It’s fast food, with Chinese characteristics.
Ever since I first visited China several years ago, I had become fascinated by its fast food chains. In Singapore, the F&B industry has long struggled with delivering quality Asian fast food at fast food chain speeds, and keeping it affordable. Indeed, local chains have attempted, but have mostly failed on this front. Crystal Jade’s spectacular failure that is C-Jade Express wasn’t necessarily cheaper nor faster than its full-service concepts. Tung Lok’s Ruyi maintains a skeleton operation, but lacks in flavor and affordability.
While the loss of the market is apparent, the battle in Singapore isn’t necessarily lost. As far as Chinese food goes, there’s no shortage of talent, which means there’s an outpost of zhi-char, hawker stall or restaurant everywhere you look. In China, demand necessitates need. China could never rely on small businesses to satisfy the nation’s 1.3 billion hunger – breakfast, lunch and dinner. China needed to think on a larger scale, to do what was thought impossible – to serve Chinese cuisine, fast.
Beijing-based HeHeGu, is just one of them. Like so many of China’s roaring businesses today, it was founded in the mid-2000s in the era of economic openness. It boasts hundreds of outlets across the capital, and hundreds more throughout the country. Its claim to fame? Transforming the slow cooked dongpo pork, or Chinese braised pork belly, into a dish that can be served at fast food speeds. The exact method is rocket science – a balance between fine tuning recipes and logistics, most invented in-house. Its innovation has paved the way of many “gai fan” (rice bowl) style Chinese fast food restaurants.
And the market for Chinese fast food restaurants like HeHeGu is bright. As the country grapples with food quality and hygiene issues, these chain restaurants stand out like beacons for safe, clean and good food across the country. It’s a stark contrast to the States, where brands like McDonald’s and KFC promote obesity, excesses and indulgence. However, it will be a while before HeHeGu expands its reach overseas. The brand’s marketing is reminiscent of Japan’s Yoshinoya – with its similar donburi style serving and presentation.
Despite the fast food setting, the restaurant’s signature did not falter in terms of flavor. The dongpo pork, a rarity in Singapore and even so, hardly done right, is perfectly tender and seasoned here. Chinese fast food restaurants encourage a balanced diet, which I could rely on to keep myself healthy throughout my two-week trip in China. The accompanying salad was served with a Chinese plum salad sauce, which is quite similar in flavor to the Japanese equivalent.
Like the rest of China in the heat of winter, beverages are served room temperature (in the case of soft drinks), or hot (for soy milk and juices). So, that was interesting.