Chinese universities working on improving the make-up of sausages

Chinese universities working on improving the make-up of sausages

just-food's China columnist Peter Peverelli chews over the market for meat snacks in China, which has some very local attributes.

I often hear friends who want to show off knowledge about China state that 'the Chinese diet includes much less meat than that in the West'.

But, while this may have been (partly) true for some Chinese some time back in history, the modern Chinese consumer hardly ever lives a day without meat. Vegetarian food has never been in vogue in China. Only Buddhist monks are supposed not to eat meat.

One reason why the perception is so persistent could be meat is rarely the only ingredient of a Chinese dish. Chinese consumers seldom buy a piece of meat to prepare as a whole. They stir fry small chunks of meat with vegetables, mushrooms or tubers. This is one way of adding a meaty (umami) flavour to a dish. This is also the reason why Chinese prefer relative fatty meat, like pork belly, because the fat also adds texture to the dish.

However, that is fresh meat. This column focuses on ready-to-eat portable meat-based snacks. This is a market segment with good growth potential and opportunities for foreign suppliers.

Meat snacks are popular among Chinese travellers. China is a huge country and Chinese consumers spend hours (or even days) on trains. Meat snacks have become a regular item in their luggage. However, some of these snacks are also used as convenient cooking ingredients, because they pass their flavouring ingredients on to the entire dish, without having to mess around with pots of spices. As usual, I will introduce this market from a Chinese perspective, using the categorisation employed in the Chinese food industry.

Sausages

The overwhelming majority of Chinese sausages are made from pork. Two types are especially popular:

Cantonese sausages

Cantonese sausages are fermented. The lactic acid produced during the fermentation gives the sausages a specific taste and functions as a preservative. The sausages are relative firm and high in fat, not unlike salami. For this reason, they are often used to flavour dishes. A popular usage in Cantonese cuisine is to place a few slices on rice in a rice steamer.

Several Chinese research institutes and universities are engaged in R&D to improve the production process and nutritional value of traditional fermented sausages. Aspects involved include: preventing the oxidation of fat, protecting the colour, enhancing the flavour using enzymes and specially designed aromas, and decreasing the sodium level.

Ham sausages

This is an umbrella term for a large variety of, often individually packed, pork sausages that can be consumed as a snack. Chinese love to take them on trips but they also fit a student's bag to chew on during the breaks. And again, they also end up as the meat ingredient in dishes.

Cured meat

Dry cured meat products are closely related to regional culture in China. Consumers in different Chinese regions like different combinations of spices.

Soy sauce is a often used in curing meat. Star aniseed is also a prominently present.

Meanwhile, wet pickled meat has much in common with dried, cured products, with the main difference being wet products are boiled with spices, and cured meats pickled and dried.

Dried meat

Drying is a very old way to preserve meat. Beef jerky is a representative product and very popular in China. A typically Chinese product in this category is shred meat. Marinated meat is roasted over a slow fire until dry and then shredded. The process resembles pulled meat, but the shreds are considerably finer. Shred meat is used to flavour white rice, rice porridge or even a sandwich. A British friend whom I once gave a pack of shred meat loved to sprinkle it on pasta.

Canned meat

Canned meat is packed two ways: hard cans - for example for luncheon meat and what we are used to referring as canned meat - and soft cans.

Soft cans are a very Chinese phenomenon. It is meat packed in aluminium foil, so it does not have to be opened for processing their contents. You can heat the entire pack in boiling water and then empty the packaging. Soft cans have been developed by the Chinese army, but are also transferred to the consumer market.

A leading type of canned meat is luncheon meat. When I first lived in China as a student in 1975, I was surprised to find domestic luncheon meat in the shops. This was probably based on the fact that luncheon meat was a regular item in our kitchen when I was young. It was (and still is) a convenient ingredient to meat up a dish when you are in a hurry. You can slice it or dice it, eat it raw, stir it through noodles or fried rice, etc.

The consumption of luncheon meat has increased dramatically in China during past few years; from 136,000 metric tonnes in 2012 to 347,000 metric tonnes in 2018, according to Intelligence Research Group.

Opportunities

With China's second- and third-tier cities increasingly seeing the kind of modern, fast-paced lifestyles seen in the country's major cities further east, the demand for meat-based snacks (that can also be used in the kitchen) looks set to continue to grow considerably.

European prepared meat products have a good reputation among Chinese consumers, so with growing imports of ready-to-eat foods from that region, it should be worth the effort for European suppliers to build a distribution network in China.

At present, imported brands do not feature in the meat-snack categories, such as beef jerky, meat sausages and luncheon meat, carried on Ronghong Internet Services, the site that lists the most popular ten products per category.

Meat is still heavily linked to bilateral agreements. A recent example is China's approval of the import of salami, sausages and canned pork from Danish Crown, after more than nine years of trade talks between Beijing and Copenhagen. Interested parties can follow the Danish example and try to open the door to the Chinese market with the aid of their own ministries of economic affairs, trade or foreign affairs.

A marketing strategy that could work is to promote the health credentials of products - lower in fat or in salt, for example. Chinese consumers have become wary of food additives too, so foreign suppliers can use free-from as a USP.

New flavours would also be welcomed: jalapeño, all-spice or truffle are just a few flavours that I have picked up from Western sites introducing healthy meat snacks.