1 Dec 2017
Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: Exotic Foods Test the Market
This year's HKTDC Food Expo certainly lived up to its reputation as being the indisputable 'test kitchen' for wider Asia, as countless global producers sought feedback as to the likely success of their proprietary beverage and foodstuff ranges.
The distinct aroma of smoking wood chips floated over the presentation stage at the recent HKTDC Food Expo as Jaakko Sorsa, Executive Chef at FINDS, a Nordic restaurant in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui district, worked his magic with salmon and Christmas tree extract. His particular presentation chimed well with the overall feel of this year's event, which proved to be an apt 'test kitchen' for innovative cooking styles and unique ingredients – ranging from mooncakes to abalone to tea that costs almost as much as a compact car.
Fully endorsing the broad sweep of the show, Sorsa said: "Hong Kong is very international when it comes to flavours. While you can source ingredients from across the world here, people haven't always seen them in use, which is why these kinds of demos are so important."
For his part, Sorsa was keen to introduce the cuisine of Finland, his home country, while also looking to promote the Nordic cooking style in general. One of the key items he always prepares as a way of gently breaking in novices to this singular North European approach to food preparation is his signature Salmon Six Ways dish.
Explaining its appeal, he said: "While most people are familiar with salmon, they might not have tried it brined or served as a mousse. As an introductory dish, it's interesting and exciting, but not too weird. It eases people into trying something new."
Seafood was also very much the order of the day over at the Japan Pavilion, which this year hosted 330 exhibitors from 36 prefectures. For 2017, Japan was the expo's official partner country, an honour that was more than appropriate given Hong Kong has now been the largest single importer of Japanese farm, fish and other assorted food products for 12 consecutive years.
Welcoming visitors to the Japan Pavilion, Ken Saito, the country's Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said: "In Hong Kong, the demand for Japanese food is becoming notably more diversified. This is something we are paying close attention to."
Has the market, however, become diversified enough to provide a welcome for yuzu – a sour Japanese citrus fruit – and its derivatives? Certainly, at least one of this year's exhibitors – Fukuoka-based Takahashi Shoten – was hoping so.
Explaining the appeal of this apparently ubiquitous fruit, Sales Representative Kyoko Ono said: "Yuzu is highly nutritious and especially rich in citric acid, which is good for maintaining a healthy appetite. With its distinct flavour, it is often used as a seasoning or as garnish for products that are served raw. Of late, it has also proved popular as a flavouring for bottled water, while a number of confectionery companies have now incorporated it into their products."
At present, Takahashi's range of yuzu-related products includes seasoning sauces, aromatic salt and seaweed pastes. Keen to expand its global reach, the company already sells into 20 overseas markets.
From the tart tang of yuzu, it was onto the "electrical sweetness" of sansho, a strongly flavoured peppercorn used widely in Japanese cooking. This year, its use was being championed by Productoring, a Shizuoka-based specialist in the production of an extensive range of popular Japanese ingredients.
Looking to introduce the peppercorn to Hong Kong's gourmands, Marketing Director Hiroshi Yamamoto said: "Put simply, it's the most exciting flavour to have come out of Japan. For our part, we grow it in an organic plantation and then dry it using the green-tea method. We then process it into powder form and package it into seasoning sticks."
As well as hoping to catch the attention of a number of restaurants and retailers, Yamamoto was also looking to partner with local department stores, believing that such a link could help underline the product's potential in the gourmet cooking sector.
As well as exhibitors offering exotic Japanese ingredients, there was also a healthy showing from the other side of the Pacific, most notably from Washington State-based Fresh Nature Foods. Making its debut at the event, the company was particularly keen to introduce its range of green chickpeas, falafel and hummus to Hong Kong, seeing this as the first step in its plan to expand across the South Asian markets.
Highlighting the company's USP, Brad Overberg, Vice-president of Food Service and Marketing, said: "We're the only supplier of frozen chickpeas in the world. Usually, they lose most of their nutritious value when they are processed, but we get them direct from organic farms and then flash-freeze them. That way they stay fresh and remain versatile."
Nutritional benefits were also being emphasised by Saumal, a Kazakhstan-based supplier of dried mare's milk. In Eastern Europe, due to its apparent close resemblance to human breast milk, this freeze-dried product is frequently served to children and babies, as well as to those suffering from allergies or digestive problems.
Clearly evangelical as to its benefits, Research and Development Director Galymzhan Meirambekov said: "It's ideal for human consumption thanks to its rich mineral composition and high enzyme and omega 3 fatty acid content. Its protein content is also far more easily digestible than that found in cow's milk.
"As well as looking to generate interest in the health aspects of the products, we are also here to try to find a Hong Kong-based distributor. Although we have had a lot of inquiries from China, we can't sell directly to the mainland as there are no recognised trade agreements in place."
It wasn't only mare's milk, however, that was on offer to junior consumers at this year's event. South Korea's Chung Mae Fruit, for instance, was promoting its Nature Village range of premium fruit and juice extracts, as well as a new energy drink said to be made from the juices of apples, pears and aronia berries, with the latter said to be a super fruit with a high level of antioxidants and a rich fibre content.
Outlining the overall health benefits of his company's range, Chief Executive Jeon Jae-hyeon said: "In Korea, mothers are great believers in the benefits of feeding their children with vegetables, which explains why carrot and apple puree is our best seller."
Flavours of a distinctly more adult nature were on offer at the Belarus Pavilion, where unwary attendees could find themselves sampling zefir – a traditional East European dessert with a marshmallow-like consistency – or a bear log with cranberry bitter, with the latter coming courtesy of Belalco, the former Soviet republic's most celebrated distiller.
According to the staff on its stand, Belalco already has strong South Asian links, with its vodka said to be in particular demand. Despite having a somewhat unique flavour, largely on account of its liberal use of local herbs, the spirit is said to have amassed a substantial fan base across the region.
Despite competition from a range of local and traditional snacks and confectioneries, spirits were also the star performers at the Czech Republic's Pavilion, most notably a selection of 70%-proof absinthes. While the sale of this aniseed-flavoured spirit was strictly illegal in many countries, including Germany and the US, until very recently, at the expo it was freely available as a pre-lunch tipple.
According to staff on the stand of L'OR Special Drinks, a Pilsen-based distiller, Czech-made absinthe scores over rival versions of the spirit from France or Ukraine thanks to the quality of its ingredients and its high levels of thujone, the chemical supposedly responsible for the drink's psychoactive attributes.
Assessing the range of absinthes on the market, one member of the company's sales team said: "There's a huge number of different products, ranging from the very cheap to the unbelievably expensive. For our part, though, we believe we make the best absinthe that you can find anywhere.
"Our top-selling product is Absinth Beetle, which contains 35mg of thujon and a giant stick insect from Papua New Guinea. While the latter is strictly for decoration, it goes down well in China where the locals seem to have a thing for spirit-infused insects."
The 2017 HKTDC Food Expo took place from 17-21 August at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong