UK universities aim to win Chinese hearts through their stomachs

British catering bosses have flown East to learn how to feed what is an increasingly vital student market. Richard McComb reports from China

January 14, 2016
Sun Yat-sen University student holding tray of food
Source: Richard McComb
Lunch – and not a sandwich in sight: a student at Sun Yat-sen University

Peter Williams has an uncompromising message as he describes the perception of British food among Chinese students.

The land of roast beef, fish and chips and ploughman’s lunches is, quite frankly, a joke.

“The UK has a bad reputation for food,” says Williams, director of the British Business Centre in Beijing. His Chinese colleagues love visiting the UK and enthuse about the experience. “But if they want to make fun of you for being British, they make fun of the food,” Williams says with a wry smile.

He is addressing a delegation of UK catering and hospitality managers from The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) at the China-Britain Business Council in the sprawling city’s Chaoyang District. But Williams’ words are proving hard to swallow for his jet-lagged audience.

TUCO members have flown 5,000 miles to learn about the dining habits of Chinese students, who represent the UK’s biggest international market in higher education. Chinese students made up 20 per cent of all international students in 2013-14, according to Universities UK. The total number, 87,895, was up almost 5 per cent year-on-year.

UK universities pocketed £3.9 billion in tuition fees from international students in the same period. If growth in the Chinese market continues apace, it could soon be worth £1 billion to UK vice-chancellors.

The financial rewards, and the fostering of closer economic and political ties between Beijing and London – evidenced by the state visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to the UK last October – explains why TUCO is keen to roll out the red carpet for what is an increasingly vital clientele.

Williams’ analysis certainly provides food for thought. He says that most Chinese students will have had no experience of Western food, or at least not good Western food, before they arrive in the UK. “Chinese people love food. It is a part of their culture they take particular pride in. They believe it is better than food in other countries. It is a tough battle to get Chinese students to eat British food.”

A visit to Peking University provides a wake-up call to anyone under the illusion that stereotypical sweet and sour pork, served on a monthly menu rotation, will cut it with Chinese students on British campuses.

At the university’s Nong Yuan canteen (literally “agricultural garden”), up to 10,000 students sit down for lunch from 10.30am. The scale of the catering operation is mind-blowing. The university serves 47,000 lunches each day through its various outlets. That is the equivalent of feeding more than half the British Army.

The volume does not limit choice. Over the three floors of Nong Yuan, some 350 freshly cooked dishes are available, including vast buffet-style options with noodles, fish, vegetables and braised meats. There are counters where dishes are cooked to order in woks; slow-cooked soups and broths in clay pots; and a formal restaurant that specialises in Peking duck. All of China’s eight main regional cuisines are represented.

Vegetable dishes start from the equivalent of just 5p, while a soup of glutinous pigs’ trotters and soya beans is 50p. Unlike the UK, the kitchens are not run as commercial enterprises and are state subsidised. It costs about £1 for a substantial meal at a Chinese institution, compared with £4-£6 in the UK.

There is a single Western food outlet, which serves an underwhelming pineapple-clad pizza. If the Chinese food offered on UK campuses is as authentic as the Chinese take on pizza, it is no wonder that students from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou opt to cook for themselves rather than to dine in university canteens.

Members of the TUCO party admit that they have struggled to understand the food mindset of Chinese students. Representatives from many institutions, including the University of Birmingham, report unsuccessful attempts to woo Chinese students with congee, the hugely popular rice porridge dish. Having eaten authentic congee for the first time, the catering managers accept that their recipes have been wrong and that they have failed to offer the correct condiments (coriander, chillies, ginger, tofu, peanuts and such), which give the inherently bland dish its flavour.

Some mistakes have been born of cultural misunderstandings.

Scott Girvan, executive chef at the University of Glasgow, realises with horror that the Scottish university has been charging 10p for chopsticks. Most Chinese, the group learns, will never have used knives and forks. “Imagine you are a Chinese student and you have to pay for chopsticks. Well, you’re going to think, ‘What the hell have I done coming here?’ They are going to get the chopsticks for nothing now,” says Girvan.

In addition to Peking University, TUCO visits Beijing Normal University, a teacher training establishment, before moving to Sun Yat-sen University, Lingnan University (both in Guangzhou) and Hong Kong University. Of the five, Hong Kong is the only place where the TUCO delegates see sandwiches, which are typically given to baffled Chinese students at UK institutions.

Reflecting on the offerings for international students on UK campuses, TUCO director Matthew White, director of catering, hotel and conference services at the University of Reading, says: “One of the first meals they get is breakfast, which is likely to be cereal, milk and bread – all things the Chinese don’t really eat. Beans, egg and sausage isn’t going to cut it.”

Caterers plan to build on the success of the trip by putting together a training and information package on Chinese cooking for campus chefs and managers.

Julie Barker, chair of TUCO, says that there are key dishes, sauces and ingredients that will help to satisfy Chinese students’ yearning for a taste of home. But she concedes that it will be impossible to replicate the grand sweep of dishes provided at Chinese universities.

“The lowest number of hot meal choices we have come across in China is 100, every day of the week. It is just staggering,” says Barker, director of accommodation and hospitality service at the University of Brighton.

She adds that through the TUCO trip, the catering managers have been able to meet key people at Chinese universities, so “potentially we can look at exchange visits with chefs so they can learn from us and we can learn from them”.

But she also accepts: “My perceptions of Chinese food have been blown away. Changing that perception in the UK is going to be challenging.”

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