Foreign exporters hone in on Chinese tastes

Published on
November 6, 2011

Editor’s note: SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Mark Godfrey attended last week’s China Fisheries & Seafood Expo in Qingdao. Here’s his first in a series of stories from the 16th annual event.

Tweaking products to Chinese tastes is increasingly important for seafood suppliers targeting the country. Among them is Chile’s PanAmerica, which sent chefs to China to meet with local clients, chefs and consumers.

“We’re working on cod in particular. It may be that in 2012 we have a product ready for the Chinese market,” said one company representative at last week’s China Fisheries & Seafood Expo in Qingdao.

Others are adapting as China increasingly shifts from being a net exporter of seafood to a net importer. Spain’s Angulas Aguinaga has been shooting vox-pop videos in China’s most prosperous cities with consumers tasting and commenting on the firm’s surimi-style eel.

“Some said it was too salty,” explained Ander Inarrairaegui, head of Asia markets at the Basque-based firm, which has ambitions to tap high-end Chinese markets. “We’ll work with this back in Spain and change to suit Chinese tastes.”

While Beijing seafood restaurants are clearly in expansion mode, both fish supplies and servings remain highly localized, thus foreign exporters will clearly have to cater to local tastes to score sales. Restaurateurs like Cong Lin Jun, manager at a busy branch of Tai Xiu Xi, a chain popular for its home-style cooking, complained that aside from the costs of imported product, there’s an absence of knowledge about tailoring imported product to domestic dishes. Carp accounts for the bulk of out-of-home consumption in Beijing.

Cong’s Beijing diners prefer carp and perch — priced at RMB 38 to RMB 58 per 500 grams — served in hot and spicy soups, the favorite fish dish at Tai Xiu Xi. Cong claims the chain, where prices vary from affordable carp to lobster servings at RMB 458 per 500 grams, confines sourcing to fish farms in Beijing suburbs.

“We wouldn’t source from [farther away] because we are not able to control and monitor the quality and temperatures under which they’re stored,” explained Cong. Crabs and shellfish are, however, bought in from Dalian. Other higher-end dishes — typically served whole in a casserole-style bowl — include brown marbled grouper (RMB 188 per 500 grams) as well as crayfish (RMB 158 per 500 grams) and Mandarin (RMB 88 per 500 grams). Also at the higher end of the menu pricing are Dungeness crab (RMB 138 per 500 grams) and white shrimp and mud crab (both RMB 88 per 500 gram serving).

Sea bass, served steamed and in spicy soups, is the top selling product at Dalian Seafood, a six-store chain of restaurants based in Beijing and the northerly city of Harbin. Demand is driving the Beijing-based Dalian Seafood chain to open its first store in Shanghai, explained Liu He, manager of the chain’s outlet on Chaoyang Lu, in one of the city’s affluent addresses.

He said the average per-person check at Dalian chain of restaurants is RMB 150. Yet aside from salmon and sea bass, imported product is limited at the restaurant, said Liu, who explained that consumption is driven at the chain’s 200-plus-seat restaurants with special offers like RMB 78 per piece of abalone and fresh (displayed live) shrimp servings for RMB 78 per 500 grams, with one serving for free.

Seafood consumption is “pretty much up” in 2011 across the Tai Xiu Xi restaurants, according to Cong. Many importers are less focused on restaurants than on tapping retail sales at the lower end of the market.

Those include William Tiu Lim, CEO of sardines producer Mega Fishing Corp. in the Philippines. Liu is keen to export the firm’s largely canned output to China to diversify from a reliance on Europe and the United States.

“We’re already looking at taste using ingredients like soy but given the use of sardines in China is already significant this may not be necessary, I think distribution is more important,” said Liu. “Right now we’re talking with supermarkets.”

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