How Chains Are Challenging Traditional Chinese Cooking

Zhong Shuru wrote . . . . . . . . .

Chinese cuisine defies easy characterization. It encompasses a wide range of regional sub-cuisines, each defined by local tastes, techniques, and ingredients. Even staple dishes like fried tomatoes and eggs or twice-cooked pork can look and taste radically different depending on the chef’s background. More complex dishes rarely have a standard recipe and require a highly refined skillset and years of practice to master.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Chinese have been slow to embrace the consistency of chain restaurants. According to a 2021 industry report, chains accounted for just 15% of all food service businesses in China in 2020, compared to 61% in the United States and 53% in Japan.

That gap is closing quickly, however. In recent years, Chinese malls have been flooded by an eclectic range of mid- to high-end franchise dining options, led by brands like Haidilao, Home Original Chicken, and Xibei Youmiancun. The largest of these, hot pot giant Haidilao, has 935 outlets and has begun expanding overseas, though it still accounts for just 5% of China’s hot pot market.

Chains are not a new concept in China. For years, low-cost fast-food brands like Shaxian Delicacies, Lanzhou Beef Noodles, and Braised Chicken With Rice have battled for market share. But their management model, wherein stores are operated by independent franchisees with little oversight, results in a far lower degree of standardization and consistency than Western fast-food chains like McDonalds.

What sets the new generation of Chinese chain restaurants apart from earlier Chinese chains is their use of “central kitchens.” These facilities are essentially factories where ingredients purchased by the chain’s headquarters are prepared, either partially or completely, according to a standardized procedure before being sent to restaurants.

Take the Chinese Sauerkraut Fish chain, for example. Most ingredients used in the chain’s South China region stores are processed at three central kitchens. These kitchens gut and cut the fish, package it with seasonings, and chop up vegetables. Once these pre-processed ingredients arrive at the chain’s outlets, all chefs have to do is boil the soup, blanch the fish meat, and drizzle oil on top — basic tasks that can be completed within 15 minutes of a customer placing their order.

Central kitchens may run counter to Chinese culinary tradition, which emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients, but they free chains from the hassle of local supply chains. According to a department head at Jiumaojiu Group, which operates restaurants specializing in Northwest Chinese cuisine, the company purchases ingredients in bulk quantities from suppliers throughout the country. The company directly oversees the production of some key ingredients, such as pork, to ensure quality and consistency. Chain restaurants are products of industrialized agriculture — and their success is another sign that the traditional relationship between food and the land is breaking down.

The central kitchen model also has little use for chefs. A good chef used to be the guarantor of a decent meal, with many patrons basing their decision to visit a certain restaurant purely on its chef’s reputation. By contrast, central kitchens operate on an assembly line model: All manner of specialized industrial machines, such as vegetable dicers and bone saws, are involved in the processing of ingredients. The culinary experience no longer lies in the hands of chefs, meaning they aren’t required to be masters of their craft; their prior experience is irrelevant; and they’re easy to replace.

As for menus, central kitchen-based chains often adopt a “less is more” approach. As anyone who has handled a Chinese menu can attest, traditional Chinese restaurants typically offer a wide range of dishes, and better establishments continually update their menus to create new options for regular patrons.

That is not the case at many newer chain restaurants. The shorter their menus are, the simpler quality control becomes. The goal is efficiency, achieved by minimizing the time it takes to produce each dish. Chinese Sauerkraut Fish takes this minimalist approach to the extreme, offering diners just one flavor, one type of fish, and one level of spice.

The financial advantages of this model are obvious. Central kitchens allow Chinese chain restaurants to save on raw materials, labor, and rent. (Because the vast majority of ingredients have already been prepared elsewhere, outlets don’t need large kitchen spaces.) Carefully designed assembly lines and standardized outputs make expansion a matter of copy-and-pasting.

For some chains, central kitchens have even become a key business in their own right. Haidilao subsidiary Shuhai Supply Chain Solutions uses the chain’s central kitchen model to supply ingredients to over 2,000 outlets of more than 300 restaurant brands. As of the end of 2019, Shuhai’s overall sales had surpassed 6 billion yuan ($942 million) — more than that of many of Haidilao’s leading competitors.

The pandemic has reinforced chains’ competitive edge. Rising labor costs and rents, combined with overworked urban consumers’ growing desire for solitary and fast dining experiences, have put chain restaurants with central kitchens at a significant advantage. At the same time, more and more households have begun to purchase pre-prepared meals — that is, ingredients that have already been thoroughly processed and which the buyer can simply throw into a pan and heat up after coming home from a hard day of work. Even our dinner tables are being integrated into the chain system.

But does the rise of chain restaurants really signal the end of traditional Chinese cuisine? Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I’m not so sure. Chain restaurants still represent a niche market, heavily concentrated in large cities and catered to young people who value efficiency. Competition in these oversaturated markets is cutthroat: Many Chinese chains invest tremendous resources in social media marketing, hoping to become the next must-visit destination for young influencers. This tempers the chains’ appeal to other consumers, including families and high-end luxury diners.

It’s also worth noting that central kitchen-reliant chains are concentrated in a handful of cuisines, such as hot pot. The heady spice of the mala flavor profile is not particularly demanding in terms of ingredients or culinary techniques, and it helps mask some of the deficiencies of the central kitchen model. Demand for spicy food has grown in recent years, but there are still plenty of diners who have little tolerance for peppers, and who prefer independent restaurants with a more diverse flavor profile.

China is not immune from the “McDonaldization” of society. Chains promise investors a high degree of control and efficiency while producing steady, predictable results. They’ll probably continue to grow in the coming years. But it’s unlikely they’ll overturn traditional Chinese culinary culture. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that many of today’s independent restaurant operators will outlast the current crop of chains. After all, when a business relies on machine-like processes to expand, all it takes is a competitor with a slightly better machine to leave them in the dust.

Source: Sixth Tone

Shanghai’s COVID ‘Slice and Grid’ Model Comes Under Pressure as Cases Surge

David Stanway wrote . . . . . . . . .

Shanghai’s bespoke approach to tackling coronavirus outbreaks is coming under strain as new cases rise in the Chinese metropolis, with authorities reluctant to impose a comprehensive lockdown as other cities have done.

The city of 26 million has become a testing ground for China’s ability to control flare-ups of the more contagious but less deadly Omicron variant while keeping the economy steady in an approach it describes as “slicing and gridding”, which involves screening neighbourhoods one by one.

Shanghai’s handling of the latest COVID-19 wave was an opportunity to showcase its virus-tackling ability without imposing the blanket closures that have brought major Chinese cities such as Xian and Changchun to a standstill.

Zhang Wenhong, who leads Shanghai’s COVID prevention team, said on Thursday that while Omicron was harder to eradicate, it wasn’t as “scary” as earlier strains, and in future, keeping life normal in the city should be as high a priority as curbing the virus.

On Friday, he said there were signs the city’s methods were bringing COVID under control and if the proportion of new cases outside locked-down districts continued to drop, an “inflection point” in the outbreak would come soon.

Residents have grumbled about seemingly endless cycles of testing and the piecemeal approach to ending transmission chains, with some saying the cost of zero-COVID had become too high.

On Friday, a hospital said a nurse had died after COVID restrictions meant she could not get emergency treatment for asthma. The case was featured in social media criticism of Shanghai’s policies.

While some residents said China must start “coexisting with COVID”, others said a thorough, city-wide lockdown should be imposed instead of the ongoing “payment in instalments” method.

Signals from the central government in Beijing are mixed.

China’s zero-tolerance policy has kept its borders all-but-shut for two years, even as most countries adapt to living with COVID-19.

Last week, President Xi Jinping said that while preventing outbreaks was a priority, it was necessary to “work hard to pay the lowest price to achieve the biggest prevention and control results.”

But there are concerns the stealthier and more infectious Omicron has already broken through.

Shanghai’s locally transmitted asymptomatic infections surged to a record 1,582 on March 24, up from 979 a day earlier, but just 29 new symptomatic cases were recorded, up from 4.

“Shanghai feels it cannot do a city-wide lockdown because it is not only tantamount to admitting the failure of the Shanghai model, but also feels like it is disobeying Xi Jinping’s directive,” said Yanzhong Huang, global health specialist at the Council On Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.

Shanghai is caught between the need to stay as close to “zero-COVID” as possible while keeping the country’s most important financial hub ticking over.

“You can have all this policy innovation, but it is all subject to the constraints of zero-COVID,” Huang said.

Source: Reuters

Can-Do: How China’s Canning Industry Preserved Local Tastes

Zou Zetao wrote . . . . . . . . .

You’ve probably heard of Cup Noodles, but what about canned kung pao chicken? To appeal to the country’s overworked, underfed young consumers, Chinese canned food brands have started marketing “meals for one,” a sort of TV dinner for the mandatory overtime era. Inside each can, you’ll find entire dishes, from kung pao chicken to fish-flavored pork.

The “meal for one” format may be new, but it’s just the latest in a long line of attempts to convince Chinese of the merits of eating out of a can. Interestingly, the most successful of these products haven’t been basics like tuna or fruit, but full-fledged regional delicacies: chicken stew from Shandong, ham from Yunnan, spicy yellow croaker from Liaoning, and black bean and dace fish from Guangdong. There are even desserts in a can, like peanut soup from Fujian and canned sweet coconut soup from the tropical island province of Hainan.

The dominance of local producers and products in China’s canned goods market is linked to how the country first came to accept canned goods — imported products initially viewed with deep skepticism. The first canned goods were imported into China by foreign merchants in the 1870s and 1880s, with local consumers treating them as curiosities rather than staples. By the early 20th century, only a few canned items — milk, coffee, and lobster, somewhat — had developed a market among a small subset of wealthy Chinese shoppers, most of who had ties to the West.

It wouldn’t be long, however, before a group of local Chinese canneries began to wonder if the problem wasn’t the cans, but their contents. Enterprising local business owners began to research and develop canned regional specialties, and by 1915, merchants from Yancheng in the eastern province of Jiangsu were selling canned Shanghai-style drunken fish and crab, produced by local companies to meet local tastes. Soon, popular family dishes like winter mushroom chicken were being canned and sold by Chinese companies, and over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, well-known brands like Shanghai’s Guan Sheng Yuan rolled out new canned vegetarian dishes, including the stir-fried favorite “Buddha’s Delight.”

Ads for canned goods during this period often emphasized their freshness and supposed hygienic qualities. The main form of food preservation for Chinese at that time was pickling, in which large amounts of salt were used to preserve meat or vegetables. Because canned food was fresher than pickled food, and because it did not sap the fresh flavor of the ingredients the way pickling did, cans soon caught on, at least where they were widely available. And because cans were also easier to transport, especially before the advent of cold chain logistics, their rise allowed dishes popular in one region to travel far more freely and widely than ever before.

Take Ningbo bamboo shoots, for example. A Ningbo specialty, once canned, the dish spread from this Yangtze River Delta port city through the rest of the region, before eventually hitting Shanghai. In the process, the cuisine of the entire Delta region was altered. After consumers and businesses in the increasingly international metropolis of Shanghai embraced the dish, it spread even further: Ahead of the 14th Summer Olympic Games in 1948, Shanghai-made canned bamboo shoots were issued as rations for the Chinese delegation sailing to London.

Between 1950 and 1953, China’s participation in the Korean war resulted in a boom in demand for canned goods. A number of canneries sprang up to supply the country’s volunteer armies on the peninsula, and the canning industry expanded rapidly. After the war ended, however, those manufacturers faced a problem: with domestic demand for canned goods still quite low, who would buy their excess stock? The answer came in the form of exports, as high-quality domestic canned goods from China were sold on international markets. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, Chinese-made canned goods became one of the country’s key export industries, reaching dinner tables in the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and Japan.

At home, however, the high cost of metal in pre-reform China, to say nothing of the fruit or meat inside, turned canned goods into a luxury item, one generally reserved for pregnant women, the sick, and others in need of concentrated boosts of nutrition. Although not necessarily popular, they were rare and costly enough that gifting canned foods during major holidays like the Lunar New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival became a way to give “face” to respected relatives or peers.

That changed after China’s economy took off in the 1980s. After successive waves of marketization, consumers began viewing the largely unregulated food industry with suspicion, and increasingly cheap canned foods, somewhat unfairly, became associated with the use of dangerous additives.

The industry still hasn’t recovered, though not from lack of trying. Recently, Chinese canned goods companies have embraced the trend toward “national chic,” attempting to woo consumers by increasing their offerings and playing up Chinese cultural elements in their packaging. Other firms have emphasized the convenience of canned goods, positioning their products as “healthy” alternatives to oily, salty takeout dishes.

Through it all, the industry has remained a patchwork of local companies and delicacies. Chinese consumers never quite embraced this revolution on the same scale as their counterparts in the United States or Europe, but there’s no denying that canned goods reshaped tastes and brought together once disparate local cuisines. That’s worth celebrating, even if you’re not yet ready to make a meal out of canned fish-flavored pork.

Source: Sixth Tone

Video: Robots Take Over Kitchen and Bar Work at Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics

The eye-catching setup has a drawn a lot of attention, with plates of food descending from the ceiling to diners below.

A large bank of turning cylinders cook your order, before tipping it onto a plate. That’s then picked up by a pulley and taken to a robot that runs along tracks hanging from the ceiling until it reaches its target table.

And if you need a cocktail after a hard day hiking around the gigantic media centre, a robot arm is ready to shake it for you.

But a waiter is on hand for the final move of placing your drink on the counter.

Watch video at You Tube (1:13 minutes) . . . .

McDonald’s Customers in China Eat Big Macs While Riding Exercise Bikes

A typical Big Mac meal has 1080 calories.

So that means you would have to ride around two hours if you wanted to burn it off, depending on how hard you went.

Source : TikTok