It was halfway through a lunchtime banquet held in a small (by Chinese standards) portside town on the river Yangtze. The usual broths, Asian vegetables and fish had dizzily circulated on the Lazy Susan but the hero dish was only just making its way to the table.
The Shanghai Hairy Crab is highly desired and renowned for its roe located under the shell of the main body. The meat in its legs and claws is secondary. Sensing my lack of confidence in breaching the crab’s armour plate, my host reached over and forcibly broke my crab in two with his hands. The roe, a creamy orange paste, was now oozing out over the animal’s gills. To eat the roe, you enthusiastically suck it out of the crab’s carapace. In Australian terms, slurp crab guts! The psychological hurdle of eating parts of animals not even recognised as edible (a hurdle lowered in this instance by the business relationship importance of doing so) is commonplace for Australians visiting Asia. The challenge is to eat it – enjoyment doesn’t factor. Perhaps because of this, few Australians get an understanding of what constitutes premium Chinese fare.
A fellow guest at that banquet was a Beijing local and due to visit Australia a few months later. I promised to buy him an Australian premium beer, full of hops and beery loveliness! Surely this will be a revelation to him in comparison to the light and subtle flavoured Chinese beer ubiquitous throughout China? I fulfilled my promise at a Perth restaurant overlooking the city skyline. The beer chosen to induct my guest was full of intense citrus and stone fruit characters carefully balanced with speciality malts (according to the manufacturer) but it may well have been crude oil judging by the look on his face after his first sip. Being the polite person he is, he said no ill words but quickly moved to red wine.
When I talk to budding food entrepreneurs looking north with an eye to selling premium product into China, I hark back to the hairy crab and the hoppy beer and ask them the question, why will the Chinese consumer pay premium prices? Generally, the answer involves the “burgeoning middle class” followed by the words “clean and green”. I would argue there needs to be more.
Premium implies a quality that drives scarcity due to demand outweighing supply which – we all learned in high school – pushes up prices. Australian food producers chase “premium” to avoid competing on cost which is not Australia’s competitive advantage. Demand can only outweigh supply if there is relatively significant consumer appeal and this is where Australians trying to cater for the Chinese market are at a disadvantage. We only know what appeals to our palate and despite our multicultural background, the gulf between our respective (generalised) palates is similar in size to the gap between our average salaries (something in the order of $70,000 AUD or 700% in case you are wondering). Attributes such as clean and green only hold store if the food is tasty to the consumer to start with!
If Australia wants to sell China premium food rather than commoditised raw material, it needs to understand the Chinese consumer and what they like, not what we want them to like. Doing so may even open up new opportunities for product we don’t currently consider marketable, but could potentially earn a premium up in China.
Which makes me wonder, what does the “guts” of an Australian crab taste like?
Mark has recently joined Pivotal Point after working as Group Strategy and Innovation Manager at Australia’s largest grain exporter. He is a keen observer of global trends and is always looking to test “accepted norms” with insights and data from the market place.