5-liter boba, milk tea potato chips, and hot pot delivery: The top Chinese food trends of 2020

Dec 24, 2020

From jugs of boba to a cooking cat, these were the food trends that got China through quarantine in 2020.

It’s been an annual tradition at Goldthread to look back at some of the weirdest and most popular food trends n China.

But 2020 has been a unique year, to say the least, and the trends we saw reflected our new quarantine normal.

Takeout was all the rage, and it wasn’t just the usual suspects like pizza and fried chicken. One bubble tea chain offered giant 5-liter jugs of boba for people to take home, and Haidilao figured out a way to package its famous hot pot soup.

On social media, we saw the rise of TikTok as people stuck at home turned to the short-form video app to alleviate their boredom. Child chefs became overnight celebrities, and then there were the dance challenges. So many dance challenges.

These were some of the top food trends of 2020 in China.

5-liter boba

Yes, you read that right. Five liters, or 1.3 gallons. That’s enough for 10 cups of boba.

Bubble tea will always be hype, and this year was no exception. If anything, 2020 was when boba mania reached new heights.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced food businesses to change tack and focus on takeout, bubble tea chains came up with a novel way to satiate people’s appetite for the drink.

Popular Chinese chain Nayuki offered a limited-edition stay-at-home package in March that included a 5-liter jug of milk tea, 10 cups of tapioca balls, and a heck of a lot of calories.

The stay-at-home set from Nayuki.
The stay-at-home set from Nayuki. / Photo: Weibo

The gimmick proved to be a hit. One shop in Xi’an, western China, reportedly sold out its stock mere seconds after opening the line for orders on day one. Another chain, Lasting Scent, started selling its own boba jugs.

The concept is not new. Taiwanese chain The Alley ran a promotion in Malaysia last year for 5-liter bottles of milk tea, mainly targeting office workers who tend to buy takeout in groups.

But the coronavirus gave people a new reason to hoard bubble tea jugs, as they found themselves stuck at home for days on end.

Hot pot delivery

Along with boba, hot pot was another food item that people could not part with during quarantine.

As cities in China went into lockdown, hot pot chain Haidilao started offering delivery of its most popular provisions, including tripe, sliced pork belly, lotus root, and other hot pot ingredients, along with a spicy soup stock.

The only thing they couldn’t replicate from the in-store experience: the famous noodle dance.

In a sign of the times, every delivery included the name and body temperature of each worker who came in contact with the food during its cooking and packaging.

Chang An the Cooking Cat 

These fluffy gray paws handling cooking utensils and serving up fruity mocktails and grilled skewers took the Chinese internet by storm this year.

Here to save us from the boredom of quarantine were the talented paws of a 2-year-old British shorthair named Chang An. 

The short videos of Chang An making food quickly went viral on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.

They feature him “blending” fruits into mocktails; “cutting” and “marinating” fish; “rolling” sheets of dough into croissants; “brushing” oil onto meat skewers; and “flipping” pancakes—all shot from clever angles to make it look like the cat is behind the counter.

Chang An’s owner said the idea came from his love of cooking and affection for his cat. No surprise, then, that the internet responded with overwhelming positivity to this wholesome content, especially during the darkest days of the pandemic.

The 10-year-old master chef

The internet loves wunderkinds, and in China, a 10-year-old boy has gone viral for his eye-catching cooking videos that rival the best food commercials.

Chef Zheng, as he is known online, turned his passion for cooking into a side project when he started filming his food tutorials. In his videos, he teaches viewers how to make sushi, roast pork, and abalone soup.

Using just his phone, some props, and clever lighting, he’s able to achieve effects usually seen in food commercials, such as ingredients flying in the air and mist resting on vegetables.

The 10-year-old started learning to cook from his mother and grandmother. His mother apparently helps plate the dishes and plan the shoots. 

While his cooking and video production quality have earned him a mass following, young Chef Zheng says that in the future, he hopes to be a food connoisseur, tasting food from around the world.

Milk tea potato chips 

Finally, a product that combines the two things we all love. Just when we thought fusion food couldn’t get more eccentric, Lay’s China released a new chip flavor, milk tea, in September—and it immediately sold out.

Desperate posts on Chinese social media complained of store shelves bare of the new Lay’s flavors as soon as doors opened.

“Never imagined they would be sold out after 10 am,” wrote one person on the social media site Weibo.

The milk tea chips actually came in two flavors—crème brûlée milk tea and coffee oolong milk tea. They were a collaboration with Machi Machi, a Taiwanese milk tea chain which also happens to be singer Jay Chou’s favorite milk tea joint.

Lay’s milk tea potato chips came in two flavors—crème brûlée milk tea and coffee oolong milk tea.
Lay’s milk tea potato chips came in two flavors—crème brûlée milk tea and coffee oolong milk tea. / Photo: Weibo

This isn’t the first time Lay’s has come up with a beverage-flavored potato chip. In 2014, Lay’s released a cappuccino flavor in the U.S. as part of a competition between several user-submitted entries. It lost, though, to wasabi ginger.

In China, Lay’s is known for coming up with chip flavors tailored to the local market. In the past it has released White Rabbit candy, Peking duck, and even cucumber-flavored potato chips.

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