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.

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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).

BlackTreasures

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.