The pandemic has upended our plans for, well, almost everything, and for many, it has even led to a change of profession. For Heimi (who asked us to refer to her by her corporate pseudonym), a screenwriter with nearly a decade of professional experience, COVID-19 has brought about a new relationship… with bread.
“As someone who studies art, scripts are a means of self-expression. Bread is also my personal expression,” says Heimi, a 31-year-old hobby baker. This is from her home in Beijing.
“I was overseas when Wuhan first reported the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Heimi. “After I got home, everything [film] the industry has changed. Many film and television companies in Beijing have closed down, including my friend’s film company. Some projects I was working on were canceled due to cinema closures. All I could do was stay home and cook.
Heimi perfecting his bread. Image via Heimi
Heimi started out making desserts but was soon drawn to bread making. Yeast, a staple ingredient with over 5,000 years of history, is very sensitive to temperature, humidity and air, making delicate crafts difficult to master.
“The difference between making desserts and making bread is huge,” says Heimi. “You have to put a lot of sugar and butter in a cake. But when I started making bread, I realized that all you needed was four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water.
After taking short courses with two professional bakers, Heimi spent six months honing his baking skills. Within two years, she launched her own small bakery, Heimi’s Bread Kitchen.
China’s bakery industry has experienced rapid development in recent years. Euromonitor International estimates that retail sales of baked goods (packaged and unpackaged) in China were around $34 billion in 2020, or 9% of global retail sales, according to a report by the US Department of Health. ‘Agriculture.
A lucrative market means fierce competition, especially in metropolises. If you are looking for a bakery in Beijing on Dazhong Dianping, the app offers about 8,000 different places to buy a variety of baked goods.
One of Heimi’s European breads. Image via Heimi
The different types of bread in the Chinese market can be roughly divided into four categories: Japanese bread, European soft bread, European bread and Danish pastry. Japanese bread is often the softest and sweetest.
Soft European bread is a hybrid of European bread and soft Japanese bread. It can use multigrain flour, but it’s less chewy than hard European bread. It also has more layers of flavors tailored to the preferences of Chinese consumers. For example, they may have chocolate, cheese, or jerky tang fillings.
European bread is the standard bread you’ll find on the continent, usually imported to China or made using traditional European methods.
If you walk into a bread store in China, the shelves will most likely be filled with Japanese bread, soft European bread, and pastries. Although many stores are adding European bread to the menu for more variety, there is still a void in the market.
Heimi has visited a dozen bakers in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hangzhou, but she says it’s not easy to find authentic, high-quality European bread in China. This has prompted people who have lived or studied abroad and have taken a liking to European bread to turn to bakers like Heimi for a taste of the place they once called home.
“Home bakers are trying to fill the void in the market,” she says. “Because in China, Japanese bread and soft European bread are mainstream. There is a huge void in the market for authentic traditional European bread.
Image via Heimi
However, Heimi is optimistic about the future of European bread in China. She says popular bakeries can play a role similar to Starbucks in the Middle Kingdom. Where Starbucks helped popularize coffee in China, it’s only a matter of time before bakeries help locals get a taste for European bread through the featured products.
The market potential of European bread is no myth, especially considering how much young Chinese care about their daily sugar intake. On Xiaohongshu, China’s Instagram-like social media platform, more than 400,000 results will appear when you search”di tang“, the Chinese word for “low sugar” and 335,000 results for “kong tangwhich means “to control sugar consumption”. European and Japanese soft bread tends to be quite high in sugar due to its cakey taste and texture.
In the meantime, the Chinese have shown a keen interest in sports, training and general health, in part inspired by the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. And let’s not forget the singer, actor and coach fitness maker Will Liu, who in April and throughout Shanghai’s lockdown sparked a fitness craze after his home workout live streams were seen by millions across the country.
A healthy lifestyle naturally generates a demand for healthier food choices. European bread is therefore considered an ideal source of carbohydrates.
Image via Heimi
Heimi is a firm believer that “less is more” and applies the concept to his bread making. “I think we need to simplify our taste,” she says. “People are so used to adding flavors and MSG that it’s hard to taste the natural flavor of the food itself.”
For Heimi, baking is more than just a job. For her, it has been a journey of healing and reflection. Out of kindness, concern and sheer curiosity, many have asked him the same question: “Why don’t you write screenplays anymore?”
“People will always question your choices, but what matters most is how you define yourself,” says Heimi. “Some choose to spend their life working for a corporation, but some choose to pursue a spiritual awakening.”
It’s crucial to have an ongoing conversation with yourself, regardless of the doubts from the outside, according to Heimi. “To have that conversation, you have to find a medium like music, writing, calligraphy or dance. The dough in my hand is my medium.
So far, Heimi has no immediate plans to expand his business. “I don’t think I’ve developed a relationship with bread enough yet,” she says. “The world of bread is vast. You have to constantly adjust your relationship with yeast. I still have room to deepen my understanding of the science behind bread making.
Heimi is right, the world of baking is huge and the home bakery is only one way to carve out a place for yourself. Some brands, on the other hand, think outside the “dough”. For Uglicious Spread, which was only founded two years ago, it’s a pot of “spreadable bread”.
“Uglicious Spread is a lifestyle brand focused on serving breakfast and afternoon tea,” says Li Chao, CEO of Uglicious Spread, or Queshi in Chinese. “From what I understand, you don’t necessarily need a lot of money, a good house or a good paying job to be happy. We want our customers to have good products that bring happiness or positive feelings,”
The Chinese name of the brand means “magpie food”. In traditional Chinese culture, the magpie is a messenger bird that brings good news. Uglicious Spread was established in Changsha Province, which is also home to Xiang Spicy Cuisine.
Food creativity knows no borders. Li uses one of the brand’s most popular products, Jasmine Matcha Flavored Bread Spread, to explain his business concept of “live local, think global.”
“There are many types of matcha flavored products on the market. We thought the aroma of jasmine flowers would work well with Japanese matcha, which tastes a bit bitter,” Li explains. “It made for a wonderful balance, like a cocktail you might have at a bar.”
The company recommends customers put 10 grams of their spread on toast. By doing so, you only consume between 110 and 160 calories from the spread, which is equivalent to one-third of an apple.
Ugly spread. Image via Uglicious Spread
Another notable detail, the brand’s spread uses high quality natural butter. While margarine is still widely used in industry as a cheaper alternative, butter is generally preferred by Chinese customers as it is natural and free of trans fats. On food delivery apps like Meituan and Eleme, in an effort to appeal to this audience, bakeries will highlight in the product description if they use butter instead of margarine,
This eating habit is highlighted in two notorious food-related cases: In 2021, ice cream brand Unilever Magnum came under heavy criticism on Chinese social media platform Weibo for not using fresh milk in its Chinese market production line.
In March, South Korean confectionery maker Orion also suffered a similar shock for raising the price of Choco Pies in China while using substandard ingredients such as cocoa butter substitutes.
China is no stranger to the “healthy eating” trend. While many people may have different standards for what constitutes clean eating (a gym bro isn’t going to worry about the cocoa butter in Choco Pies, but that doesn’t mean people who love sweets don’t care). don’t care what’s going on in their bodies), a generally accepted practice is to choose fewer processed ingredients and additives.
Li reveals that Uglicious Spread will diversify its line of frozen baked goods with more products with short expiry dates. “A shorter expiration date is between 90 and 120 days, so it’s highly dependent on cold storage and cold chain logistics,” he says. “It also means that the ingredient list will be shorter, with fewer additive agents.”
Few would debate the impact of the pandemic on the economy, especially the service sector, but Li objects to the idea of blaming the pandemic for everything. “As a team or as a brand, don’t blame external factors for all your problems,” he says.
“Inevitably, we suffer losses or failures at different stages. But the fear of making mistakes will also keep you from breaking through or being creative. We need to look at the big picture with long-term thinking.
What is long-term thinking then? Taste is one of the main drivers of food trends, but Chinese consumers are focusing more on the quality of ingredients and their personal health when choosing what to eat. In the long run, it’s likely we’ll see producers focus more on quality products while trying to fill the void in the market for treats that don’t break the calorie bank, but also satisfy that sweet tooth.
[Cover image via Uglicious Spread]