Nothing sweeter than sweeter than sweet potato

You will find very few Chinese who do not like sweet potatoes, baishu ‘white tuber’ in Chinese. Story has it that the first sweet potato plant was smuggled into China from what was then Dutch colony of Formosa, now known as Taiwan. A sailor had stripped off its leaves and secretly woven the vine into the hessian ropes on board the ship.

It first took root in Fujian province, the mainland province closest Taiwan island. Here, it flourished in the rocky, mountainous terrain where it helped to fill stomachs in a land too poor for paddy planting.

Taiwanese like to cook sweet potatoes in rice porridge, and the people of Fujian took over that habit too. However, the sweet potato never grew into a real staple food in the sense that it completely replaced rice or wheat based staples used in the various cuisines of China. Apart from using it in rice and porridge, Chinese turned it into noodles, cooked it in sweet soups and made pies, dumplings, bread and cakes and little snacks from sweet potatoes.

Staple, but not really

Some ‘rustic’ restaurants, like Culiang Renjia ‘Home of Coarse Staples’, currently very popular in Beijing, serve a basket with a variation of rough staples as a rustic alternative for steamed rice or noodles. The basket includes purple yams, sweet and glutinous corn, Chinese yam, burdock and edamame, green soybeans, and . . . sweet potatoes. I don’t think that Chinese peasants ever used to have such baskets on their dinner tables, but it does give you more fibre and is more filling that steamed rice.

Sweet potatoes were also eaten as a snack. A typical street food in the cold North China winters is a sweet potato baked on a metal barrel. Nothing chases the winter chills away better than a piping hot sweet potato in your hands, skin slightly burned and dotted with droplets of caramelized juices.

Slices of sweet potato are dried in the open air, so they can be eaten as a between meal snack in the office, or during a long train ride. Sweet potato slices are no also available as packed food in the supermarket.

Other processed sweet potato products include hard grey glass noodles (for more on those see the posts on millet and lotus) that cook down to a translucent white that is much loved in winter hotpots. Sweet potato starch is a necessary ingredient in many desserts, as well as the secret to the signature oyster omelette famous in Fuzhou and the region of Chaoshan in Guangdong.

In recent years, an unexpected health fad – sweet potato leaves – has risen, thanks to the mighty webchat groups of consumers who consider themselves nutrition experts. In fact, in earlier years, poor peasants used sweet potato leaves as a cheap vegetable, but that may not be known by those amateur nutritionists. After harvesting, the leaves must be thoroughly washed to get rid of grit, since they grow low on the ground. Then the fibres must be stripped off the long stems, starting from the base of the leaf. It is a fussy, tedious task, but necessary. Otherwise, the leaves will be too stringy to eat.

Sweet potato profit

There are already companies specialising in processing sweet potatoes. A noted one of Tianyu Tuber in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Tianyu was founded in 1993 and has grown into a company with 760 employees and four subsidiaries. The company also operates the Tianyu Sweet Potato Research Institute and the Henan Sweet Potato Starch Research Institute and helps cultivate a sweet potato test field for the China Agricultural University. This clearly indicates that Tianyu is well embedded at local, regional and national levels.

Tianyu has a storage capacity for 50,000 mt of sweet potatoes p.a. and production capacity for 80,000 mt of sweet potato starch, 50,000 mt of various products (noodles, glass noodles), 10,000 mt of sweet potato drinks, and 2000 mt of sweet potato snacks. The company exports its products to 20 countries, including: South Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

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.


Black is beautiful – also in food

Black may be the colour of evil, even in Chinese culture, but for food it is a sign of superior nutrition

Black food has become a focus in the Chinese health food market in recent years. Black food refers to the natural melanin containing foods, whether derived from animals or plants. The natural melanin content causes a dark, dark purple, or dark brown colour. Some foods have a dark skin, while others are black at the end, inside or outside, such as black goji, black rice, black sesame seeds, black fungus, mushrooms, seaweed, kelp and laver. Manufactured black food, such as plum sauce, bean curd, soy sauce, cured egg etc., are meant to stimulate people’s appetite through their colour, but do not count as real black food.

The scope of what counts as black food is not strictly defined. The Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Biotechnology is one of the earliest domestic research institutes specialising in black food. It defines black food as having a relatively dark natural colour, rich in nutrition, and structurally acceptable to the human physiology as food. This definition excludes artificially black foods such as soy sauce.

Black foods contrast with food groups of other colours:

  • White food: bread, noodles, etc.; main nutrients: starch, sugar and other carbohydrates;
  • Red food: pork, beef, lamb, chicken and rabbit; main nutrients: protein, fat;
  • Green food: green vegetables and fruits; main nutrients: a variety of vitamins and cellulose;
  • Black food: black rice, black beans, turtle, black fungus, black mushrooms; main nutrients: protein, fat, amino acids, vitamins.

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), black foods nourish the kidneys. They are rich in anti-oxidants and can therefore prevent several types of cancer and slow down aging. They strengthen the brain and lower blood pressure. The fact that shining black hair has always been regarded as a sign of physical health in China certainly also plays a role in the positive image of black foods in China.

Five Black Elements

The most conspicuous producers of black foods in China is the Five Black Elements (Heiwulei) Group in Guangxi. The company was founded in 1984 as the Nanfang Children’s Food Factory by Mr. Wei Qingwen. The name Heiwulei was adopted a decade later. The term itself originates from the Cultural Revolution, denoting five types of bad people (‘black categories’) in society: landlords, rich farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, rightists. Mr. Wei loved black sesame paste, which was his company’s first product. Now, the company is producing ‘Eight Black Treasures’ (Heibazhen): black rice, black beans, black fungus, black mulberry, black corn, black dates, black sesame and black seaweed (laver).


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.

Vegetarian food in China

Buddhism is closely associated with vegetarian eating. However, although Buddhism has been an influential religion in China for centuries, vegetarian restaurant or food products are not that abundantly and overtly available.

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.

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

Vegetarian food gradually become 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.

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.


Bird’s Nests: if you can’t eat them, drink them

One of the top delicacies in China is made from birds’ spit

Yanwo, or bird’s nest, has been regarded as a rare delicacy in China until recently, when the average spending power of Chinese consumers started booming. They are not the nests of any bird obviously, but the nests made by swiftlets (sea swallows, haiyan), with bird saliva as the main ingredient.

Hard to get

Edible bird’s nests are among the most expensive Chinese delicacies and tonics consumed by man. High quality whole clean white nests can come from Sabah, Thailand. and Vietnam and can retail at well over two thousand dollars a pound. For centuries, Chinese emperors, or m more precisely: their women, has been known to consume bird’s nest to enhance beauty and aid in disappearance of fine facial lines.

Bird’s nest are exclusively built by small birds known as swiftlets. They belong to the large family of the common swallow, but only nests from three species are edible. The nests are built from the bird’s salivary secretion which is abundant, particularly during breeding season.

These nests, often found clinging to the ceilings of caves as high as two hundred feet, are built by both parents expressly for raising their young. When the hatchlings are ready to fly off, the nests, found in many coastal caves of South East Asia including Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, are then abandoned.

Some of most costly edible nests are known as red blood nests. These are commonly misunderstood. Many think the red is stains of blood from the birds; however, their reddish hue is not blood. It is simply ferrous material, that is iron from chemical interactions of various natural factors such as temperature, humidity and contents of the cave walls where the nests cling.


According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), bird’s nest influences lung, stomach, and kidney meridians, and improves appetite and complexion. Chinese commonly use them to aid recuperation from debilitating illnesses because of their easily digestible glycoprotein and other nutrients; also because of their as yet undiscovered bio-compounds.

Science cannot yet explain the healing powers attributed to birds nests. Protein is the most abundant constituent of the nests, which contain all of the essential amino acids. They also contain six hormones, including testosterone and estradiol. The nests also contain carbohydrates, ash and a small quantity of lipids. Research has indicated that the nests contain substances that can stimulate cell division and growth, enhance tissue growth and regeneration, and that it can inhibit influenza infections.

Recent scientific findings about bird’s nest characteristics highlight the presence of a unique profile of epidermal growth factor (EGF) believed responsible for repairing skin cells and tissue. This EGF is said to be responsible for their therapeutic benefits including enhancing a person’s complexion.


Techniques of processing are minimal for whole nests with few feathers, that is if they are white and relatively clean. Nests with lots of feathers, known as black nests, need extensive processing in what is considered a cottage industry. Typically this is a long, tedious, and labour-intensive task. Generally, a space in a building close to the where the nests are gathered is transformed into a simple factory. There, workers devote themselves to cleaning, drying, sorting, grading, and packing collected uncooked nests.

First, black nests are washed and soaked with warm water for up to forty-eight hours. Hot water can cause nests to expand and their strands to unravel. Too little water makes it difficult to extract the impurities. Next, tweezers are used to pluck the feathers and other foreign particles from the wet nests. Workers are trained to pick out only impurities and not destroy or remove actual nest strands. Hard corners of the nests are trimmed and removed using scissors.

Once the nests are completely cleaned and trimmed, their long strands put into cup-shaped metal molds; see an illustration of them on this page. This helps them retain their original shape; and they are air-dried without heat. Once dried, they are graded and packed for shipping. Each piece of processed, dried, raw bird’s nest usually weighs about three and a half to four grams; that is twelve- to fifteen-tenths of an ounce. To process a batch of black nests from raw to dried and to clean them can require three or four days.


Because edible bird’s nests can be prepared in many ways, in savoury soups, desserts with rock sugar, or infused with herbs, many Chinese and others enjoy bird’s nest dishes often during banquets and celebrations. When taken regularly, they are believed to improve a person’s overall physical health and their mental dexterity.

Preparing raw bird’s nest can be done in two ways. Premium white whole nests are made to look like a halved cup putting them in to a wire frame to shape them. The more affordable black nests are dried and molded into flat leaf-like pieces. To prepare them, the nest is rinsed quickly and then soaked in warm water to allow it to expand. Then it is either steamed or double-boiled for at least two hours. Tools and types of molded bird’s nest are also illustrated on these pages.

There are many recipes that use bird’s nests including those serving them as a soup, typically with lean chicken. Sometimes, other ingredients are added to enrich the soup. Many people love bird’s nest in dessert. One simple way is to add rock sugar with or without fruit. Some people add pitted dried red dates, lotus seeds, even white fungus. Others add coconut milk or pieces of other fruits such as papaya, mango, or pear.

The birds nest has even aroused the interest of famous Western chefs like Gordon Ramsay, as witnessed by this youtube video.

Industrial age

As hinted at the beginning of this blog, the consumption of birds nests has been affected considerably by the growing spending power of Chinese consumers. What has been regarded as a tonic for wealthy ladies for centuries, is now within reach of most Chinese women. However, instead of eating the nests directly in the traditional way, birds nests are now made available in various presentation forms, including as ingredient for health foods and drinks and cosmetics.

Today, bird’s nests can be pre-prepared and bottled for convenient culinary usage. It is important to purchase reliable brands ensuring that bird’s nests are of high quality. As is the case with many fancy foods in China, fake birds nest abound. Purchasing reputable bottled bird’s nest is not only easy, but it assures that the contents are made using real high quality edible bird’s nests.


The latest development is that the Shanghai-based producers of birds nest health beverage: Yuwenqing (both company name and brand name) Birds Nest Water,  announced that it was seeking a listing on the Shanghai stock exchange on August 15, 2017. I don’t want to vouch for the nutritional value of this drink, its ingredients are listed as:

Water, rock sugar, Malaysian birds nest

One cannot but wonder how much of the ‘birds nest water’ you can make from one nest. But this news does show that the birds nest is yet another TCM product that has successfully reinvented itself in the modern world of fast moving consumer goods.

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.


China’s major food regions

There is no such thing as ‘Chinese cuisine’; it is a conglomerate of cuisines

In a huge country like China, provinces are comparable in size to individual states in a continent like Europe. The same applies to the power of their governments. Provinces are important administrative units and their governments often seem to act as governments of sovereign states. China is a vast country divided by a number of mountain ridges and rivers. In the course of history, these mountain ridges and rivers have become natural barriers surrounding plains with fertile soil. Most Chinese provinces are shaped with such a plain as its centre. The role of geography in the constructing of several provinces is reflected in their names: Shandong (East of the Mountains), Shanxi (West of the Mountains), Hebei (North of the (Yellow) River), Henan (South of the (Yellow) River), etc. This is an interesting example of how geographical structure can affect cognitive processes through the formation of a network of functionally linked cities, towns and villages. People living in such a plain will frequently interact with other people from the same plain, but contacts with people from other plains will be much more difficult due to the mountain ridges, especially in times when such ridges could only be crossed on foot or horseback.

Provinces were made into the main administrative regions of China after the establishment of the People’s Republic, but their political and economic powers were strictly controlled by the central government in Beijing. With the start of the economic reforms in the early 1980s, more and more decision-making power was moved from the central to the provincial governments. As a result, provinces, in particular the ones in the coastal region, became a major source of revenue for the central government.

In the current administrative system, China is divided into 22 provinces, 5 Autonomous Regions, i.e. regions mainly inhabited by non-Chinese minorities that have been granted a certain degree of autonomy and 4 large cities directly controlled by the State Council (the Chinese Cabinet).

Key economic regions

A number of models have been set up  to reconcile the geological and administrative regions of China. This is not the place to discuss them all in detail. Instead, I will share the division Ilike to use myself, which is based on a number of criteria. The most important criterion is the geological division by mountain ridges and rivers. Other criteria include: dialect, cuisine, foreign influence, economic development, etc.


Administrative regions: Heilongjiang,

Jilin, Liaoning, Inner Mongolia

This region includes a number of non-Chinese minorities: Mongolians, Manchu, Koreans, etc. The region is located North of the Great Wall that was meant to keep the barbarians out of China. This regions has become Chinese only during the last dynasty (1644 – 1912). The Japanese installed a puppet government in this region during WW II. There is some Russian influence in the region, including a couple of Russian loan words in the Harbin dialect (see my special post on Harbin). It has always been there, but was intensified when many Russians settle there after the October Revolution.

It is one of the few regions in China with an indigenous dairy industry. It uses wheat as the staple, including European style baked bread. The diet is rich in protein.


Administrative regions: Hebei, Shandong,

Shanxi, Beijing, Tianjin

This region includes two of the cities under State control: Beijing, the national capital and Tianjin, one of China’s main sea ports. Shandong is a major food producer, good for 10% – 15% of the total turnover of the Chinese food industry, and also the home region of another major sea port: Qingdao. Yantai is often referred to as China’s food capital (see my special post on Yantai).

There has been substantial foreign influential in Beijing, as it has been the national capital since the 12th century. The same holds for Tianjin and Qingdao as foreign trade ports. Shandong had been ‘allocated’ to Germany after the end of the Opium War in 1848, and German influence is still visible in a number of buildings in coastal cities, and in the production of beer and wine (Riesling). Nowadays, the Shandong food industry has attracted significant investment from South Korea and Japan, as the products can be quickly transported from the Shandong ports to Korean and Japan. Shandong cuisine is one of China’s famous cuisines.

Wheat and maize are the typical staple foods.


Administrative regions: Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi

This is a conglomerate of a few second echelon inland provinces. Henan is China’s mean cereal and meat producing region. The capital of Hubei, Wuhan is a major hub for the distribution of food in China, as it is located along the Yangtze River, and along the Beijing – Kowloon railroad.

Hunan is known for its spicy cuisine.


Administrative regions: Anhui, Jiangsu,

Zhejiang, Shanghai

Although this region comprises one of China’s poorer provinces (Anhui), it is one of the richest of the economic regions. Jiangsu and Zhejiang are rich coastal provinces, the home regions of a number of sea ports, and Shanghai does not need any explanation.

Rice based Huaiyang Cuisine originates from this region, noted for its many sweet dishes.

Foreign influence has been also been long and intense in East China. Shanghai is China’s largest sea port, while the capital of Jiangsu, Nanjing, has been the national capital for a number of short periods.


Administrative regions: Fujian, Guangdong,

Hainan, Guangxi

This is by far the richest of the regions. Guangdong, actually its capital Guangzhou and its satellite cities, are good for approximately 10% of the national GDP. The region includes several of China’s so called Special Economic Zones: Shenzhen and Zhuhai in Guangdong, Xiamen in Fujian and the entire Hainan region.

The first foreign concessions in China were located in Guangzhou and the long-time colonisation of Hong Kong and Macao have added to a strong European influence in South China. The Cantonese dialect, based on the dialect of Guangzhou, has become the Lingua Franca of overseas Chinese in Europe and North America.

This is also reflected in the local cuisines. E.g. Cantonese Cuisine includes several milk based dishes.


Administrative regions: Guizhou,

Sichuan, Yunnan, Chongqing

This is the  region of China bordering Myanmar, Vietnam, etc. This is reflected in the fact that this region has a large number of non-Chinese minorities, and a lively border trade.

Sichuan is China’s most populous province and Chongqing China’s most populous city, while Chongqing is one of the four cities directly under the central government.

Yunnan, in particular the Pu’er region, is known for its tea, but has more recently developed in one of the world’s main centre’s of coffee production.

Sichuan Cuisine, known for its liberal use of chili, is one of China’s best known cuisines abroad. However, China’s most famous chili brand is still Laoganma.


Administrative regions: Gansu,

Shaanxi, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Tibet

This is a conglomerate of regions with a large variation in nationalities, religions, climates and cuisines. The aspect that binds them is that they are the least developed regions of China. Politically, some of them, in particular Xinjiang and Tibet, are also regions with regular ethnic conflicts. Islam is the major religion in Xinjiang and discussions regarding Halal food have increased in China recently.

The central government has been investing heavily in this region recently and is also stimulating Chinese companies to invest in the West. Tourism is one of the most promising sectors of the economy. Shaanxi’s capital Xi’an is known for the Terracotta Army, West Gansu for the Dunhuang caves with Buddhist frescos. Gansu and Xinjiang attract large numbers of Japanese tourists.

Meat (with emphasis on beef and mutton, of course) is an important ingredient of the local cuisines, while the staple food consists of a mix of various cereals. Agriculturally, Xinjiang is the most interesting region. It has, e.g., become the world’s largest production region for tomatoes. Many Italian tomato paste brands acquire a large part of their raw material from Xinjiang.

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.


Niangao – Chinese New Year Cake

Niangao is a Chinese dessert, typically eating during New Year, but enjoyed all year round

Niangao is a popular Chinese dessert. It was originally used as an offering in ritual ceremonies before it gradually became a Spring Festival food. Niangao is a prepared from glutinous rice. While it can be eaten all year round, traditionally it is most popular during Chinese New Year. It is also traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival. It is considered good luck to eat niangao during this time, because niangao is a homonym for “higher year.” The Chinese word nian meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to nian, meaning “year”, and the word gao, meaning “cake” is identical in sound to gao, meaning “high”. As such, eating niangao has the symbolism of raising oneself taller in each coming year (niannian gaosheng). It is also known as a rice cake. This sticky sweet snack was believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, with the aim that his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake, so that he can’t badmouth the human family in front of the Jade Emperor.

Niangao History

Niangao has a history of at least 1,000 years. Early in the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) people in Beijing had the custom of eating New Year cakes on the first day of the first month of the lunar year. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Niangao had already become a common folk snack, and remains so today.

The Niangao Legend

Niangao has a legend about its supposed Suzhou origin, around 2,500 years ago. In the Spring and Autumn Period (722 – 481 BC) of ancient China, the whole country was divided into different small kingdoms and people suffered from the chaos of war. At that time, Suzhou was the capital of the Wu Kingdom. Strong walls were built to protect Wu from attacks, and the king held a banquet to celebrate their completion. All of the people ceased to worry about the war, except for the Prime Minister Wu Zixu. He told his entourage: “War should not be viewed lightly. The strong wall is a good protection indeed, but if the enemy state besieges our kingdom, the wall is also a hard barrier to ourselves. In case things really go badly, remember to dig a hole under the wall.” Many years later, after Wu Zixu passed away, and his words came true. Many people starved to death during the siege. The soldiers did what Wu Zixu told them before and found that the wall under the earth was built with special bricks made from glutinous rice flour. This food saved many people from starvation. These bricks were the supposedly original niangao. After that, people made niangao every year to commemorate Wu Zixu. As time passed, niangao became what is now known as Chinese New Year cake.

How niangao is made

Niangao is usually made from glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, salt, water, and sugar. It is delicious when steamed, fried, or even eaten cold. Many people in rural areas still observe this ancient method to make New Year cakes:

  • First, put some steamed rice into a big stone container.
  • Second, beat it with a long-handled wooden hammer until the rice becomes a glutinous paste.
  • Then take the paste out, cut it into small pieces (about 150 grams per piece).
  • Lastly, roll them out into 3-centimeter-wide strips.

Niangao Types


Within the extensive land of China, customs vary in different areas: white rice cake is eaten in north China, yellow rice cake in the northern frontier of China, water-mill-made rice cake in southern China, and hongguigao (red turtle cake) in Taiwan. The flavors of niangao can be divided into two major kinds:

  • Sweet rice cake is usually made in northern China by steaming or frying.
  • In southern China, niangao can be sweet or savory, cooked by steaming, sliced-frying, or even cooking in soup.

Beijing New Year Cake

In Beijing, New Year cakes are on sale in many snack shops, like Qianmen Snack Street and Jiumen Snack Street, especially during the Spring Festival.

Guangdong Niangao and Hainan Niangao

Guangdong niangao is often like a soft, sticky dough, made from glutinous rice flour, peanut oil, and shelled melon seeds, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. Rice cakes made in this way taste soft and sweet. Hainan New Year cakes are made before the Spring Festival as gifts to share, with glutinous rice flour, sugar, sesame seeds, red dates and water as the main ingredients. There are some special ways to enjoy Hainan niangao, such as frying, baking, and boiling.

Jiangsu Niangao and Zhejiang Niangao

New Year cake New Year cake wrapped in bamboo leaves in southern China. In Jiangsu and Zhejiang (the Yangtze Delta area) choices of New Year cake fillings include sweet-scented osmanthus flower sugar, lard oil, and sweet red beans. In Zhejiang, the most common ‘year cake’  is Ningbo Niangao, made from rice which has been crushed in a water mill.

Industrial production

To survive in the present day, niangao needed to adapt itself for production on an industrial scale. Fortunately, unlike many other modernised versions of traditional Chinese foods, factory-produced niangao can stick to the basic formulation. I will take a major producer, Huangshan Tianfeng Foods Co., that produces niangao with a wide range of flavours, under the Lucky Years (Xiyunnian) brand as an example. The picture above shows the company’s generic niangao, with the basic ingredients:

Rice, water, salt.

Other flavours include:

Niangao with purple rice (basic ingredients + purple rice powder)

Niangao with pumpkin (basic ingredients + pumpkin powder)

Niangao with crispy skin (basic ingredients + sodium dehydro-acetate)

There are many more, but I would like to end with the most innovative one: cheese niangao (basic ingredients + cheese).

I have not yet heard or read any reaction about this combination of a Western ingredient with a traditional Chinese food, but I will look for it and add it hear as soon as I know.

Eurasia Consult has detailed information about Chinese manufacturers of niangao.

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.


I Love You – what Chinese do with oat

The first three words of the title of this post refer to a campaign of Xibei Youmian, a restaurant chain specialised in oat noodles. You(mian) is the Chinese word for ‘oat (noodles)’


Naked oat has more than 2100 year history in China. The Chinese oat growing region reached 1.13 million ha in the 1960s, but declined from 1980s, dropping to about 0.3 million ha in 2003, the lowest in history. After that, the area increased gradually. There were about 0.7 million ha of oats in 2010, with a total yield of about 850,000 mt. The reason for the recent increase is the growing popularity of this cereal, at least partly triggered by a new successful restaurant formula.

Westerners tend to associate oat with breakfast. Oat meal cooked in water or milk is a popular alternative for bread. Oat has been eaten as a staple in a large area in Northwest China (in particular: Shanxi, Gansu, Inner Mongolia). However, while the Western oat meal has reached Chinese breakfast tables as well in recent years, the traditional shapes in which it consumed is noodles.

In the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar, people in Inner Mongolia, especially in Hohhot, eat foods made with hulless oat flour in the form of noodles, rolls or pancakes involving various flavours. Oat is the staple food there. It is a low-yield, cold-resisting and salt-alkali-resisting crop with a short mature period, contain high protein, fat and many kinds of trace elements, such as iron, calcium and phosphorus. Oat powder can be made into noodles for mutton or vegetable soup seasoned with pepper and garlic.

Regular oat noodles are usually slightly thicker than the more common wheat noodles, due to the looser texture. The most typical presentation form of youmian in China is the cup noodle; short round hollow shapes that can be dipped in a savoury sauce, adding condiments of your choice. It is this type of oat noodles around which the above mentioned restaurant chain, Xibei Youmian, has been conceived. Xibei, though deliberately written with different characters, means ‘Northeast’, referring to the home region of Chinese oat. You have learned the word youmian in the opening paragraph.


Yet another traditional presentation form is the ‘oat fish’. This name is based on the shape, quenelles that, with a little phantasy, look like a fish. The picture shows fishes made from a combination of oat and yam.


Some innovative chefs are trying out new recipes like oat dumplings and oat pudding. Others make larger versions of the hollow oat noodles that can then be stuffed with different kinds of fillings.


Xibei Youmian serves oat in various shapes and other typical dishes of China’s Northwest. You can find them all over Beijing and they are crowded with returning patrons every lunch and dinner. Try it out yourself and I am sure you will join me in shouting ‘I love You!’.

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.