China wants a bigger wedge of cheese

2016-10-21 10:26Xinhua Editor: Mo Hong'e ECNS App Download

Liu Yajia is a rare thing in China - a cheese connoisseur. She can reel off names, flavors and production processes of varieties of cheeses that few people have heard of.

A recent video of a cheese platter on her WeChat microblog drew a lot of attention.

The 36-year-old media professional is one of a growing number of Chinese developing a taste for cheese and Western foods made with cheese, such as pizza, pasta and tiramisu. For Liu, cheese is a link to European culture and tradition.

"Each cheese reminds me of the beautiful scenery and traditions of Western countries I have visited," says Liu, who discovered her taste for cheese while studying in London.

For decades, Chinese disdained cheese as little more than salty solid milk - but there are signs that attitude is waning.

According to China Customs, imports of cheese in 2014 hit 65.69 million kilograms, almost double the quantity of 2012. China's cheese market was valued at 844 million yuan by September 2015, indicating about 11 percent of Chinese families bought cheese at least once a year.

Brands including President and Anchor and varieties like parmesan occupy ever more fridge space in Chinese supermarkets. Restaurants and online shops are also outlets. The world's largest dairy exporter, Fonterra, boasted that more than 300 million pizzas in China were dressed with its mozzarella last year.

In the 1990s, Western cheese companies adjusted their recipes - making them slightly sweeter - to suit Chinese palates.

But Liu Yajia is not fond of sweet cheese after living in the West. In 2003, she began to frequent London cheesemongers like Paxton & Whitfield, in the hope of practising her English, because the salespeople "always fervidly discussed anything about cheese". But a love of good cheese soon became her prime motivation. She also incorporated aspects of foreign cuisine and Western cooking styles into her meals.

Study and travel abroad have raised awareness of Western habits and lifestyles. More than 120 million Chinese tourists went abroad in 2015, according to the World Tourism Cities Federation.

Liu Yang studied for six years in France, where he learned the art of making cheese from a neighbor. Returning to Beijing, he opened a homemade cheese shop, Le Fromager de Pekin, in 2008. In the early years, most of his customers were foreigners. He sold his French-style cheeses mainly to five-star hotels or Western restaurants. "But now Chinese customers account for more than 50 percent," says Liu, who is going to open a pizza restaurant to woo more customers.

Liu doesn't advertise; word of mouth has grown his business. He also offers cheese-making recipes on microblog Weibo to teach locals how to appreciate and eat cheese.

Another reason for the thriving popularity of cheese, he says, is that people are gradually understanding the importance of nutrition and healthier eating. Members of China's growing middle class are ready to pay a little extra to sample new flavors, particularly if they come with health benefits.

Smart chefs and cheese-makers are creating new dishes to woo Chinese customers. They have shared online the recipes for tangyuan (a type of sweet dumpling), mooncakes, and traditional pancakes made with cheese.

Brands should prioritize the young consumer market (people in their 20s and children) to cultivate cheese-eating habits, says Hao Qiu, an analyst at Mintel market research company. In the adult market, cheese for snacking is an opportunity.

Big companies like Milkana already market "kiddy cheese" in China. Though price-sensitive, Chinese parents don't begrudge money spent on their children.

Paradoxically, many people still refuse to eat cheese not because of the taste, but also because it's high in calories and fat. Keeping fit is also a concern in overweight China.

"Cheese is tasty," says Liu Yajia, "but for health, I don't suggest too much."


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