The China Economic Review points out that the Chinese have long since adapted to pungent foods like chou doufu – stinky tofu – but can they learn to love nailao, the “milk jelly” better known as cheese?
In the 1990s, the expansion of Western food chains brought processed and industrialized cheese to the masses, but now gourmands are hoping the Chinese will adapt to fine cheeses like they have to wine, which accounted for $1.1 billion in Chinese imports for the first half of 2012.
The Western cheese industry’s foothold in China is small but growing. According to the Italian Trade Commission, China imported about $139 million worth of cheese in 2011, which reflected 27 percent growth over the year before.
France, despite being thought of as a pinnacle provider of “Old World” cheeses, accounted for just $6 million of China’s cheese imports in 2011. At the same time, New Zealand made inroads with $58.2 million in exports to China. People’s Daily reported that Brie and Camembert were favorites, with 4.3 percent of the overall market that year. Parmesan and mozzarella from Italy accounted for 3.4 percent.
Imports from France continue to grow. Over the past five years, the amount of French cheese imported into China has catapulted 340 percent. The dramatic rise is attributed to the growing number of Western shopping centers and restaurants that try to add ambience to their locations with offerings of fine cheese.
“The Chinese diet is changing along with the increase in middle class and high net-worth individuals. [Their] demand for taste and delicious food continues to grow,” said Tiffany Pan, a communications officer at the Guangdong-based supermarket chain Ole’. Representatives there say that as incomes expand for Chinese consumers, so does the desire to educate their palates.
Emilie Martin, senior project manager at Sopexa, says her company will focus on promoting French cheese where people have the money to buy it, particularly at Western-style restaurants and supermarkets. While she believes French cheese will have “a very, very big space in the future,” she knows more education must come with the imports.
That is where entrepreneurs like Han Jin come in. Han is the business development manager of Shanghai Roria, which imports European foods to China. He organizes taste tests of European cheese for his staff, and understands how difficult it can be to accustom consumers to the tastes of Old World cheeses. Of the blue cheese he had his staff sample he said, “About 70 percent said they hated it, they never wanted to see it again; 30 percent said it was amazingly good. These people knew nothing about cheese.” He believes the consumers who blindly buy cheese will be turned off from such products.
It is much easier to learn about wine than cheese in China: the newer industry does not have the established framework of classes and tasting workshops that has increased the appreciation of wine throughout the country. Emilie Martin at Sopexa, however, organizes promotional events for French cheese in China for consumers who have never experienced it.
Traditional French cheesemakers are beginning to crop up in Beijing and Shanghai. The Shanghai Ambrosia Dairy reports making 23 varieties of cheese. Le Fromager de Pekin, aka “the Cheese Maker of Beijing” created 16 different varieties in order to tap into what he sees is an emerging market. “Chinese people are very flexible with their food….Chinese people will accept [strong] cheese in the future,” Liu said.
While tastes may adapt, the digestive systems of many will have to, too. According to China Today, about 92 percent of Chinese have some form of lactose-intolerance, though that number is as low as 40 percent in children aged 7 to 13 in northern Chinese cities.
photo credit: marcus södervall