Wok this way: why the time is now for Chinese flavours

Lee Kum Kee's managing director for Europe explains how the billion-dollar condiments company hopes to extend its reach.

28 June 2018

You don’t need a fortune cookie to know that Chinese food is sizzling hot. Its presence on supermarket shelves continues to grow, as does its share of ready-meal sales. Meanwhile in foodservice, the cuisine is broadening out far beyond inauthentic takeaways and Chinatown dim sum. 

On the higher end of the spectrum is Michelin-starred A Wong (recently named number three on the National Restaurant Awards top 100 list), while grab-and-go spots like Pleasant Lady Jian Bing, which has opened two outposts since April, are building upon the burgeoning awareness of Chinese street snacks.

Chains from the Middle Kingdom (as it is called in Mandarin) are getting in on the action too, with both dumpling king Din Tai Fung and hot pot haven Hai Di Lao set to make European debuts in London.

“Chinese cuisine has overtaken Indian on the foodservice scene and I think this is a trend that will continue,” says Maria Chong, managing director at Lee Kum Kee Europe. “Traditionally, British consumers would experience Chinese food through local Chinese restaurants and takeaways. However, we have now seen the rise of street food, whether it is bao restaurants or noodle chains, or Hong Kong tea house restaurants (cha chaan teng) or hot pot restaurants – all of which offer a glimpse of the breadth of the Chinese food scene and how interesting and varied it is.”

The building consumer interest into the depth of Chinese food presents an opportunity for Lee Kum Kee, which is one of the world’s most successful makers of Chinese condiments. Its sales in Europe come primarily from retail – lots of soy sauce as well as the brand’s signature oyster sauce, alongside other Asian marinades and seasonings – but Chong also has her eye on expanding the business’ presence in foodservice and manufacturing.

No more mister rice guy

Chong, who has worked for the Europe branch of Lee Kum Kee since 2010, says that while British consumers are warier than their French counterparts about incorporating seafood ingredients and flavours, they tend to have “a higher degree of acceptance of intensity,” boasting a greater tolerance for chilli and spice (a fact affecting sauce trends in general, as Food Spark noted earlier this year).

The UK is Lee Kum Kee’s most profitable European market, as well as the place with the best Chinese food in the continent, according to Chong, who says increasing the use of the brand’s products in foodservice will come down to a flourishing multiculturalism in eating habits.

“We have to be able to communicate and encourage experimentation with Chinese sauces in British and European cooking,” says Chong. “We have already seen European chefs using our sauces within their existing menus. The boundaries between different national cuisines do not exist anymore as everyone, and in particular professional chefs, are always in search of world ingredients and trends to take things to the next level.”

To that end, Lee Kum Kee is moving on from fried rice. At the Taste of London festival this summer, it gave out scoops of soy sauce ice cream, developed with MasterChef champion Ping Coombes.

“We have seen European chefs using our Premium Oyster Sauce in their cooking and marinades; using our Chilli Garlic Paste in mashed potato and mayonnaise; putting Chiu Chow Chilli Oil in salad dressings, Char Siu Sauce on barbecue meats – all of which demonstrates how successful a fusion of flavours can be,” notes Chong.“As long as the sauce and ingredients combine successfully, the creative opportunities are endless.”

Chong believes the future success of Lee Kum Kee will be tied to the education of cooks as well as consumers about Chinese seasonings. In particular, she highlights the Premium Oyster Sauce and Char Siu Sauce as having a lot of potential.

“First of all, they were both later to come to the European market compared to soy sauce, but given time, exposure and when fully experienced, I do believe professional chefs in Europe will uncover the beauty and versatility a good oyster sauce can have in helping to create a new dimension in flavour and adding to menu options.

“Secondly, the taste and other sensory performance of these are quite significant and well appreciated by European consumers from our experience.”

Turning Japanese 

In recent years, the brand has moved beyond its core offering to develop ready-made sauces and sachets, targeting time-poor or entry-level home cooks. These have taken inspiration not just from China, but Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine as well.

“A few years ago we started to produce Japanese soy sauce, and we extended the range recently to include other Japanese ingredients for seasoning and cooking. This has been well received in Hong Kong,” notes Chong. “We have a couple of Korean sauces too.

“A recent development is a series of salad dressings with Asian flavours. This is a result of the demand in the market for dressings but with unique flavours that fulfil modern food habits and lifestyle changes.”

Chong says that Vietnamese cuisine could be an interesting area of further NPD due to its simple, healthy concepts.

But it’s not just national flavours that are going into product development. Ranges that fit dietary and religious restrictions are a growing market for Lee Kum Kee, which introduced its gluten-free range just as the free-from movement was gaining momentum. The company’s halal products are already part of mainstream consumption in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations.

“The kosher market is an area which we will look into for future expansion,” remarks Chong.“We understand that consumers of all background appreciate oriental flavours so we aim to ensure they can all enjoy our range.”

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