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Interest in Asian produce expected to continue during the Year of the Rabbit

by Lora Abcarian | January 12, 2011
The Year of the Tiger is preparing to give way to the Year of the Rabbit with the commencement of Chinese New Year on Feb. 3, and U.S. produce marketers are looking to capitalize on the growing interest in Asian specialty items.

Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa's/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles, said that fortune is smiling on the Year of the Rabbit. "This is the time of year when Americans are eating healthier," he told The Produce News. “Chinese New Year has become an Americanized holiday.”

Melissa’s offers a substantial variety of fresh vegetables, fruits and value- added products. The company markets familiar products such as garlic and ginger in a variety of forms. But Melissa’s extensive line of Asian produce includes staples such as Chinese celery, dried mushrooms, bamboo shoots, baby corn, banana leaves, daikon radish and bitter melon.

According to Mr. Schueller, the company’s “Asian Essentials” line, launched in 2010, has been highly successful. Convenient one-pound clamshells are available for Napa cabbage leaves, bok choy leaves, Shanghai leaves, petite Shanghai and gai lan.

These products may not be as familiar to non-Asian consumers. But Mr. Schueller said that the tide is turning among this market sector now that consumers are increasingly interested in healthy cuisines.

“Americans have been eating take-out Chinese forever,” he commented. “But they don’t necessarily know what they’re eating.”

The current recession has more Americans eating at home and trying their hand at Asian cooking. Interest has been bolstered by positive dining experiences in restaurants and by increased viewership of television cooking shows.

Melissa’s has developed a number of recipes to post on product packaging and to print on its web site, thereby giving anyone with an interest in Asian produce an opportunity to experiment. “The Asian culture of foods is becoming more popular,” he added.

And Mr. Schueller said that Americans are increasingly learning about the interchangeability of their favorite produce for an Asian equivalent. For example, “Asian eggplant can be substituted for Italian eggplant,” he said, and bok choy can also be used in place of traditional cabbage.

“There needs to be more education about eating these vegetables,” he added. Mr. Schueller praised retailers for their interest in promoting Asian produce. “Retailers do a good job of introducing more varieties to see if they will stick,” he said.

And the Year of the Rabbit will be propitious because Feb. 3 occurs between Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day, giving retailers an additional opportunity with consumers.

Melissa’s has created a Chinese New Year’s kit — with signage, danglers and recipes — to help retailers make their promotions a success.

Asian fruits are also incorporated in meal planning or given as gifts because they bring good luck, abundant life, joy or fortune. Buddha’s Hand, a fragrant citron fruit with finger-like projections, for example, is a gift of good luck. Melissa’s markets a wide variety of additional value-added products such as egg roll wrappers, Asian noodles, kim chee and tofu.

Patsy Ross, marketing director for Christopher Ranch LLC in Gilroy, CA, said that the company offers a host of products designed to complement Chinese New Year, with ginger being a key item. The firm markets up to 1 million pounds of the commodity annually.

“Hawaiian ginger has just started,” she told The Produce News Jan. 6. “It looks good, and we will continue in the Hawaiian ginger through June. We also source ginger from other growing areas like Brazil, Thailand, Costa Rica and Peru.”

In addition to fresh-packed ginger, the company features four value-added ginger products: a 4.25-ounce chopped ginger, a nine-ounce chopped ginger, a 4.25-ounce ginger-garlic stir fry and 4.25-ounce organic chopped ginger.

Christopher Ranch has staked its reputation on quality garlic. “We handle garlic from other growing regions as demanded by our customer base, mostly distributors,” Ms. Ross said. “Most of the retail chains prefer the California heirloom garlic we have year round. We grow, pack and ship approximately 60 million pounds of fresh California heirloom garlic annually. Imports are a very small percentage of our business.”

Ms. Ross expects that demand for California garlic will increase this year as a result of short supplies of Chinese garlic.

In addition to ginger and garlic, Christopher Ranch handles dried chili peppers, shallots, pearl onions, cipolline onions, elephant garlic and boiler onions.

The company’s client base is evenly distributed between retail and foodservice.

“Our retail and foodservice customers are the experts in marketing to their consumer base,” she said. “We partner with them for the most effective presence.”