The Goldthread team has traveled all over China this year, sampling some of the best food the country has to offer, and one thing we’ve noticed is a growing appetite for very pretty and photogenic food.
It’s not too different from the Instagram-driven food crazes of the West. But in China, the app effect is far greater.
For example, Dianping, a user-generated food review site that doubles as a food delivery service, is now the largest on-demand delivery platform in the world. And almost every restaurant we’ve been to on the mainland accepts—and in fact, prefers—mobile payments.
Every platform is multifunctional. In just one app, you can read reviews for a restaurant, make a reservation, pull up a map, call a car, and share the experience on your social media feed.
All this means that trends spread like wildfire in a country of 1.3 billion people, 61 percent of whom are mobile users.
So from boba pizza to ice cream shaped like dogs, here’s a comprehensive round-up of the foods that went viral on this side of the world in 2018.
Instant hot pot
In the Asian food writing world, hot pot is a tired trend. But that hasn’t stopped it from waning in popularity.
The latest craze is a thing called 懒人火锅 (lanren huoguo), or “lazy person’s hot pot.” It’s essentially instant hot pot for one, usually eaten on the go.
Here’s how it works: Just add water to a packet of mostly calcium oxide and salts, and the pot—which includes soup, spices, vegetables, and meat—will start boiling.
Move over instant noodles. It’s a whole new world.
Brown sugar milk
This trend hit mainland China by way of Taiwan. It’s essentially a milk-heavy boba drink doused with a liberal shot of brown sugar syrup.
The result is a beautiful gradient of caramel brown and white, with the tapioca pearls nestled on the bottom. Each sip is cloyingly sweet, like drinking milk and honey. Done right, the whole thing tastes almost like tea.
Blue fizzy drink
With over 100 million bottles sold since its debut, this blue carbonated beverage called 蓝叫 (lanjiao) has gone viral because it sounds like “penis” in the Hokkien dialect. (Here’s a video of people giggling at the name.)
The drink kind of tastes like a mix between Sprite and fruit juice, and its logo is reminiscent of the Pepsi globe. But mostly, people love it for the tongue-in-cheek name.
Its actual meaning, by the way, roughly translates to “it’s called blue.”
Salted duck egg chips
Salted egg-flavored chips were popularized by two Singaporean chip companies: The Golden Duck and Irvins. The flavor combination of salty and creamy has proven to be irresistible.
Today, salted egg is a beloved flavor in the region. Most recently, Lays followed suit with a salted egg-flavored potato chip in mainland China.
Boba in things that are not tea
It makes perfect sense that the latest boba fad started in Taiwan. After all, the island is the official progenitor of all things boba.
Now, you can find boba on pancakes, waffles, and even pizza.
Like most Asian trends, this one has made its way to mainland China.
HeyTea, a Guangdong-based milk tea chain, does a viral pineapple bun stuffed with custard, ice cream, and boba.
At some point, though, you have to ask: Should you put tapioca pearls in everything?
Desserts shaped like puppies
This surprisingly realistic pug-shaped ice cream was born in a restaurant in Taiwan. The concept has since expanded across the region in multiple forms and permutations.
Of note, mainland Chinese and Singaporeans prefer their puppies made with chocolate mousse.
These fluffy pastries became all the rage in Japan and have since spread across East Asia and beyond.
Today, they’re in most big cities in greater China, served with a side of ice cream or maple buttercream on top.
The pancakes are made with beaten egg whites and slightly steamed, which creates the signature fluffy texture.
In Chinese, it’s called 脏脏包 (zangzangbao), or “dirty bread,” because of how messy it gets eating it.
The fad started as a social media challenge by Beijing bakery Bad Farmers & Our Bakery.
It started selling oozy chocolate pastries, and people thought it would be funny to pose with it—dirty fingers and all.
The challenge caught on like wildfire in China and became a favorite topic on Weibo, China’s Twitter.
Cheese tea’s reach is so influential that it has officially reached the States.
The general consensus is that Guangdong-based milk tea chain HeyTea (the same one that makes boba buns) was the first to sell tea with an aerated cream cheese topping.
Slightly savory but mostly sweet, with a textural contrast to boot, cheese tea has become one of this decade’s most popular food products, often drawing two-hour lines.
As is the case with everything these days, analysts say the hype was all because of social media.
One can only imagine what food trends 2019 will bring.