Cooking Culture Gives Standardizers Food for Thought

2016-09-26 05:39:28

On June 15 this year, the Xian Municipal Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision in Shaanxi province formally introduced technical regulations for the production of roujiamo — a much-loved regional delicacy often referred to as a “Chinese hamburger” — as well as five other kinds of traditional snacks.

Among other things, it put a 4-milimeter limit on the thickness of lazhirou, the particular cut of meat that is stewed and spiced before serving, and specified a 65 percent to 35 percent ratio of fatty to lean meat. Meanwhile, the baijibing, or flatbread, should be a crisp golden-brown on the outside and soft on the inside.

Xian is by no means the first place in China to standardize the production processes of its local cuisine. In the last few years, people across the country have been searching for a “road to standardization,” seeking a way to ensure standardization processes remain suited to traditional Chinese cooking techniques, while also bringing them closer to the requirements of the international food industry as a whole.

From famous individual dishes like Lanzhou pulled noodles, Chongqing small noodles, and Xian’s flatbreads soaked in lamb soup, to the more general regional cuisines of Shandong, Hunan, Sichuan, and Zhejiang provinces, the standardization of Chinese food has aroused interest not only within the industry, but also among the general public.

Overall, Chinese food standardization involves defining the type and proportion of each ingredient, specifying correct cooking methods, analyzing their nutritional composition, and designating the official name of each dish. It goes on to include standardized operational procedures at food companies, from production and distribution, right down to proper forms of table service.

In layman’s terms, the fact that the mapo tofu you eat in Chengdu tastes the same as the mapo tofu you eat in Beijing is all down to food standardization.

If we ‘standardize’ the culinary experience, what we’re left with is often merely a bastardized version of the original dish.

In promoting organizations that standardize Chinese food, the interaction of quality supervision bureaus and food industry associations at all levels has been key. The 38 articles of standardization that the Hunan Provincial Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision announced in 2013, for example, standardized certain Hunanese dishes down to the cuts of meat in Chairman Mao’s red-cooked pork.

The first regional standard for Chongqing small noodles was ratified in January this year and has already come into force. The level of refinement required in preparing these noodles is breathtaking: The chopped spring onions alone have to be washed during rough-processing, then after being drained, cut into small slices between 0.3 and 0.5 centimeters in length.

In fact, the penchant for fast-tracking Chinese food standardization has been strongly influenced by the modern operational concepts of famous Western food outlets. As the likes of KFC and McDonald’s have replicated themselves all over the world, Chinese food companies have seen an opportunity for a similar Chinese model based on mass production, economies of scale, and standardization.

When Guan Yangli, the head of the standardization office at the Xian quality inspection bureau, introduced standard production processes for the city’s traditional foods, he said that standard designations have the eventual aim of marketing Xian food on a larger scale through retail chains. In the same way that dishes like Lanzhou pulled beef noodles and Shaxian snacks have proved popular across the country, so it is hoped that they can emulate the worldwide success of KFC and McDonald’s.

At the moment, while domestic food chains like Grandma’s Home, Xibei, and Ganqishi are rapidly expanding, they are also exploring standardization systems for their flagship products. This not only guarantees food safety for China’s urban customers, but also plays an important role in quality control and cost reduction. It also increases brand value.

The challenge is that the Chinese food industry is highly regionalized, ethnically heterogeneous, and requires complex food processing techniques. These characteristics make many of the more complicated dishes practically impossible to standardize completely. The popular domestic food documentary “A Bite of China” has shown that the charm of Chinese cuisine to a great extent lies in how natural, artisanal, and regional it is — characteristics at odds with the concept of full standardization.

In addition, many Chinese delicacies are more than just food — they are a part of the country’s cultural heritage. Passed down from person to person, such heritage is inherently resistant to external standardized models. If we focus on standardizing the end product, we lose the intangible nature of culinary heritage.

Take Hai Di Lao Hot Pot, for example. This kind of dining experience, whereby one picks out the raw ingredients and boils them individually in a communal pot, thrives on giving customers a personalized and autonomous service, whether it be through the base sauces, the specific ingredients one chooses, the cooking time, or the final seasoning of the dish. If we “standardize” the culinary experience, what we’re left with is often merely a bastardized version of the original dish.

Despite all the concerns and arguments to the contrary, it seems that we can expect the further standardization and internationalization of Chinese cuisine in future. The question is: How should we accomplish this moving forward?

I believe, firstly, that we should draw inspiration from modern health and nutritional concepts, regardless of their traditional culinary heritage, and explore which specific dishes can be standardized in a spirit of improvement and innovation. This will primarily involve standardizing sauces and individual products, which in turn ensures that the final product adheres to a significantly improved textural and aesthetic standard.

For the standardization of individual products, China could draw on its experience with baozi (steamed dumplings) and mantou (steamed buns). Several of these simpler foods have already benefitted from standardization. Just ask the university students of Boston, who can now enjoy Ganqishi baozi anytime, at the new location in Harvard Square!

(Header image: A woman prepares a 'roujiamo' at a snack bar in Xian, Shaanxi province, Feb. 20, 2014. VCG)