Blog : China

Chinese Cooking: A Cultural Tapestry

Chinese Cooking: A Cultural Tapestry

In 2012, ‘A Bite of China’, a CCTV documentary series about Chinese food and cooking was aired and quickly became a national hit.

While there is a plethora of documentaries on food produced around the world every year, the vast majority adopting a ‘technical’ perspective, this documentary series almost seems ‘out of place’ – and surely there are not enough facts and figures in it. The series focuses instead on the history, the culture and the people behind the food. There is neither a Michelin-star chef nor an artisan kitchen – it’s all about the simple food that ordinary families cook and eat at home, the authentic local cuisine.

The audience loved it – in fact, it was such a success that the production team made a second season, aired in 2014. ‘A Bite of China’ tells a story that resonates with everyone in the country – experiences repeated and passions shared.

In China, love for food is universal. This love bonds people together. A traditional way of greeting your neighbour in Beijing is ‘Have you eaten?’ instead of ‘How are you?’, as ‘How are you’ sounds far too formal to Chinese ears. On second thoughts, it also actually makes sense – what could be more important than food in a world of foodies? Nothing, really. If you have eaten, you’ll be alright. The answer can vary between a simple ‘yes’ and more details, such as ‘not yet, I’m on my way to buy some spring onions.’ By replying to the greeting in a casual manner, the two of you feel instantly much closer, as if you have reached a secret consensus on not talking about grand ideas or outlooks on life. You perceive yourselves as part of the same group, and an imagined community is born.

To the Chinese, cooking is also an adventure happening in a small space. To cook a good meal, the chef needs to stay focused, as timing is everything for most Chinese dishes. The ingredients and seasonings have to be added in the right order, at the right moment and be cooked for the right duration; otherwise, the taste would be different. In fact, timing can have an impact on the three essential factors of Chinese cooking, known as ‘colour, aroma, and taste’ (se, xiang, wei). It is the precise coordination of a series of delicate tasks under time pressure that makes the chef’s job challenging. A Chinese cook can never dream about leaving the turkey in the oven and setting the timer as ‘job done’.

As much as a daily chore, cooking is more than just getting something edible onto the dinner table; it’s about experimenting within a framework, exploring all the opportunities and making the most of your ingredients. I remember when I was at school, there was one day when my mum was out of town and my dad was working late. I was sleepy but hadn’t had anything for dinner. When my dad came back, he searched the fridge inside out and only found a cucumber. He walked into the kitchen with the cucumber in his hand and then closed the door. He came out of the kitchen 20 minutes later, holding a plate. The cucumber was wriggling on the plate, almost like a fish swimming in a pond. ‘Try it,’ he said. I had my doubts (sorry, Dad) but with the first bite, my taste buds got a startling wake-up call. The flavours of sweet, sour and spicy blended harmoniously together, forming a complex and stimulating taste. I finished it all, and saw my dad smiling at me. He said it was a dish my grandmother used to cook for him in the past. He could easily have just made me a cucumber salad!

To this day, I still remember how the light was cast on the table that night, how I stretched out the cucumber with chopsticks, and how the aroma of the dish lingered in the house for a while. Memories about food don’t fade easily.

These days, if I dine out in Chinese restaurants, I will sometimes order the same cucumber dish my dad cooked, just to give it a go (it’s called suo yi huang gua). They all have slightly different presentations and tastes, some better, some worse, but I think I’ve acquired the spirit of the dish. The continuously fine-tuned flavours cultivate the love for food, reinforce the memories about family, and inspire a new journey for the next generation. This is how culture gets passed on. After all, people themselves are merely cultural artefacts.

Smartphones in Beijing: Hello Xiaomi, Goodbye Apple

Smartphones in Beijing: Hello Xiaomi, Goodbye Apple

ML sellerI took this photo as I walked through a subway in central Beijing, China’s fast-paced capital. The man in the picture, Gao Jie, was playing with his large screen smartphone as I walked past his stand. He runs a street stall, selling a range of products – Thai candles, phone screen protectors and decorative mobile chains. The electric bike in the background is his means of commuting to work. His was sending a WeChat message on his phone K-Touch (a local Chinese brand), which cost him £80 at the time he bought it. When asked how much he could make every month, he was smiling, ‘not too much’, he said. According to official stats, the average monthly salary of Beijing is about £500.

It is not rare to see similar cases as Gao in the city. In fact, it is fairly common to see street vendors, delivery boys, security guards and blue collar workers with ‘fancy’ smartphones – and probably more so in Beijing than in London. That’s not because people in Beijing have higher disposable incomes than those in London. In fact my friend who was visiting China with me is an Austrian national and was completely shocked by what he saw. “Why do these people have smartphones?’. He had assumed that most people like Gao in Beijing would use feature phones or something more basic.

His question was halfway answered when we walked into a local mobile phone store. The Hisense 966, a 5-inch quad-core smartphone with 2G RAM is priced less than £40, and this is just one among many local brands doing in-store promotions. Surprisingly, the deals weren’t attracting many customers – the store was half empty and there were more sales staff than customers. One of the staff told me that these days, consumers prefer to buy mobile phones online, for the additional freebies (such as a free phone cases, back-up battery or a sim-card cutter from the seller).

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The Rise of Local Brands

The Chinese market used to be dominated by Apple and Samsung, but this has been rapidly changing since 2013. Local mobile phone brands are now catching up by producing competitive products at more affordable prices, which is proving to be appealing to Chinese consumers.

A good example is hot-selling Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, which is taking away dedicated iPhone fans from Apple. Xiaomi smartphones may have started off as a ‘knock-off’ iPhone, running on an Android operating system, but they have now demonstrated their innovative credentials and are endorsed by consumers for their ease to use, high performance and low price. In fact, Xiaomi has numerous customisable features that make the smart more advanced in some ways.

Since December 2013, Xiaomi has beaten iPhone and Samsung, becoming the bestseller smartphone brand in China. While capturing a significant share of the domestic market, Xiaomi have also had some success in other Asian markets – in Singapore, for example, batches of Xiaomi phones sold out within a few minutes of being launched in 2014. The company plans to sell 40 million handsets in 2014, which is more than double the number it sold in 2013. Brands like Xiaomi may be little known outside China (especially in Europe), yet their rapid development is quickly changing existing market dynamics and challenging our way of thinking.

Another half of the answer to the smartphone’s penetration can be found by understanding the Chinese mentality when it comes to technology. In 2012, a 17-year-old teenager notoriously sold one of his kidneys in order to afford an iPhone – shocking the national press. The focus of the story in Western media was on illegal organ trading, while the Chinese media was busy criticising the failure of education or materialistic values. Hardly anybody paid enough attention to the reason behind the trade-off from the teenager’s perspective. Naturally I wouldn’t agree with (or encourage) behavior of this kind, but I do believe that there may have been strong motivations making the young man so determined to trade part of his body for the ideal smartphone.

This left me trying from another perspective to understand how a smartphone could be believed to be so important to an individual. From a cultural standpoint, China is not the best place to talk about freedom. Social norms, family expectations, political constraints and singular definition of success…all of these contribute to the formation of conformist individuals and a collective society as a whole. Unlike the social environment, a smartphone offers open sources (e.g. free applications), equal accessibility to information (e.g. the internet) and opportunities to stand out in non-traditional ways, providing the chance to challenge the status quo and to fully develop individual potential. In a nutshell, it is the freedom that technology brings which turns a smartphone into a magic wand.

The crazy organ selling incident has been almost forgotten since it happened two years ago. What hasn’t changed much is the desire and appetite for advanced technology in China. With an up-to-date touch screen smartphone, consumers are being empowered with the freedom to express themselves and explore the world – a kind of freedom that is incredibly valued by the Chinese and especially by younger generations.

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On our way back, my friend was once again surprised by how young the Chinese technology consumers were. We kept seeing kids running into mobile phone stores with their parents, or using their own devices in public spaces. Those young people who were born after 1990 or 2000 seem to have more progressive, exploratory attitudes and behaviours around technology and smartphones, compared to those in their late 20s or early 30s. How to appeal to this zealous, fast-changing and increasingly domestically-led market that we see in urban China is a question that marketers and businesses will need to consider.

Michelle

 

[1] [http://www.chinaabout.net/beijing-2012-average-monthly-salary-reached-5223-yuan-us-836/]

[2] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-08/china-s-xiaomi-plans-to-give-the-world-iphone-cool-at-half-price.html

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/02/us-china-xiaomi-idUSBREA010B920140102