The pick of Chinese pickles: zhacai

If we were to pinpoint a vegetable as THE most representative of Chinese pickled vegetables, it would be zhacai. The Latin name of zhacai is Brassica juncea tumida. It is a peculiarly looking pickled vegetable, resembling the shape of a fist. It is the stem of a variety of mustard. It is therefore also marketed as ‘preserved Chinese mustard stem’.

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This special pickle originates from Sichuan (the Chongqing region, which is now a separate administrative region) and was first created in 1898. The name zhacai, literally meaning pressed vegetable, was inspired by the process employed to press out the salt water using a bean curd press. Zhacai is flavoured with salt, chilli, pepper and a mix of typical local spices like star aniseed, kaempferia galanga, glycyrrhiza, etc. The exact composition of the spice mix is the secret of the manufacturer.

Though covered in chilli, it is not hot but extremely salty and is usually cut to size and soaked to remove the salt before cooking. When only a small amount is used as a seasoning, no soaking is necessary. It should be cooked only briefly to retain the crunchy texture.

The total turnover of the zhacai industry was RMB 6.7 billion in 2019.

Have a look at a Chinese video showing the processing of zhacai. Although it is in Chinese, experts should be able to understand the gist.

Zhacai is an essential ingredient in the famous Hot and Sour Soup. Entire tubers available in glass or stone jars, or cans. Shreds are sold in plastic bags Some manufacturers combine zhacai shreds with shredded mushrooms or other vegetables.

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In recent years, the market for zhacai has expanded considerably, after it had become a kind of leisure food. It is shredded and packed in small aluminium sachets. The shreds can be used to spice up dishes, in particular the more bland convenience foods like instant noodles, or instant congee. Many Chinese even nibble on zhacai shreds in front of the TV.

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On average, 100 gr. of zhacai has the following composition.

 

Substance Content
Water 67.3 gr
Protein 4.4 gr
Fat 1.2 gr
Carbohydrates 5.6 gr
Crude fibre 3.1 gr
Ash 18.4 gr
Calcium 224 mg
Phosphorus 125 mg
Iron 8.1 mg

 

Zhacai: – the pillar of Fuling economy

The Fuling region of Chongqing has always been famous for its zhacai. The local authorities are supporting the development of growing and processing of this vegetable. Zhacai is regarded as the symbol of Fuling and vice versa. The region produced 1.28 million MT of zhacai in 2012. Almost 90% of this was processed into ‘convenience zhacai’. They also intend to promote export. Zhacai is currently the highest valued of the ‘Chinese Local Brands’, with an estimated value of RMB 12.532 billion. Zhacai is often refered to as another name for Fuling. Fuling has given its name to the Fuling Group, China’s largest processor of zhacai. Fuling Group generated a turnover of RMB 1,989,593,123.12 in 2019, up 3.93%.

Fuling is also the home of China’s only research institute specialised in zhacai: the Yudongnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, with a separate Zhacai Research Department.

The importance of the Fuling region is reflected in the fact that China’s top 3 brands of pickled vegetables (so not exclusively zhacai) are all located in there.

Wujiang

Wujiang brand (Fuling Zhacai Group)

Yuquan

Yuquan brand (Yuquan Zhacai Group)

This is the brand we use at home, so I will use the ingredients list of Yuquan zhacai as reference:

zhacai (88%), salt, sugar, sesame oil, rape seed oil, MSG, disodium isonate, citric acid, spices.

Lameizi

Fuliing Lameizi (Lameizi (Hot Sister) Group)

Fuling Zhacai Group announced in August 2017 that a new 40,000 cubic metre production tank will be constructed, involving an investment of RMB 162 mln.

Automation

The Baiheliang Zhacai Factory of the Fuling Zhaicai Group has installed a completely automated production line in 2015.

ZhacaiAuto

So what’s in it?

A package of Yuquan brand zhacai proudly states: no preservatives added. Great; Chinese consumers have grown very suspicious of additives. However, apart from the zhacai itself, it does contain: salt, rapeseed oil, MSG, disodium 5’-inosinate, citric acid, acesulfame-K, sesame oil and spices.

In other words: several ingredients to enhance and preserve that flavour. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

From zhacai to soy sauce – an innovative process

An interesting development is the use of the affluent of zhacai processing to produce soy sauce. The Fuling Group, China’s largest manufacturer of zhacai (capacity in 2014: 64,800 mt/p.a.), listed at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, has developed that technology. Moreover, the new soy sauce process no longer includes steps that require manual labour. Work that before required 500 workers, now only needs 30 – 40 people to complete. This is a fine example of how a traditional product can inspire industrial innovation.

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.

 

Leisure food – A food group strongly embedded in Chinese culture

The existence of a category like leisure food in Chinese food statistics is rooted in the laid back nature of Chinese culture

Entering a typical Chinese supermarket and looking around at the distribution of foods and beverages on the shelves, one indication that may strike you as unfamiliar, of even odd, is ‘Leisure food’, xiuxian shipin in Chinese.

Leisure and food are a match made in heaven in any culture, but there is no nation that created a more harmonious marriage between those two concepts than the Chinese. Visit any historic site in a Chinese city, and you will be amazed about the choice of snacks and drinks that are on sale in small shops or by street vendors.

When you then zoom in on the domestic tourists, you will have a hard time spotting one who is not eating or drinking, or at least visibly carrying food in their bags, ready to take it out and have a bite.

Before getting to those sites, or scenic spots, you need to travel. China is a huge country, so travelling can take time, and the best way to kill time in any culture is . . . eating. Chinese airports, train stations and long distance bus terminals are genuine food streets, offering everything the easily bore passengers may want to keep themselves, and their facial muscles in particular, busy. Eating has thus become the favourite way to pass the time on long haul rides in China.

Chinese high school and university students are also an important consumer group of leisure foods. Bakery products and meat snacks are their favourite foods during breaks.

All this has led to the coining of the category leisure food in the Chinese food industry.

It has become an officially recognized term. The library of Eurasia Consult has a collection of Food Industry Yearbooks starting with 1985 until the early 2000s, when the Internet rendered those paper information carriers unnecessary. Leisure Food is a separate section in those books, like the separate shelf for those products in Chinese supermarkets.

Leisure food is a hybrid collection of foods comprising:

One source divides leisure foods in the following subcategories:

Type main market customers outlets consumption mode
Private consumption home family members Residential areas, special shops, convenience stores At home
Travel food travelling travellers local special shops, supermarkets , airports, railroad stations, tourist spots Travelling, gift giving
Gifts Gift giving people in need of gifts special shops, supermarkets Gift giving

What I especially like in this division is the category of ‘gifts’. It always a nice gesture to bring home local delicacies when returning from a trip. And with a country as large and varied as China, there are more local specialties than a person can bring home in a life time. Moreover, gifts play a key role in Chinese culture. This is why Chinese airports and larger railway stations sell local foods in fancy gift packaging. People do not buy those to eat themselves, but to give them to relatives and friends.

The following graph shows the market shares of various categories of leisure food of December 2019.

 

Market size and value

There are more than 4000 manufacturers of leisure food in China.The leisure food industry in 2018 was worth RMB 1029.7 bln; up 12%. Insiders expect that the value of this market will reach RMB 1298.4 bln by 2020.

Ingredients

It is an interesting market for suppliers of food ingredients. Preservation is key term here, not only referring to keeping the bugs out, but also the preservation of the flavor, color and texture.

This sector is also an interesting market for suppliers of food packaging machinery. All of the above mentioned products need to be packed in small portions, that can be conveniently stowed in ones pocket or hand bag. The preferred size is the single-portion package; a pack you open and empty in one leisurely moment, without the need to close and seal it for the next moment.

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Trends for 2017

  • Leisure food should be tasty, novel and healthy. Snacks are by definition tasty. Consumers will only make repeat purchases and remember the brand if a snack is delicious. Chinese consumers are eager to try new leisure foods. As long as a product is novel and interesting, they are willing to give it a go. As Chinese are becoming increasingly health conscious, growing numbers place great emphasis on the nutrition facts of nibbles, such as those that are low in sodium, sugar and fat. This also includes additives in general. If more flavourings are added in order to create exciting taste, it can may Chinese consumers, who are now avid readers of ingredients lists, suspicious.
  • Small Packs are the trend. A very prominent trend is packs are getting smaller and smaller. Factors driving the growing demand for leisure food in mini packs are convenience, hygiene, pricing and visual impression. Mini packs can satisfy consumers’ demand for “convenient and hygienic one-off consumption”. They are particularly popular with female consumers who prefer snacks that can be eaten in one go. With large packs, if the food inside cannot be consumed straight away after they are opened, some consumers would not want to eat it again afterwards as they would consider it to be neither fresh nor hygienic.

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.