Soup has traditionally been a core element in Chinese cuisine and remains so – even if consumers now have less time to cook. Interest in convenient options is growing and manufacturers, Peter Peverelli writes, must, as ever, look to cater to local usage occasions and taste.
Virtually all Chinese families eat soup every day. Even if we stick to the western concept of soup (a savoury, liquid stock of meat and/or vegetables, enriched with chunks of meat, vegetables and other ingredients to create a compound sensation of flavours and textures), 60% of Chinese families eat soup every day, meaning about 500 million bowls of soup are consumed nationwide every 24 hours and some 320bn bowls of soup every year.
However, the Chinese word for soup – tang – has a much broader scope of reference than ‘soup’ in English. Broadly, while western dishes are usually dry, with a separately-prepared sauce added, a typical Chinese dish is stir-fried in vegetable oil. Other liquid ingredients like water, or soy sauce, can be added and the dish served. Influenced by traditional medicine, Chinese believe the liquid part of the dish contains extracted nutrients.
That liquid part is also referred to as ‘soup’ (tang). So, in the Chinese perception, soup can be prepared as a stand-alone dish but is also a component of the majority of all Chinese dishes. This ‘soup’ is often retained in home cooking, and sometimes even taken home from a restaurant, to be used later, for preparing noodles, for example.
If we stick to the concept of ‘soup’ in the Chinese sense, the ultimate soup is produced by noodle shops that claim they have let their cooking pot simmer for years, regularly replenishing it with water and ingredients. This is referred to as ‘old soup’, or laotang.
Some domestic entrepreneurs have started developing stock for ‘old soup’, which imitates the odour and flavour of a pot of soup that has been simmering for a long time. These stocks are not simply the mental product of smart marketeers, but the result of academic research, experimenting with bones of different animals and various plants, using tailor-made enzymes. The leading manufacturer, Leader (Lida) Food in Henan province, reports a capacity of 80,000 metric tonnes per year, selling into the retail and foodservice channels.
Thinking about this broader concept of soup as tang, retailers in China sell liquid, powdered and solid stock. In 2019, some 62% of sales were of products deemed ready-to-eat, or, more precisely, soup to which hot water is added.
The macroeconomic and demographic factors that have transformed China’s economy in recent decades has, as should be expected, shaped consumers’ demand for packaged food, with interest in more convenient options growing.
Further boosted by Covid-19, demand for convenience has accelerated. Since February, the overall sales of soup on the Alibaba-owned online supermarket Tmall have increased nearly sevenfold from a year earlier.
According to Statista, the value of China’s soup market stood at CNY25.16bn (US$3.69bn) in 2019. The researchers forecast that to heat up to CNY32.56bn this year, helped by demand during the pandemic. (Incidentally, Statista forecasts sales of CNY30.15bn in 2021 and the market continuing to grow but not reaching the Covid-fuelled 2020 level until 2025).
To get an idea of the soup proving popular, the paizi10.com website – which is linked to another Alibaba-owned online store, Taobao – compiles lists of the top products by category, including of ready-to-eat soup. Four of the top five brands offer more or less similar products – a powdered soup base with various mixtures of dehydrated vegetables, egg, meat, etc. – sold in pouches or cups. Both, again, only need boiling water to create the soup.
Subo, a brand owned by Huayu Industrial Co., a manufacturer in China’s eastern Shandong province, is listed as the top brand. A transliteration of ‘soup’, Subo also has a product range of cubes. These are soup bases that can be used to make a simple bouillon by adding boiling water, or used as an ingredient in a stir-fried dish.
Third on the paizi10.com list is the Shinho brand, manufactured by another business based in Shandong, Shiho Weida Food Co. Fourth is Xinmeixiang from Hubei-based Xinmaixiang Food Co. and fifth is Xiaoyao Laoyangjia, owned by Laoyangjia Food Co., located in Henan province.
At number two is Unilever’s Knorr (which also sells such cubes). Knorr is a good example of an international brand that has been able to successfully adapt to local eating habits and culture. The brand may be German but most of its products listed on the paizi10 site are Chinese-style, powdered, instant soups and cups with concentrates that can be used for cooking. A popular TV ad shows how ‘even a man’ can cook a meal for his children with a Knorr cup of concentrated soup.
With the Chinese soup market being so big (and growing), why don’t we see more international brands making inroads? One reason is suppliers are not familiar with the Chinese perception of soup and therefore position their product incorrectly.
Campbell’s appears to be the only major international brand available in China with a broad range of canned soups. Online retailer Jingdong, owned by JD.com, lists 11 imported products, with Australia or Malaysia indicated as the region of origin.
The product information of, for example, Cream of Mushroom does indicate the soup can be used as a sauce in various dishes but these are all western. The Chinese do eat western food but in restaurants. In my long experience, I have never tasted western food home-cooked by my Chinese friends. This brand and product positioning can be easily rectified.
The Heinz brand is prominently available in China, with products produced domestically. However, brand owner Kraft Heinz does not sell soup in China, focused instead on baby food and soy sauce. Strange, given the prominence of soup in Kraft Heinz’s business in other markets and as Heinz was one of the first western companies to set up manufacturing in the country.
One reason Knorr is doing so well in China is there is hardly another overseas challenger. Maggi is produced in China, but Nestlé has created cannibalistic competition between Maggi and the local brands Totole and Haoji it has acquired. In a market like China, it can pay off to concentrate all efforts on promoting one brand.