Blog : food

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.

Guinness is Golden for You?

Guinness is Golden for You?

For several years now Diageo has been trying, with mixed success, to stretch the Guinness brand into new product territories, with previous shortlived innovations including Guinness Red, Brite and Light.

We’ve debated in the past why these launches haven’t endured, with some feeling that the brand can’t and shouldn’t be stretched too far away from what Guinness is at its core. While this instinct be right, I can’t help but hope that it’s wrong. If you compare Guinness to Apple (as most things are these days), they didn’t just stop with the iPod breakthrough and settle for being the ‘best music provider’.

So, when we think about ‘Guinness’, what are the first things that spring to mind? Irish? Old? Heavy? Creamy? Tasty? Premium? Unmistakable?

At its core, Guinness is that thick and creamy dry stout, typically associated (St Patrick’s Day aside) with middle-aged to older gentlemen, country pubs and any season that isn’t Summer. When we look at shandy, light lagers or even ciders, can we say the same?

Guinness of course has long-standing history in the category, and is a largely unrivalled stout. Ultimately, the brand attributes all build to a rich, distinguishable product, arguably giving Guinness the credibility to expand into other beer types – but perhaps not into lighter beers. At least, not until now.

The gap between dark and light beers is undeniably large and their consumption occasions often different, but their audiences are very different too – as well as their relationship with and perceptions of the brand. When we look at ‘lighter’ beer consumers, their drivers and influencers, the behavioral change that we’re asking of them to step Guinness’s way is huge and demanding.

But while Diageo’s attempts at lighter Guinness beers have faltered in the past, we shouldn’t write them off forever. Recently, they’ve been riding that Craft Beer ‘trend-wagon’ in the middle ground, and to some considerable success. Their previous campaign, the ‘Brewers Project’, launched the Dublin Porter and Guinness West Indies Porter – both of which are said to have generated considerable boosts in figures. Both mined the heritage of Guinness; brewers digging through the archives and sifting through old recipe books to re-invent something spectacular. It stood up.

The most recent creation however is more daring and is capturing our attention more – the Golden Ale.

The ad itself feels almost magical; the Willy Wonka style gates evoke a sort of childhood nostalgia and secrecy – we’re being exclusively invited in behind the scenes. We’re invited to join in with the discovery of a product; it feels fun yet scientific – an adventure. The premium cues come through strongly, with the advert drawing on pride, worth and uniqueness – all existing and universally recognized brand attributes. The rest of the advert plays out the consumption occasions for the new beer. It differentiates the new product from the existing Guinness range, nicely defining the time and place of consumption for the new target audience; sharing, friends, summer. Great execution.

Could it provide that much needed bridge for Diageo between Guinness and light beers and their audiences – and open the gates to further innovation for Guinness?

Well, the innovation itself feels bold enough to capture attention (notably the colour and texture) and holds on to enough Guinness brand equity to feel meaningful (ale, not lager/shandy/cider). It also interests me how Diageo have positioned this beer locally. In the UK it’s an Ale – but in reality it’s closer than most to a Blonde Lager, which (coincidentally) is how it’s positioned in the US.

But is the idea of a Guinness Ale distinctive and compelling enough to take a slice of the vibrant, discerning, craft ale category (where unfamiliar names are the order of the day)? Perhaps. At the very least, it’s a smart way to get a quick piece of the ale action, without building a new-to-world brand – and it probably does no harm at all to the parent, the noble ‘Black Stuff’. Currently, Guinness-the-parent is all about being ‘Made of More’. Arguably, a Golden Ale reinforces that ‘More’ claim.

Give it time. New, younger brand ambassadors for the Golden Ale may emerge and Guinness may earn more license to stretch further into ‘lighter’ spaces. In my household at least, that Golden Ale story provoked plenty of curiosity – so it’s now on the shopping list for our next trip. Let’s hope it passes the taste test. Safe…

Humbled by Economy Strawberry Jam

Humbled by Economy Strawberry Jam

NoshA while ago I was visiting Auckland in New Zealand and found myself in Ponsonby, a onetime working class inner-city suburb of unassuming, white weatherboard houses, which has since become an Auckland Greenwich Village or Notting Hill. You know: eye-watering real estate prices, power walkers, high end eateries and delis.
I came across the local branch of a market-style grocery chain called Nosh, which feels a little like a NZ take on Whole Foods. You’re seeing organic produce in baskets, chalk boards, lots of imported dairy, charcuterie and condiments.
This is not the kind of place I was going to find my local FMCG heroes (the fabled Kiwi ‘Chocolate Fish’, ‘Pineapple Lumps’ or ‘Burger Rings’). For one of the awkward pleasures often shared by people working in insight is heading to the supermarkets and ogling the local mass-market legends (see also: Maple Syrup Baked Beans; salty licorice, Bird’s Milk, Tim Tams, etc).

At Nosh, I met Planet Earth’s most ‘added-value’ Economy Strawberry Jam. They were stocking Essential Waitrose Strawberry Jam – several neat rows of it. This strawberry jam was being sold at over twice the price it is sold at in the UK, and confidently fraternising with a select few decidedly premium jams.

It felt like a micro-scandal, this. Surely, Ponsonby gourmets were being taken for fools? It also felt a little reckless (for wouldn’t the well-travelled, Anglophile Aucklander know all about Waitrose?). Here is a foodie nation that often does homely British-style ‘comfort food’ better than the British (I give you fish and chips). Here is a nation that invented the ‘flat white’. It seemed perverse to me that a bountiful land of vineyards and orchards (and, I’m guessing, strawberry fields) would fly a jar of economy strawberry jam 18,000 kilometres to its cupboards.

(For the non-UK reader, Essential is Waitrose’s ‘private label’ / value range, introduced early in the UK recession to help stem a defection of shoppers to discount stores. Given Waitrose’s strong aspirational, middle class associations, there’s often unintended humour when a food receives its ‘essential’ badge. It’s hard not to imagine crude mobile phone footage on CNN (to the wail of sirens and gunfire) – a breathless professional in a torn shirt, pleading to the Red Cross for Essential Guacamole and Essential Chorizo).

Seeing Essential Strawberry Jam posturing here, I instantly Instagram-ed it. This felt like shopper dynamite. I tweeted it to Nosh (okay, I had struck on some free wireless), glibly asking them if they thought Aucklanders wouldn’t realise that they were being sold ‘economy’ for premium.

They replied that they weren’t passing it off as premium, but they stocked it because their customers loved it. That is a tiny bit evasive (it’s an emphatically premium store, with premium food; they don’t sell my Burger Rings or Diet Coke).

But they have a perfectly solid point – customers want it.

This was a moment I should probably cherish. Besides finding the most added-value economy strawberry jam on the planet, here was my pristine reminder that value is in the eye of the beholder; that brands are built on consumer belief, not hard facts; that context is extremely powerful (there’s glamour, 18,000 km from drizzly England, rubbing shoulders with truffle oil and Fiji water). That sometimes just being novel and distinctive on shelf can be special enough. That provenance – e.g. Britishness, there in NZ – can hold huge sway.

It’s also a reminder about strong, single-minded design: the ‘Essential’ packaging is plain and utilitarian, but, actually, that same pared back, typography-led look-and-feel is just as likely to grace premium brands (BluePrint Juice; Vitamin Water, Voss, Aesop, Jo Malone), where they come across as desirably understated and in no hurry to flaunt themselves.

So, behold: that Waitrose Essential Strawberry Jam was positively dripping value. In fact I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t bring a few jars back to the UK.