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Asian produce crosses cultural lines

Celebrations to ring in the Chinese New Year will begin in earnest on Feb. 10. Drawing upon the Chinese zodiac, 2013 is the Year of the Snake. According to Chinese wisdom, a snake in the house is regarded as a sign that a family will not starve. And people born in the Year of the Snake are regarded as keen, intelligent, wise and skilled at business. Festivities during the Year of the Snake will conclude Feb. 24.

In modern times, Chinese New Year has crossed cultural lines and is now celebrated by diverse OpenerShotAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian population is the fastest-growing segment of the American population. Seen here is an Asian market in Denver, CO. (Photo courtesy of Lora Abcarian)ethnic groups around the globe.

Amy Nguyen, sales executive at Dragonberry Produce in Clackamas, OR, said that there are reasons this has become the case. "You take the best from any culture available to you," she told The Produce News. "Food is a commonality. The United States is becoming so diversified that people are eating across cultural lines."

Ms. Nguyen said that fruits and vegetables enjoy a special status among Asian populations. "Fruit and vegetables are valued as a precious gift," she said. To illustrate, she said that retailers in the Pacific Rim often have special sections devoted to fruit gifts. And it is a custom to bring a fruit basket when visiting family or friends regardless of the time of year.

"You can pick the fruit out for the basket," she said of the long-standing tradition. "In Asia, it's presented in a nurturing way."

She said this focus contrasts sharply with bulk-packaged items typically sold in the United States and the more limited times that fruit is given as a gift.

Interest in fruits and vegetables is about more than the physical commodity. "Asians see the art side of looking at produce," Ms. Nguyen said. "Color is a huge factor coming up for Chinese New Year. There's a lot of color symbolism in food. Everything is done with a lot of thought about what it symbolizes."

The color orange, for example, is symbolic of money and gold. The color green stands for health. "Anything red is going to be a hit," Ms. Nguyen added, saying that the color symbolizes good luck. In her native country of Vietnam, the color yellow is a harbinger of spring.

According to Ms. Nguyen, the principles of feng shui -- the balancing of energies within spaces to promote health and good fortune -- also come into play when gifts of fruits and vegetables are presented.

Dragonberry Produce is currently exporting apples to Vietnam for the holidays, and Ms. Nguyen said that they are highly prized. "We market products that I would love to eat and are highly desired," she said.

Food itself has become a common language, according to Ms. Nguyen, who said, "The commonality is what we put on the dinner table. It's what we share."

She said that fusion cuisine, which combines what is best in different cultural and culinary traditions in innovative and interesting ways, is becoming increasingly popular with foodies in the United States.

As Americans continue to fight the battle of the bulge, they are increasingly interested in the healthful aspects of Asian cuisine. Many are initially exposed to Asian cooking at restaurants and desire to replicate a dining experience in their own homes. In response, domestic companies continue to broaden their offerings of Asian produce and value-added products.

Jim Provost, owner of I Love Produce in Kelton, PA, said that the U.S. Census Bureau has compiled some revealing data.

"According to the most recent U.S. census, the Asian population is the fastest-growing segment in the United States, and now makes up about 5 percent of the population, with about 17 million people," he told The Produce News. "It is true that Asian cuisines are growing in popularity among all Americans. But it is important to note that the population of Asian-Americans in itself is a market force. I Love Produce recognizes this, and we cater to this market segment."

I Love Produce markets ginger, Asian pears and garlic. On the value-added side, chopped garlic is marketed in quart jars. Both conventional and organic products are sold.

The company has facilities in Jining, China and works with its own network of garlic growers to ensure the highest-quality product is shipped.

Mr. Provost said that I Love Produce has also hired a sales staff in China to sell American-made food products in China.

"Our office is based in Shanghai, and the operation is just under a year old," he said. "In addition to the fresh fruit our sister company sells in China, we are marketing consumer packaged products such as baby food, snacks and special dietary needs foods in China."

Christopher Ranch LLC, headquartered in Gilroy, CA, has just begun air freighting its first shipments of Hawaiian ginger.

"Hawaiian ginger is preferred by most of our accounts," Marketing Director Patsy Ross told The Produce News. "It has the best quality of hand size, sheen and favor. Also, since we have worked with most of the growers in Hawaii for over 25 years, we feel confident we can offer the best available, freshest crop to our customers."

Although garlic supplies continue to be tight, Ms. Ross said that the season is going well, and product quality is very high.

"We expect to sell over 70 million pounds of California heirloom garlic this season," she added.