Here’s to another eventful year in the realm of Chinese food and beverage. Read on for the good, the bad and the ugly of 2018 as our editors make judgment calls on this year’s food highlights.
Health food is seeing a meteoric rise in China. More juice bars, health food joints and salad bars crowd street corners and delivery apps in the country’s most developed cities than ever before.
It makes sense that even niche services like Meicai, an app now with 7 billion USD in backing that connects buyers directly to farmers, are able to get attention in the current climate, merging the convenience of online shopping with social conscience.
Meicai: The 7 Billion USD App That Wants to Change How China Eats
A heightened awareness of food safety in major urban centers — witness the recent scandal over expiry dates at Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets that cost a senior manager his job — is also having a positive impact. More attention being paid to food sourcing is also leading to the (so far modest, but still tangible) growth of organic farms and community supported agricultural programs.
Laoganma has had quite a year. It’s true that the Chinese chili sauce has stocked supermarket shelves for decades, but the brand became hot property again when it got the high fashion treatment at this year’s New York Fashion Week. Not long after, celebrities such as John Cena gushed online about their newfound love for this “feichang hao de [excellent] chili sauce.”
John Cena Loves Laoganma Chili Sauce
Knowing the founder’s rags-to-riches tale makes this come-up all the sweeter. Tao Huabi, originally from a rural village in Guizhou, first cooked up the chili sauce to serve at the cold noodle shop she’d poured all her savings into opening. It proved a hit with customers, and at age 49, she opened a humble production facility with only 40 employees under her long-standing nickname, “old godmother.”
Tao Huabi, the Face of Laoganma: From Hole in the Wall Cook to Billion Dollar Businesswoman
Fast-forward two decades, and Laoganma brought in 655 million USD in revenue in 2016. Tao has since retired for the most part, and drives around the streets of Guiyang in a chili-red Bentley. Talk about living the Chinese dream.
From high-class to hole-in-the-wall, Chinese cuisine in its many forms is finally getting the cinematic treatment it deserves. Food documentaries like Once Upon a Bite (from the makers of popular CCTV documentary series A Bite of China) and The Story of Chuan’er are reinventing the way we look at food in China — and doing it better than ever.
“The Story of Chuan’er” Shines a Light on China’s Best-Loved Street Food
Crafted by food experts and widely distributed on online platforms like Bilibili and iQIYI, these new docs have been praised for their down-to-earth storytelling and thorough breakdown of eats we’d otherwise take for granted.
One user’s comment on Chuan’er summed it up nicely: “[2012’s] A Bite of China made me miss life there, but this documentary made me book a flight.”
It’s a hub for nostalgic viewers to come together and voraciously bullet-comment over a shared love of food.
This year, Starbucks found a worthy opponent in Beijing coffee start-up Luckin Coffee. (Calling it a “start-up” feels like a bit of a stretch at this point, given how it’s currently valued at over 1 billion USD.) Founded in late 2017, Luckin grew to be the second-largest coffee chain in China in a matter of six months, with more seamless delivery options for local drinkers than its Seattle-based competitor.
Not to be outdone, Starbucks quickly announced it would expand to 5,000 outlets by 2021 and launched a delivery partnership with Alibaba’s Eleme service.
Luckin Coffee, China’s Newest Unicorn, is Challenging Starbucks’ Market Stranglehold
Depending on how you feel about either of these coffee giants, getting your caffeine fix in China just got a lot easier.
Shaxian Snacks’ long awaited expansion to the Big Apple ended up being the most anticlimactic opening of the year, as the Pacman logo only lit up a mere three hours before the store was forced to shutter.
Shaxian Snacks’ New York Restaurant was Forced to Close Just Three Hours After it Opened
The reason? Too many people. (Wah wah.) There’s nothing more annoying than an establishment that grossly underestimates its own popularity.
We’re also willing to risk online ire by asking: of all the restaurant chains to expand, why this one?
The Fujian chain is indeed ubiquitous, but some argue it’s not terribly authentic.
And seeing as only 500 of these cheap eat destinations in mainland China are owned by the actual parent company, results may vary — widely. Argues one of our editors, “if you like room-temperature rice with eggs that were fried eight hours ago, with a side of microwaved, sweet hot dog and qingcai that is mostly oil,” this is the Chinese restaurant for you. Not quite the advert for Fujian food (one of China’s fabled “eight great cuisines”) the world needs.
Something unique to China is the pervasive influence of KOLs — a Chinese-style influencer — and food is no exception to the rule. Once a KOL deigns to float down from the influencer heavens and bestow their presence on a local eatery, a shop can go from unknown to a “KOL store” (网红店, wanghong dian) almost overnight.
“Hermès Fried Rice” and the Cult of Online Influencer Foods
It can indeed lead to businesses getting the praise they deserve, but more often than not it leads to long lines, headaches, and a whole lot of Internet hype for pretty unremarkable food. Four hours in line for a cup of cheese tea? Think we’ll just order Eleme.
No, just no.
We at RADII are all about when sex meets food, but a troubling trend in the wake of China’s delivery app boom is that of ordering “handsome young delivery boys” as quickly and conveniently as you’d order a meal.
While boys in uniform have naturally been the object of an age-old fetish in our collective imagination, our author points out that there are ominous power dynamics at play, as well as a lack of protection for these young drivers.
Has China’s Food Delivery Boom Led to the Fetishization of its Drivers?
Do us a favor, Meituan users, and keep your late night bites consensual, not creepy.
If the mash-up of notoriously stinky fruit durian and the beloved pizza sounds so far out it could’ve been generated by an algorithm, you’re not far from the truth. Love it or hate it, big data is now shaping the way some Chinese chains are targeting their customers. Guangzhou restaurant chain La Cesar became the target of major flack for rolling out the infamous durian pizza a few years ago, but it hasn’t stopped there.
Our author writes that, “CEO Chen Ning has abandoned all pretext of listening to chefs, consultants or other traditional sources of new food concepts” and instead mines “hot words” and trending ingredients from search engines like Baidu for new menu items.
Durian Pizza: When Big Data Writes the Menu
Chen has since clapped back at his haters, saying that items like coconut-durian-cheese pizza with a cranberry smoothie to wash it down are going nowhere fast — critics, purists, and people with tastebuds be damned.
Last, but certainly not least, the death of world-class chef and food documentarian Anthony Bourdain by suicide this year sent shockwaves throughout the world. China was no exception, with many restaurateurs and culinary figures expressing sorrow and appreciation for how his work shed light on food culture in China.
“We talk about ‘foodies,'” said Bourdain in one episode of Parts Unknown. “Best that I can understand it, that makes just about every Chinese person I ever laid eyes on a ‘foodie.’ Which is to say, a perfectly reasonable person who enjoys and pays attention where the good stuff is.”
Bourdain visited the country on numerous occasions, and his passion for the country — via its people and, of course, its food — shone through on TV shows like Parts Unknown.
When Anthony Bourdain Came to China
Agree or disagree with our picks? See anything we’ve missed? Leave a comment below.
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