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Better dining, coffee choices reflect gastronomical progress
By Doug Young

A FEW food-related items, two in the news and one in my personal life, made me realize once more just how far China’s eating scene has advanced in the last two decades, especially in an increasingly international city like Shanghai.

The two news stories both involved coffee, which I wrote about a few weeks ago as I noted the recent explosion in new chains and coffee houses.

The latest twist has fast-food giant KFC joining the trend, with word that it’s rolling out a premium coffee product in a bid to boost its downscale image.

If that wasn’t enough, Goubuli, a well-known local chain whose name is synonymous with baozi, or meat-filled steamed buns, is also entering the upscale coffee business through a new joint venture with Australian chain Gloria Jean’s.

On a more personal level, I was quite excited to discover this week that the main cafeteria at the university where I teach has opened a special new section devoted exclusively to Xinjiang Muslim food.

Foreigners like myself seem to have a special fondness for Xinjiang food, probably because it resembles Western cuisines in several ways, and I’m fairly certain I’ll be a regular diner at this new and surprisingly good choice during my lunch breaks next semester.

These kinds of choices were rare or nonexistent in the China of the 1980s and early 1990s, when, somewhat ironically, names like KFC and McDonald’s were actually a form of haute cuisine due to their clean atmosphere, friendly service and food that was considered quite high quality at that time.

Fast forward to today, when chains like KFC and Goubuli have moved steadily downmarket, and are now considered places to grab a fast bite and then quickly leave.

The KFC item was the first to grab my attention, as local media reported the chain known for its greasy chicken was preparing to roll out a premium fresh-ground coffee costing 10 yuan (US$1.64) or more per cup.

That’s quite revolutionary for a chain that currently sells its low-end coffee for much less, with good reason since it doesn’t taste very good. McDonald’s already does something similar with its separate McCafes inside its restaurants, selling premium coffee that costs around 20 yuan per cup.

KFC’s move is part of broader overhaul for the chain, which is finally waking up to the reality that its stores are no longer the chic and popular dining destination they used to be 15 or 20 years ago.

Shanghai looks set to become one of the test beds for the overhaul, which will also include a number of other features to make restaurants more comfortable places to sit and enjoy a meal or cup of coffee rather than simply eat and run.

The Goubuli news was similar, and has the company forming a joint venture that plans to open 200 Gloria Jean’s coffee shops over the next five years. Frankly, I’m a bit dubious about that particular plan, since Goubuli isn’t exactly known for its upscale shops right now and has little or no experience with this kind of higher-end chain that’s as much about lifestyle as it is about food.

Xinjiang eatery at university

Then there was my own discovery of the new Muslim area of our dining hall, which was quite attractively designed and had surprisingly good food. I chose the classic shouzhuafan, a sort of local rice pilaf with carrots and dates, for my first dining experience and was also impressed by the wide array of nang (flatbreads) that closely resemble things you see in the West.

That new dining choice, and the student cafeteria in general, look like the height of fine dining when compared with the canteen at the Beijing university where I taught when I first came to China in the 1980s. We had to bring our own metal lunch pails to eat back in those days, and would line up at a window where a worker would slop out big spoonfuls of steaming dumplings, greasy noodles and other dishes for us to eat.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the hectic atmosphere at all of these cafeterias, which encourages people to quickly eat and leave. But at least the food quality and indoor heating and air conditioning make eating a little more pleasant now, and the addition of regional cuisines like Muslim food is yet another big improvement.

The fact that KFC and Goubuli are trying to go upscale and that my university added the Muslim food section reflect the reality that dining choices in big cities like Shanghai have exploded in the last decade. That means that everyone, from the famous older brands like KFC and Goubuli to universities, has to innovate to compete in the current market.

That’s great news for the average consumer like myself, even if I find it hard to imagine munching on a traditional steamed bun or piece of greasy fried chicken while concurrently sipping a cup of premium coffee.

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