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    China Business
     Dec 8, 2006
Chinese licking their chops over Western food

BEIJING - It might be difficult for some Westerners to use chopsticks but - if the number of Chinese who frequent Western-style restaurants is anything to go by - the Chinese are definitely getting to grips with knives and forks.

"It's great trying something new and different like steak. I get bored eating Chinese food every day." Sitting in cozy little Grandma's Kitchen, a US-style eatery in east Beijing, Xiao Lu was happy to sip her mushroom soup sitting at a wooden table. She is only one of many Western food fans in Beijing.

The latest white paper from the China Cuisine Association on the

country's catering industry said Western food has found an appetite in China, and some food items such as salad and dessert have merged into Chinese food.

Pasta and steak - deemed too upscale by ordinary Chinese several years ago - has carved out a huge market in this ancient capital of the Middle Kingdom, where foreigners tend to live in the eastern part of the city, and 13 million locals still consider noodles and rice their staple food.

Despite the high prices, foreign and Chinese diners throng a string of restaurants serving Western food on a street neighboring the embassy area in Beijing. The food ranges from a takeaway Subway sandwich joint to delicate French cuisine.

"Few Chinese used to come to our shop, but now there are more and more, especially young people," said a waitress named Huang in Grandma's Kitchen on eastern Ri Tan (Sun Temple) Road. "We are busy every day."

"Western meals in Beijing are much more expensive than Chinese food, but if you have it a couple of times a month it's okay, especially when meeting old friends," said Miss Liu, 22, who works for an information-technology firm near the embassies.

"Western food emphasizes an elegant dining atmosphere and good service, which attracts young people who are unwilling to limit themselves to traditional Chinese food, which focuses more on taste and content but pays less attention to the eating environment," said Zhang Kaiyuan, a senior editor with a fashion magazine.

"I love Western food. As long as it is well cooked, I don't care much about the price," said Xiao Huang, a 20-year-old university student.

The average cost per person in a mid-tier restaurant in Beijing is about 100-150 yuan (US$12.80-$19), while more upmarket ones like Maxim's Restaurant cost at least 200 yuan per person.

"It's true that some people have joined the Western food craze just to follow the fads," said Zhang Kaiyuan. "It's kind of irrational, driven by vanity."

"Western food is obviously overpriced in China," said John, who has been living in Beijing for years. The food is more costly than in his home town in New Zealand and not as tasty, he said. He is puzzled to see Chinese people tucking in to substandard food despite the outrageous prices.

The annual Christmas feast is a hot item again this year. All 100 VIP tickets to the sumptuous dinner provided by the Landmark Hotel - costing a stunning 4,200 yuan ($536) per person - have sold out.

The elaborate dinners, which come complete with comic shows by well-known cross-talk performer Guo Degang and delicate Chinese buffets, are mainly ordered by companies, which write off the cost as an investment in building ties with their business partners, according to hotel staff.

"Western food will continue to prosper in China because it appeals to a certain group of people, but it's unlikely to expand wildly," said Zhang Kaiyuan.

"If local flavors can be blended into meat and cream-based food, that will be more attractive for the general public," said Zhang. "Moderate prices will also help attract more diners."

(Asia Pulse/XIC)



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