BREAD may never replace rice as an Asian staple, but in Hongkong a slice of this Western food culture is well on the rise. In the past five years, fresh European-style breads have begun to make inroads into a market formerly monopolised by mass-produced sandwich breads. Availability is still limited, but the number of sales outlets is no longer restricted to hotel cake shops. Supermarket and independent bakeries are bringing an element of competition into the market. Suddenly, new bread varieties are appearing almost daily. ''Variety is definitely the key, and it's not just hotels. Even small local bakeries are now offering more choice,'' said Mr Andreas Sonderegger, of Lucullus. By volume, Lucullus bread sales are increasing about 20 per cent each year. In the past five years, around 25 new bread varieties have been introduced, making a total of 60 in all. The widest range can be found at the Lucullus Corner outlets. It is the company's European breads - German sourdough and kraftkorn, and Austrian vogel in particular - which are proving most popular. ''People have become more health-conscious,'' said Mr Sonderegger. ''White breads are made from processed flour and often contain added fats and sugar. Many traditional European breads, however, are made with unrefined flours and natural whole grains.'' Mr Peter Riha, who supplies bread mixes to the industry, agreed. ''People now recognise that natural breads are a means of adding essential vitamins, minerals and roughage to their diet.'' Enjoyment is also a factor. ''The number of restaurants serving regional European cuisine, of which bread is a central component, has grown in recent years,'' said Mr Riha. ''Diners have enjoyed a certain bread with their meal and are now asking for it in the shops.'' Although hotels are leading the way, there are a number of smaller operations catering to the growing demand for quality breads. One is Portofino in Robinson Road. Established four years ago, it bakes bread for more than 20 restaurants, as well as selling to individual customers. ''Our most popular breads are those which contain various grains,'' said manageress Ms Sylvia Leung. ''Country grain and kraftkorn sell best.'' Other bread types include sourdough, wholewheat baguettes, American rye and dark rye with olives. Hotel bakeries still offer bread enthusiasts the greatest variety. Unlike large factories, which must be sure of high sales before introducing new products, hotel bakers have the flexibility to experiment. ''If we introduce a new recipe and it doesn't sell, we stop and try something else,'' said Yves Matthey, executive pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental. New bread varieties at the hotel's shop, which sells around 2,500 loaves per week, include granary, sunflower seed and sun-dried tomato. The most popular varieties, however, reinforce the link between bread and health. Oatmeal, high-fibre and farmer's bread are the shop's best-sellers. ''The demand for natural breads has definitely been the most noticeable trend over the last year,'' Matthey said. ''Comments filter down from our restaurants, where we serve a selection bread-basket with meals, and I devise new recipes accordingly. ''What's surprised me most is the interest shown by the local, as opposed to expatriate, community. It makes me very happy.'' At the Hongkong Hilton, executive pastry chef Antony Osborne confirms the back-to-nature trend. ''Where once people wanted soft white bread, they are now turning to multi-cereal breads containing wholemeal flour, whole grains and seeds,'' he said. Hotel chefs are competing to come up with innovative recipes, an indication of the extent of demand. As a British-born chef, Osborne is introducing traditional British breads, both in the hotel's restaurants and in the bakery. For a Burns' Night dinner, he served warm Lanarkshire-cheese bread; for St George's Night a version made with Stilton cheese. More than 20 different breads are available at the hotel's Gourmet Corner shop. More unusual types include hazelnut and soya, with the best-sellers being German rye and French baguettes. Sales are up 15-20 per cent on last year. Karl Woegerbauer, at the Grand Hyatt, is the only European executive bakery chef in town. His extensive repertoire includes ciabatta, linseed, finnbread and smoked salmon breads. These can be bought at the hotel's shop. In addition, he also supplies a number of restaurants and sandwich bars including Portico's, Finealley's and Birley's. French bread is the one European import which defies health concerns. It is also, according to Mr Riha, the most difficult to reproduce in an Asian climate. ''Because of the humidity here, it's impossible to keep French bread crusty,'' he said. ''In France, baguettes are made - and bought - twice a day. They never have time to lose their freshness.'' Discerning French bread-lovers look to the East for a taste of the West. It is the Japanese department store bakeries which arguably produce some of the most authentic loaves in Hongkong. Le Notre, in Seibu, Dong Patisseries Francaise, in Sogo, and Panash, in Daimaru, bake bread on-site twice daily. In Sogo, it is possible to watch the bakers at work through a wall of glass windows. While all sell the usual red-bean bun and tuna doughnut selection, French-style breads include normal and garlic baguettes; normal and cheese coupes; and champagne, complet and flute varieties. In Happy Valley, locals have influenced sales at Denny's Cake Shop which opened six weeks ago. ''Within a few days of opening, we had so many requests for European-style breads that we decided to introduce baguettes and rye bread,'' said manageress Ms Shirley Hung. The bread is made on the premises and already combined sales average around 700 loaves a week. Ms Osborne is optimistic about the future. ''I think a new wave of baking is on the way,'' he said. ''Instead of one or two varieties, diners will be offered a selection of exotic breads from all round the world.''