Dawn breaks at a military base in suburban Beijing. It's 5 am and chefs busily prepare breakfast of steamed buns and hot milk for the platoons of soldiers still asleep in their bunks.
The smell of food wafts through the busy kitchens, and Sha Linlin, the top chef, dressed in a white hat, mask and clothes, rolls flour to make cakes for Monday's menu, which also has eggs and corn porridge.
"Our menu is different every day," says the 24-year-old Shandong native, who has been in the army for six years.
"We pay a lot of attention to the flavor of the food as much as the nutrition."
There is a "kitchen revolution" happening at this logistics military barracks, home and work to about 160 soldiers - a revolution endorsed by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to improve the combat ability of more than two million servicemen across the country.
Since 2002, the army has boosted the food budget for its armed forces three times. The daily food allowance for each serviceman now ranges from 11 yuan ($1.45) to 39 yuan ($5.13), depending on where they work and what roles they perform.
Fighter pilots and submariners, who have relatively more technical and stressful duties, are given a higher daily food allowance than general duty sailors and soldiers.
The cost of feeding China's army, based on official estimates from the Xinhua News agency, is about 1 billion yuan a year, a major part of military expenditure.
Army kitchens stretch 12 yuan, or about $1.50, into three meals a day for each soldier, with taste and nutrition guaranteed.
"I am very pleased with our meals," says Mu Zhirun, 27, a solider from Shandong with typically short hair and a tanned round face.
On his plate, there are two dishes with meat and three vegetable dishes, such as stewed pork steak with potato, spicy sliced cabbage, and soup.
Even though the food is served from a buffet at this barracks, not many soldiers go back for seconds.
"If you eat the pork, beef and so many kinds of food every day, you won't want to eat that much," Mu says.
"In fact, you kind of get worried about being overweight. Food has been improved significantly."
Seven years ago when he first joined the army, Mu was welcomed with a bowl of noodles - a ritual to greet all new soldier.
"Even with the price rises of pork and many other foods, our meals haven't got any worse, in fact they've improved. We appreciate that," Mu says.
For many soldiers who come from rural areas, army food is considerably better than what they are used to.
"My parents make one dish for each meal," Mu says.
"Every time we go back home for Spring Festival holiday, we miss the food at the canteen," Mu says, taking a bite out of a fresh piece of watermelon bought from the local food market that morning.
Fresh and nutritious food is one thing, but staffing kitchens and canteens with the right people is another.
The General Logistics Department of the PLA has equipped all units with better kitchen equipment and certified chefs.
Fan Jichang, a senior official at the PLA's food supply department, was quoted by Xinhua News Agency as saying last week that previously, many chefs in the army lacked a basic knowledge of nutrition and had poor cooking skills.
"That affects the quality of life of our servicemen and women," Fan says.
Since 2001, the General Staff Headquarters and the General Logistics Department of the PLA have established 74 centers to train 10,000 chefs each year. There are also nutritionists on staff. This May, the first batch of 101 nutritionists was given certification.
The PLA has also spent a lot of money upgrading the standards of kitchen facilities and dining areas.
In fact, some canteens even have McDonald's-style tables and chairs for military personnel to dine at.
Kitchen efficiency has been enhanced with energy-saving facilities and equipment such as modern cook tops and ovens.
"Chefs used to make food by hand," says Wang Guofeng, the director of the cooking unit at the logistic military base.
"The modern facilities have reduced their workload and improved kitchen efficiency."
In the main cooking area, three big woks sit on stainless steel stoves. A chef stirs chicken liver in one of the woks. Next to the kitchen are sections neatly divided into cooking procedures, from washing, cutting and cooking to storage. Each section has a person in charge with their name card on the door.
"Guess what's inside?" Wang asks, holding the handle of the fridge.
"We save samples of food from each meal in here."
Pointing at the pictures of 12 chefs on the wall, the head proudly says that each of them undergoes health checks and must wear clean uniforms in the kitchen.
One of the chefs on the wall looks not dissimilar to Italian opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti minus the beard and not quite so heavy.
"You can tell how good our food is just by looking at him," Wang says.
(China Daily 08/01/2007 page23)