For decades, Chinese cuisine has been making a journey to the West. But today, the dinner tables are turning. China's foreign food market, while still in its infancy, is growing fast in line with demand from a cosmopolitan set developing a taste for the international.
A recent food and hospitality tradeshow in Beijing stood testament to this shift in tastes, with a cornucopia of foreign foodstuffs lining display shelves.
"You can see the foreign food shelves in Chinese grocery stores are getting bigger and bigger," said Brendan Jennings, general manager of China International Exhibitions Ltd and organizer of the tradeshow, FHC Beijing 2007.
The event attracted more than 100 companies from 19 countries from June 13 to 15 at the China International Exhibition Center. The exhibition also featured national and regional pavilions from Greece, France, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the United States, Poland and Malaysia.
While organizers don't purposefully exclude Chinese food, "99 percent" of the exhibitors dealt in imports, Jennings said. He added that this was the "strength" of FHC's food and hospitality shows, because most food and hospitality exhibitions in China dealt in domestic fare.
"I'm looking to do some Japanese or Italian fusion," he said. "I do Chinese food now, but I'd like to add some ingredients from other countries. This seemed like a good place to get new ideas."
Jennings said that the country's economic boom had created a desire among Chinese people with growing disposable incomes to try new things.
"What they (restaurant owners) are finding out is that the younger Chinese are adventurous, and they're not afraid to ask," Jennings said.
According to Milan Gold Coffee Co Ltd general manager Zhou Xuesong, this unabashed curiosity has led to the development of a more sophisticated coffee culture among Chinese.
"Before, people would think coffee was Nestle," Zhou said. "But now, they ask more sophisticated questions and have a more sophisticated idea about coffee. When they go to a restaurant now, sometimes they ask for an espresso; sometimes they ask for a cappuccino; sometimes they ask for a latte."
Like Starbucks and many other coffee providers in China, Milan Gold distributes educational materials that explain the nuances of different beans and drinks. The company used FHC Beijing 2007 to introduce the tiramisu - a sweet coffee drink mixing espresso, chocolate powder and raw egg - to Chinese, since it became "the rage" in Europe last year, Zhou said.
"Coffee is still a new thing in China, but Chinese are starting to realize you can make many different drinks with it that taste very good," he said.
CIE Communications manager Susan Tan said a unique feature of the show was its country pavilions, which introduced goods most Chinese wouldn't associate with those national cuisines.
"In a lot of countries, a lot of people would be familiar with American and Australian wine, but not so many would be familiar with Greek wine," Tan says. "They might have heard of it but haven't tried it."
Iliana Sidiroppouou, enologist of the Interprofessional Organization of Vine and Wine of Greece, said the exhibition provided a great opportunity to introduce Chinese drinkers to Greek wines, which are little known despite the country's unique indigenous grape varieties.
She said that the Wonderful Wines campaign of the European Union and Hellenic Republic had identified China, Russia, Canada and the US as the top four countries to hone its marketing.
"Chinese people know about New World wines and French wine, which are very good, but they should know other European wines, which are also very good. This is a great opportunity for them to start learning," she said.
She added that about 100 people had visited their booth within the first two hours of the exhibition, but it seemed "they didn't know exactly what they were looking for".
Jennings said that despite the big buzz about China's budding love affair with wine, there were only 15 companies that exclusively import the drink in Chinese mainland, compared to about 900 in Hong Kong. But in 2004, there were only six.
Like the Greek pavilion, the Spanish pavilion also sought to introduce foods that most Chinese wouldn't associate with the country. In addition to the expected olive oil and wine, the pavilion's display shelves were crowded with Spanish chocolate, spices and jams.
Head of the Spanish embassy's Agriculture, Foods and Beverages Department Cristina Mari Torres said that while olive oil - the primary foodstuff Chinese associate with Spain - is growing by leaps and bounds in the country, many Chinese remain unfamiliar with it. So, to educate and entice Chinese consumers, the pavilion also distributed Chinese-language cookbooks with recipes for meals requiring olive oil.
"People might know about olive oil, but they might think it's a Western food. Cooking with olive oil is something they might not think of doing," Torres said.
As Jennings pointed out, China's foreign food market is still in its beginning stages.
"The Chinese are getting acclimated to these particular styles and tastes, then, they'll start to differentiate preferences - 'I like this brand better than that brand'," Jennings said.
"Most of the companies that come to China now are just looking for an importer. They haven't gone to the next step, where you try to figure out how to get people to want to 'buy my product more than other companies' products'."
But while the market still has a long road ahead to maturity, Jennings said he was impressed with the rapidity of growth to this point.
"When we first did a show in China 12 years ago, there were no supermarkets," he said.
"In 1994, it was 100 percent restaurants. Last year, it was nicely split between 30 percent hospitality, 30 percent retailers and 30 percent importer-traders."
He said that in 1994, import barriers were the main obstacles to Chinese people developing tastes for foreign foods. Then, there were only a handful of government departments that could approve import licenses, and importers had no choice but to go through them.
"They (the companies) would look at this stuff and say: 'We'd love to import it, but we can't'."
But with the government's liberalization and China's WTO entry, the doors have opened for a flood of new goods. Now, dozens of departments can issue import licenses, and last year, the government extended application rights to individuals.
Jennings believed that when it comes to foreign food in China, supply often fails to meet demand.
"As the amount of imported food grows, so does demand for that food," he said.
And today's growing supply of imported victuals is now feeding the hunger of a growing group of modern Chinese.
(China Daily June 20, 2007)