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
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
Jennings said that the country's economic boom had created a
desire among Chinese people with growing disposable incomes to try
"What they (restaurant owners) are finding out is that the
younger Chinese are adventurous, and they're not afraid to ask,"
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
"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
"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)