Serving up Kiwi food in China

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Chef Robert Oliver is busy promoting Kiwi produce at the New Zealand Business Centre in Shanghai. Photo / Supplied
Chef Robert Oliver is busy promoting Kiwi produce at the New Zealand Business Centre in Shanghai. Photo / Supplied

At New Zealand's world-class business centre in Shanghai, Chinese chefs are being introduced to iconic Kiwi produce like greenshell mussels, fresh paua and manuka honey.

Food and beverage exports to China are currently worth about $3 billion to New Zealand each year but the aim is to double this within three years.

A big part of that strategy involved promoting our food in Shanghai through the Chef-in-Market programme, which saw chef Robert Oliver cooking Chinese cuisine with Kiwi ingredients.

A series of events had recently been held at New Zealand Central focused on growing the paua market in China, said China Trade Commissioner Mike Arand.

Arand, who was back in New Zealand this week, said the traditional thought was that China was only interested in paua if it came in a dried, bleached-white form.

But that was disproved when Oliver prepared dishes for local chefs using paua in its live state.

"The thinking from a lot of people was you can't sell big, New Zealand black paua but the chefs were like 'where did you get that crazy idea from?' They thought it was actually great."

"It may have been the case two years ago, but China is the type of place where the market can change quite rapidly."

Growing our seafood exports to China was one of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise's (NZTE) main goals, Arand said.

"Dairy will continue to be a major part of the growth. Seafood is the next area where there's still a lot of room for growth."

Based in Shanghai, Arand worked with the NZTE Food and Beverage team to bring New Zealand goods up the value chain.

The Chef-in-Market programme had been running for about 18 months, and aside from paua, Oliver had produced cooking demonstrations with greenshell mussels tempura, grass-fed steak with local mushrooms and a teriyaki marinade, Kiwifruit trifle, and Manuka honey pannacotta.

The aim of the project was not just to provide cooking demonstrations, but also to facilitate two-way education, Arand said.

"New Zealand is still relatively unknown and part of Robert's job is to sell the overall New Zealand story, and then underneath that, the idea is to build the education of New Zealand food and beverage.

"We still meet people who ask 'New Zealand makes wine?'" And then you tell them the size of our fishable coastal zone and they're like 'wow, that's probably bigger than China's'."

The flipside of that education was for New Zealand exporters to learn about how Chinese value food and what they look for, Arand said.

"There's a company we work with up there, for example, who have realized that rather than the first prime cuts of beef, they're doing quite well with the second-grade cuts.

"That's more suitable to the Chinese cuisine. And it's getting that learning back to the New Zealand suppliers so that they know what the Chinese market requires and how they eat things."

We also needed to learn about how Chinese classed certain foods as 'hot' or 'cold', 'wet' or 'dry' and how the colour of food had much more meaning than we were used to, he said.

"It's sort of a different level to the vitamins and proteins type of approach that we take.

"I'm still getting my head around it. We're trying to delve in that more and asking 'what does it mean for New Zealand food suppliers?'"

Such learning could be fed back to New Zealand exporters through NZTE's internal networks, Robert Oliver's blog, or visits from food and beverage companies to Shanghai.

Arand said he was also looking at bringing a Chinese delegation to New Zealand at some stage to talk to suppliers.

Promoting Kiwi wine was also high on the agenda.

"In terms of growth rate, it's certainly one of our key areas, but it's from a small base."

New Zealand's wine exports to China had increased 15-fold in the last five years since the Free Trade Agreement to $20 million in 2011.

But New Zealand still represented less than 2 per cent of the imported wine market.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce announced last week that NZTE was investing $2.1 million to help build the New Zealand wine brand in China, the US and in Northern Europe.

One of the big challenges to increasing the value of food and beverage trade with China was our size, Arand said.

"If New Zealand companies try to do this on their own, we're typically too small because China is a deep-pocket market.

"It costs a lot of money and time to get up and running in China."

Another obstacle was our possible inability to meet the sheer size of demand.

"You're looking at a 4 million market versus a 1.4 billion market," Arand said.

"It's not as if we can suddenly turn on another 20,000 cattle here and there. The rate of demand for protein in China is outstripping what we are able to grow in the market here."

That applied to seafood as well, he said.

"Because we've got our quota system, which is recognised around the world as one of the greatest there is, that means there's only so much we can fish out of the water."

The demand for high-protein foods was a result of massive growth in the middle-class, people with more disposable income.

"The amount of wealth there is mind-blowing really," Arand said.

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