Say cheese!

Mainlanders historically have spurned cheese. But a recent explosion in popularity - China is poised to become Asia's biggest cheese market - shows how wealth is transforming tastes, writes Shirley Lau

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:54pm


During a Christmas soirée in Dalian four years ago, French expat Olivier Verot  treated two Chinese friends to a bottle of red wine and slices of Comté,  a popular French cheese that has a strong flavour and a hard texture when aged. The wine was downed happily by everyone, but when the cheese was served, the two friends faced a culinary challenge.

“First they found the cheese smelly and worried it was past its sell-by date. It took me quite a long time to convince them there was absolutely no such risk,” says Verot, owner of Gentleman Marketing Agency  in Shanghai.“Then they found the cheese too hard. For them, cheese had to be soft and creamy. But in the end, they admitted it was rather good. ‘Rather good’ is not the same as ‘very good’. But it was a good start!”

Stories where cheese is first resisted and then relished are  common on the mainland.  From stinky stuff reserved for foreigners, cheese is now increasingly perceived as a fashionable delicacy especially in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and industry specialists  expect China  to unseat Japan as  Asia’s biggest cheese market  in a few years.

“China’s cheese market is growing at an annual rate of about 30 per cent,” says Han Jin,  general manager of Shanghai Roria Trading Company,  a distributor of imported food. “In 2012, Japan imported about 210,000 tons of cheese, South Korea 96,000 tons, and China about 45,000 tons. China is likely to catch up with Korea in three to five years, and overtake Japan in five to seven years.”

According to the Italian Trade Commission,  China imported about US$180 million worth of cheese in 2012, compared with US$139.26 million in 2011, US$105.45 million in 2010 and US$69.77 million in 2009.

In a country where rapid urbanisation goes hand in hand with Western style consumption,  it seems natural for mainland  consumers to embrace Western food. But considering that dairy products hardly feature in traditional Chinese cuisine, the rising popularity of cheese in China is a somewhat intriguing phenomenon. Just as Chinese stinky tofu is  an oddity for foreigners, many Chinese gourmets initially find the smell and taste of cheese something that takes a little getting used to.

The Han Chinese rebellion against the Mongols in ancient times is also widely believed to be  a reason for the Chinese nonchalance for cheese, a staple in Mongol diet.

Today, however, a variety of factors  are prompting Chinese food-lovers to take a shine to cheese. Han puts the trend down to  food imports into China, a steadily appreciating yuan,  and a surge in the number of foreigners in big cities and returning overseas-educated Chinese.  This has led to the blossoming of foreign food and beverage enterprises  alongside Western restaurants. In Shanghai, for example, there are more than 300 Italian restaurants and over 100 French restaurants, says Han.

The heightening concern over food safety in China, exacerbated by the Chinese milk scandal in 2008, has also played a part in reforming Chinese consumers’ taste buds. According to Liu Yang,  a Beijing-based cheese-maker who founded Le Fromager de Pekin  that specialises in making French-style cheese, the scandal and rising concern over fake food products have driven health-conscious consumers to shun milk for fear it may contain harmful substances.

“Instead, more and more people now turn to cheese, which is a relatively safer  dairy product. While milk may contain antibiotics, cheese doesn’t. Besides, some milk manufacturers may cheat by adding water to milk, but cheese is a dry food and one can’t deceive people by mixing cheese with water. So people have more confidence in cheese,” Liu says.

Verot also confirms that  food safety  concerns play a part.

“Since the milk scandal, the Chinese dairy market structure has been turned upside down,” he says.

In a sign of the trust in foreign brands, he says Fonterra Commercial Trading,  which is a New Zealand company, is winning over consumers and making inroads on market leader Shanghai’s Bright Dairy & Food.

According to the Consumption Trends China 2013  report compiled by CIC,   China’s leading social business intelligence provider, “pay for safety” will be a consumer trend when it comes to food for the next few years. “For this reason, Western brands still benefit from a good reputation among Chinese consumers. Cheese as a dairy product is seen as safer if it is manufactured by a [foreign] company,” Verot adds.

In terms of marketing, cheese also has the upper hand. “This is an image born more of unwitting promotion than direct marketing,” Liu explains. “Many of us grew up watching [the animal cartoon series] Tom and Jerry chasing cheese.” 

At present, cheese consumers in China are mainly curious young people, overseas-educated Chinese, expats, and urban dwellers working for foreign companies, Han says. The price, however, is not particularly high when inflation is taken into account. “Today, the per kilo price for vegetables is more than 10 yuan [HK$12.6] and sautéed preserved beef about 100 yuan, whereas  lower-range cheese is only 100 yuan per kilo. It’s not that expensive,” Han says, whose company will join an Italian cheese company to promote Italian cheese in hotels, restaurants and supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai in the run-up to Christmas.

Nevertheless, Liu points out that some French cheese is “ridiculously expensive”, Roquefort  for one, which  can cost as much as 500 yuan per kilo, whereas in Europe the price is around HK$200. This, Liu says, is thanks in part to the “French effect”, whereby a product  may sell well  if it’s made in France.

Currently, New Zealand, Australia and the US are the top three biggest cheese exporters to China, making up about 80 per cent of the market, but French cheese is catching up fast. According to China Economic Review, the amount of cheese imported from France to China has soared by over 340 per cent over the past five years. This was one factor that motivated Liu to set up his French-style cheese-making plant in Beijing after spending  several years studying in France including a  period learning how to make cheese in Corsica.

“Nowadays everything upmarket in China is French style since France is a country with a very positive cultural image for Chinese people. This  is good for my business,” Liu says.

Meanwhile, the thriving European wine trade  on the mainland also  bodes well for Liu’s cheese-making business, since the growing number of wine-tasting events in big cities provides a platform for him to promote his products.

“In the past, these wine-tasting events often offered grilled lamb skewers as the snack to go with the wine. But this is not a very elegant snack. On the contrary, cheese feels classier and  complements the wine,” he says.  A challenge in the cheese industry in China, Liu  believes, is that many mainland consumers  do not recognise the difference between fresh cheese and industrial cheese. Yet given more time, he believes the knowledge gap will close and the future of the sector is nothing but promising.  “One of the biggest strengths of Chinese consumers is that there is no food they dare not try,” Liu says.

“This is probably the most food-loving nation in the world. Everybody, rich or poor, loves to enjoy good food. This is one great advantage that will help the promotion of cheese. People just need to have the chance to try it.”