, packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent the fish from eating the poet’s body.

Many Chinese still prepare zongzi at home, but it is more convenient for the modern city dweller to buy them from a professional street vendor.

Street

Zongzi are currently produced by machines, though they still cannot be produced completely automatically. To cope with the enormous demand during the season, zongzi makers simply hire more people to make them, as is shown in this video recorded at Wufangzhai (see below).

Standard recipe

Makes 20 zongzi

Ingredients

  • 40 large dried bamboo leaves (2 for each zongzi)
  • 20 long strings (for binding leaves)
  • 1 kg long grain sticky rice
  • 2 kg pork belly, sliced into 3 cm cubes
  • 10 salted duck’s egg yolks
  • 40 small dried shiitake (black) mushrooms
  • 20 dried, shelled chestnuts
  • 10 spring onions, cut up into 1 cm lengths
  • 500 g dried radish
  • 100 g very small dried shrimp
  • 200 g raw, shelled peanuts (with skins)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup rice wine
  • Vegetable oil
  • 5 cloves of garlic, roughly crushed
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 teaspoon five spice powder

Procedure

Preparing the ingredients

  • Soak rice in water for three hours, drain.
  • Stir-fry pork for a few minutes. Add chestnuts, soy sauce, rice wine, ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of sugar, star anise and five spice powder, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove pork and chestnuts from liquid and set aside.
  • Boil peanuts until tender (30 minutes to 1 hour).
  • Soak mushrooms until soft. Clean and trim stalks. Cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Stir-fry with a little liquid from pork stew.
  • Halve duck egg yolks.
  • Chop up dried radish finely and stir-fry with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and garlic.
  • Stir-fry spring onions until fragrant.
  • Stir-fry shrimp for a few minutes.
  • To a large wok or bowl, add rice, peanuts, radish, shrimp, spring onions, a little liquid from the stew mixture and 2 tablespoons of oil. Mix well.

Wrapping

  • Soak bamboo leaves in warm water for 5 minutes to tenderise, before washing thoroughly in cold water.
  • Wet strings to make them more pliable.
  • Take 2 leaves with leaf stem or spine facing out. Overlap them lengthwise in inverse directions (pointed end of one leaf facing the rounded end of the other).
  • With both hands hold leaves about 2/3rds of the way along their length. At that point bend them so that they are parallel lengthwise and also overlap. This should produce a leaf pouch that you cup firmly in one hand.
  • Add a small amount of rice mixture, compressing with a spoon.
  • Add 1 piece each of pork, chestnut, mushroom, duck egg yoke.
  • Add more rice until you have nearly a full pouch. Compress firmly with a spoon.
  • Fold leaves over the open top of zongzi, then around to side until zongzi is firmly wrapped. Zongzi should be pyramid shaped with sharp edges and pointed ends. Trim off any excess leaf with scissors.
  • Tie up zongzi tightly just like shoes laces with a double knot. Normally they are tied to a bunch of zongzi.
  • Steam for 1 hour, unwrap and serve.

Diverse flavours

Traditionally, types of zongzi are divided into savoury and sweet.

  • Sweet zongzi flavours include plain zongzi, red bean zongzi, horse bean zongzi, date zongzi, rose zongzi, melon zongzi, red bean and lard zongzi, and date paste and lard zongzi.
  • Savoury zongzi flavours include salted pork fat zongzi, sausage zongzi, ham zongzi, dried shrimp zongzi, and diced meat zongzi.

Then there the many regional varieties.

Guangdong

Generally, Guangdong zongzi are large in size and have special shapes. They are either sweet with walnuts, dates, or bean paste as a filling, or savory with ham, egg, meat, or roast chicken as a filling.

Fujian

Roast pork zongzi and soda zongzi from Xiamen and Quanzhou are famous as two typical types of Fujian zongzi. To make roast pork zongzi, use top-grade glutinous rice and fill with roast pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, lotus seeds, or braised pork soup. Locals often eat these zongzi with garlic, mustard, red chili sauce, and other condiments. Soda zongzi are made of glutinous rice and soda lye. After steaming for several hours, they are best cooled and refrigerated. When eating soda zongzi, people often add honey and syrup. Bean zongzi, very popular in Quanzhou, have a mixture of beans and glutinous rice as a filling.

Zhejiang

Ningbo zongzi, in the shape of a quadrangle, include many varieties, such as soda zongzi, red bean paste zongzi, and date paste zongzi. The most famous are soda zongzi, made of glutinous rice soaked in soda water, then wrapped in yellow reed leaves.

Jiaxing zongzi, in the shape of a triangular pyramid, use fresh meat, red bean paste, or eight treasures (choice ingredients of certain special dishes) as fillings. When wrapping this kind of zongzi, people put a small piece of fatty meat into the glutinous rice.

Sweet tea zongzi use stewed sweet tea to soak the glutinous rice. This type of zongzi have a bright color, a soft taste, and a sweet flavor. Generation after generation of people in the western mountainous area of Zhejiang Province have followed the custom of boiling zongzi with sweet tea, boiling rice with sweet tea, and cooking rice porridge with sweet tea. Even in the famous novel, Dream of Red Mansions (one of the four most famous classical literature works of China), sweet tea zongzi and rice are mentioned several times.

Beijing

Beijing Zongzi, a representative type of zongzi in north China, are small and rectangular. In the countryside people are accustomed to making zongzi using jujube (date) and sweet bean paste as fillings.

Guangxi

People in Guangxi prepare zongzi in the shape of a big pillow, each one weighing over half a kilogram. People in the Guilin region prefer small, pillow-shaped zongzi. People in northern Guilin make zongzi in the shape of a dog’s head. Also the fillings used differ from one place to another. People around Guilin city often add a little baking soda to the filling to make the zongzi tastier, while people in Quanzhou County (northeast Guilin Prefecture) like to soak the glutinous rice in straw-ash water for additional flavoring.

Shanghai

Shanghai zongzi have a variety of shapes and fillings. Vegetarian zongzi made by Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant include mushroom zongzi, broad bean zongzi, and red bean zongzi. Some types of Muslim zongzi are offered by the Muslim restaurant Hongchangxing. Its beef zongzi are the most popular among locals.

Fashionable zongzi

Just like the moon cakes, zongzi have been adopted by many hotels and restaurants a prestige products, which innovative fillings and nice gift packaging. Many of Beijing’s five-star hotels offer a mixture of traditional and innovative versions of zongzi. There are traditional red jujube and mashed bean fillings, along with fresh pork and egg yolk, and five-spice beef stuffing. Creative combinations include milk and eggs, and shiitake mushrooms with chestnuts. Rice in the dumplings is supplemented with yellow rice, taro and “eight treasures” (babao, as in babao porridge), referring to a mixture of healthy seeds and fruits. The pictures show two types of such signature zongzi.

Zongzi1Zongzi2

Cashing in on the vegetarian trend

Snack maker Bee & Cheery (Baicaowei) entered the zongzi market with zongzi containing plant-based meat in April 2020. This launch fitted in the booming interest in artificial meat at that moment.

The industrial age

Zongzi do not want to lag behind other traditional foods like dumplings, moon cakes or mantou in entering the age of industrial production. A special feature of industrial zongzi is that the state regulations forbid using any additive like preservatives or colorants.

A pioneer producer is Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan) that has already been reported on in several of my posts (please use the search function of this blog). Sinian has introduced the term ‘national zongzi’ (guozong). This may sound quite pretentious, but so far no one has challenged that designation. Its packaging also carries the phrase ‘Chinese flavour (zhonguo wei)’. As Sinian is not allowed to work with texturisers and artificial flavours, or sweeteners, the company using selecting the best natural ingredients as its main means of innovation.

SinianZongzi

In spite of the above mentioned regulation, ‘zongzi improvers’ are available in China. The producers are not liberal in revealing the ingredients of their compounds, restricting themselves to generic substances:

Emulsifiers, edible gum, phosphates, modified corn starch

The following table shows an industrial recipe for ‘eight treasure (babao) zongzi.

Ingredient Parts
Glutinous rice 1000
Water 15
Improver 3
Sugar 70
Candied green beans 20
Candied black beans 20
Candied peas 20
Candied white beans 40
Candied red beans 100

The beans and peas are all candied versions. Interestingly, this recipe is much simpler than the above mentioned DIY recipe. The source of this recipe may have held back some flavouring ingredients, but this may indicate the effect of the improver.

Another innovator is Shurongbang, also located in Zhengzhou. Shurongbang has developed sausage shaped zongzi, packed in metal foil, that can be baked in the same way (and using the same equipment) as hot dog sausages. The main raw material used by this company is sweet potato.

SRBbaking SRBopened

Top 10 Zongzi of 2016

The following table lists the top 10 most popular zongzi of 2019 selected by the industry.

Rank Brand
1 Wufangzhai
2 Zhenzhenlaolao
3 Sanquan
4 Sinian
5 Daoxiangcun
6 Likoufu
7 Ganso
8 Sanzhenzhai
9 Zhiweiguan
10 Maky

Among these brands, Sanquan and Sinian appear in several posts of this blog (use the Search function of this site) as top producers of frozen snacks. Ganso is mentioned in the post on biscuits and Daoxiangcun in the one on mooncakes.

China’s top producer of snack food Sanquan (Zhengzhou, Henan) has launched a series of zongzi of its own in 2018, adding several novel flavours for this traditional food, including coffee, pineapple, coconut, and grapefruit.

Fashionable zongzi

   

It is interesting to see how traditional Chinese culture is regaining recognition, also in areas where people used to look down on things of the past. High end fashion stores, selling brands like Prada, started in China by positioning themselves as part of a modern, i.e. Western, life style. The Chinese affluent still like to show off their branded clothes and accessories, but are getting proud again of being Chinese. The high-end Niccolo Hotel, in the mountain city of Chongqing has started selling its own fancy zongzi in 2020. Interestingly, Niccolo is translating the product as ‘dumpling’ in English, a term reserved for another traditional Chinese food.

Famous brand looking for robot

Wu Fang Zhai, a time-honored brand of zongzi, is based in Jiaxing of Zhejiang province. Founded in 1921 with a small workshop, the enterprise now produces over 1.8 million zongzi each day at peak times during the Duanwu Festival.

The custom of eating zongzi during the festival in Jiaxing dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As the technique for making zongzi in Jiaxing gradually developed, zongzi produced here became more popular around the country, especially meat zongzi. The technique for making of Wu Fang Zhai zongzi was placed on the list of national intangible cultural heritage in 2011. While an automated assembly line has replaced much of the manual work, the part of wrapping zongzi is still done by hand. Recently, the company announced that it is looking to spend RMB 10 million to develop robots that can replace humans to make zongzi. The materials for making zongzi are specially chosen from high-quality sources. The rice is from Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, the leaves wrapped around the zongzi are from high mountains in Jiangxi province, and the meat filling is made of selected pork hindquarters from exclusive pig farms in Henan and Zhejiang provinces.

Instant zongzi

Likoufu, a subsidiary of the Guangzhou Restaurant Group, has developed an instant type of zongzi. It needs to be stored at -5 to 0 degrees. Consumers can eat it immediately after buying. Chinese consumers will need some time to get used to eating zongzi cold, but in the subtropical climate of Guangzhou, instant zongzi can be perceived as an alternative for

Big business online

Zongzi have also entered the cybershelves of the various online retail platforms. 2018 was a top year in that respect. Tmall has sold 108 mln zongzi during around the 2018 Duanwu Festival. Online business facilitates compiling statistics. Competitor Jingdong reports that meat-flavoured zongzi made up 56% of the zongzi it sold, date-flavoured 23%, bean-flavoured 13% and chestnut-flavoured 6%.

Combine them with other traditional foods

Wufangzhai (Jiaxing, Zhejiang) has launched a zongzi pack in 2018 that contains 10 zongzi and 4 salty duck eggs. I am not sure if this will help sell more zongzi, but at least it is innovative.

Eurasia Consult’s database of the Chinese food industry includes 20 manufacturers of zongzi.

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.