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A Food Revolution in Chinese Army
2007-09-18 00:00
   Captain Jia Jingwei keeps a much closer eye on his regiment's food costs since pork prices across China began soaring from 10 yuan (1.3 U.S. dollars) per kg in May to almost double.

   "We don't have money to squander," says Jia, director of the supply section of an anti-aircraft regiment of the Beijing Garrison Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

   His 1,000 soldiers consume 125 kg of pork a day, which used to cost of 1,250 yuan (164 U.S. dollars). Since the price hike, the daily cost of pork has risen by more than 1,100 yuan (144.7 U.S. dollars), equal to the daily subsidy for 100 personnel.

   Even the prices offered by a slaughtering and processing plant that has a long-term meat supply contract with Jia's regiment went up.

   "Without careful planning, it is difficult to get good food for only 11 yuan a man," says Feng Liang, director of the military supply division of the PLA's General Logistics Department, adding that an increase in food subsidies this year can ease the impact caused by the pork price hikes.

   Feng says China's defense budget is relatively small both in terms of sums and per capita amounts.

   "To ensure good meals we have to practice economy."

A Food Revolution

   "Red rice, pumpkin soup, Dig wild vegetables as our food,

   "Commissioner Mao is with us, Every meal will be tasty."

   This couplet from the song "Commissioner Mao Is with Us" originated in the Jinggangshan Revolutionary Base in east China's Jiangxi Province where Mao Zedong, then an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, successfully led the Autumn Harvest Uprising in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Region in 1927.

(Most military canteens are transformed into McDonalds-like dining rooms, containing standard cupboards, plate racks, dishware, tables and chairs According to a PLA food supply standard, the daily amount of meat or fish should be 280g per person and the percentage of animal protein should be 17 to 26 percent. )

   As one of the most popular "revolutionary songs" still sung today, it reflects the hardships the CPC-led Red Army in fighting the Kuomintang.

   Red rice and pumpkin soup are local specialties in the Jinggang Mountains and a part of the visitor experience today.

   The red rice, a coarse staple, was eaten without much seasoning in 1927, and the pumpkin soup was commonly described as "not revolutionary enough" as hunger usually returned very soon after its consumption.

   Without a regular supply chain, the Red Army, later renamed the People's Liberation Army, drove back the invading Japanese army and defeated the Kuomintang with its simple "xiaomi jia buqiang" or "millet and rifle" approach.

   Today's PLA has updated the refrain with "nutritious food and long-range missiles". Since 1978, China has increased military food subsidies 24 times.

   The latest increase was backdated to January 1 when each soldier's daily food subsidy was increased by 10 percent to 11 yuan (1.45 U.S. dollars). PLA pilots enjoy a daily per capita subsidy of 39 yuan (5.1 U.S. dollars) as they need more subsidies "to keep up their physical strength", says Feng. "They always get more care."

   "The rise will help offset the impact of price hikes and improve food for soldiers, as military training demands a lot of energy," says Liao Xilong, director of the General Logistics Department of the PLA.

   The government and Central Military Commission want the armed forces to share in the country's booming economy and improved living standards, Liao says.

   According to the Central Military Commission, the defense budget for 2007 hits 351 billion yuan (45 billion U.S. dollars), 17.8 percent higher than last year. It will be used to raise salaries and pensions, produce new uniforms, and fund training for the country's 2.3 million servicemen and women.

Added Nutritional Value

   Li Zhen, head chef of the anti-aircraft regiment of the Beijing Garrison Command, consults a "dietitian" before making meals for his regiment.

   In fact, the "dietitian" is a computer-based "military recipe system". Li types in factors such as budget, training intensity and season and the system will produce a choice of menus with a proper nutritional balance and detailed analysis.

   One menu on the screen reads cakes, cornbread, eggs and milk for breakfast, and rice, steamed buns, rolls, dumplings and meat rolls for lunch and dinner.

   Supplementary dishes include shredded pork with garlic sauce, sauteed chicken cubes with chili and peanuts, twice-cooked pork slices, carp with pepper sauce, stewed chicken with potatoes, quick-fried julienne potatoes with vinegar, spicy bean curd or bean curd cooked in hot meat sauce, and lettuce with oyster sauce.

   It also offers a choice of soups.

   Li says they arrange soybean milk twice a week as a milk alternative and fried twisted dough sticks every Tuesday.

   "We prepare more than 50 kg of flour for each meal, and on Tuesday ten chefs using five big pans fry twisted dough sticks, which can take about an hour and a half," says Li, who learned the skills for mass catering after joining the military supply section of his regiment in 2002.

   The PLA General Logistics Department requires each soldier to have an egg and 250ml of milk at breakfast, and two kinds of fruit at lunch and dinner.

   Each week, soldiers are required to have three or four kinds of fish and five or six types of animal protein.

   "In the past, we prepared meals with whatever food we could get, without thinking about the nutritional value," says Li, from central China's   Henan Province. He has received an "intermediate" catering certificate from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

   Chef Zhang Yong, in charge of staple foods, says they conducted a survey of the regiment on preferences.

   "More soldiers choose rice because there are more southerners, though we are all in Beijing, in northern China," says Zhang from the northern province of Shanxi. Usually people from southern China prefer rice and northern Chinese prefer flour-based staples such as steamed buns, noodles and rolls.

   According to a PLA food supply standard, which defines the amount of protein, minerals and vitamins in line with international practice, the daily amount of meat or fish should be 280g per person and the percentage of animal protein should be 17 to 26 percent.

   Jia, the regiment military supply director, says the daily per capita consumption of staples has dropped from 750g to 600g since January.

   "The drop in staple food consumption indicates an increase in provision of nutritious non-staple foods," says Jia, adding that personnel no longer depend on staples to allay their hunger.

   "When I joined the army at 18, I could eat about a dozen steamed buns because there was no other food," says a senior colonel who has been in service for more than two decades.

   The PLA has trained its first ever group of 101 military dietitians this year to help scientifically adjust menus in accordance with training intensity, says Jia, adding that previously dietitians only appeared in air force canteens and military hospitals.

   Soldiers get extra festival subsidies of 10 yuan (1.3 U.S. dollars) per day per person on occasions such as the first day of the May Day, National Day, New Year's Day and Army Day and the first three days of the traditional Spring Festival.

   Jia said they could have more for meals and snacks, as well as drinks on festivals. "But alcohol is not allowed," he said, adding that the liquor ban started at the beginning of 1990s.

   The rise of the PLA budget this year also helped fund a large-scale renovation of military canteens.

   Most military canteens were transformed into McDonalds-like dining rooms, containing standard cupboards, plate racks, dishware, tables and chairs, says Jia.

   Sixteen types of processing machines were installed for meat, bean curd, vegetables, dumplings and steamed buns, and large computer screens show the cost and calorie-count of each meal.

   Peng Guangli, supply chief with an artillery company, says the processing machines boost efficiency and liberate chefs from heavy manual work.

   "Outside the PLA, it's almost impossible to have so many kinds of food on a daily subsidy of 11 yuan per person," Peng said, but the nutritional and dietary goals are "set rules" that must be met.

Hot Meals and Fat Discounts

   Chef Zhang Yong, a non-commissioned officer, rises at 5:00 am. Half an hour later, Zhang, in a truck with three "duty buyers", goes to a wholesale food market three kilometers away.

   After intense bargaining with sellers, they return with a ton of vegetables, including 200kg of tomatoes at around 8:30 am.

   "Vendors like selling to us and giving us a fat discount because we buy in bulk," says Zhang.

   They have a long-term meat supply contract with a slaughtering and processing plant so as to reduce costs and guarantee a supply of quality pork.

   Cheaper animal proteins such as chicken, duck and aquatic products are an alternative to expensive pork to balance nutrition, Zhang says.

   Previously in Zhang's regiment, all subordinate companies prepared meals independently. "Smoke from 17 chimneys choked passers-by when they were all cooking."

   Since the end of last year, the regiment set up a supply service center that integrates resources and prepares meals for all companies.

   "We prepare food for the entire regiment, which reduces energy consumption and pollution," says Jia, adding that in the first half year they saved about 60,000 yuan (8,000 U.S. dollars), up 40 percent from the same period last year. Jia would not say how much they spent in the first half year.

   A "finance supervision committee" comprising soldiers from different companies, performs key roles in purchasing food, auditing, stocktaking and supervising food preparation.

   Zhang says the committee is also in charge of discussing menus, noting soldiers' favorites and restocking.

   Most staff in the supply service center are non-commissioned officers with special cooking skills.

   With twice-yearly training sessions from star chefs at the PLA Beijing Command Chef Training Center, Zhang and comrades can prepare meals satisfying both stomachs and taste buds for 150 people in an hour.

   Feng says chefs are especially trained to quickly prepare good, hot meals for personnel conducting field operations and military drills.

   "Chinese people are accustomed to hot meals. An exhausted field army longs for a good, hot meal. Cold sandwiches and bread are neither popular nor durable," says Feng.

   The PLA has 74 chef training and rating centers, with more than 10,000 professional chefs graduating annually.

   Even in distant areas and remote garrisons where military supplies take days or even weeks to arrive, soldiers can enjoy specially preserved shrimp, rice pudding, vegetables and moon cakes, says Feng.

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