China is a traditional fishery country that accounts for two-thirds of the production of aquaculture worldwide. In the past twenty years, the total seafood consumption in China has more than tripled, driven by a growing population, rising GDP, and increasing per capita consumption. Today, Chinese people consume over one-third of the world’s seafood and China’s seafood imports are constantly rising to meet the demand. With the growing middle class in recent years and the rise of disposable income, the Chinese purchase a progressively more diverse basket of seafood products and the luxury seafood industry in China is expanding.
Luxury seafood products on the Chinese tables are getting more easily accessible
The list of premium seafood present on the tables is getting longer with the increase of luxury seafood imports in China. According to Eva Kam, Project Manager at Daxue, all the high-end seafood were from Hong Kong before but China has now its own providers in foreign countries. Luxury seafood appreciated by Chinese consumers include lobster, abalone, shrimp, crab, salmon, oysters, scallop, shark fin, sea cucumber, swim bladder, geoduck, octopus, sea urchin, jellyfish, croakers, and seahorse. Many of them are imported: lobsters come from France, Canada, Boston in the US, Dalian in China, and from African countries; abalones are imported from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand; red shrimps from Ecuador and Argentina; king crabs from Russia and Chile; Salmons from Chile, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway and oysters from America, France, and New Zealand.
The luxury seafood consumers are obviously the richest Chinese people but also the emerging middle class that has a burgeoning appetite for these products. The rising incomes in both urban and rural areas and the growing middle class, that reached 110 million people at the end of 2015 and that is expected to double by 2022, offer an attractive outlook to the high-end seafood market.
Facing the rising demand, luxury seafood suppliers are developing new distribution channels. Specialized restaurants have opened: three high-end restaurants specializing in raw imported oysters have opened in the past 18 months in Xiamen, where raw oysters are different from the traditional grilled ones. They import raw oysters from America, France, New Zealand, and they are delivered by direct flights to Xiamen. One oyster is sold between 48 and 68 yuan which is the price of one dozen of the local oysters. But oysters can also be found in oyster bars in main cities and high-end gourmet stores. Some seafood companies are shifting from seafood production to sourcing and marketing imported high-end seafood: shellfish specialist Zhangzidao (獐子岛), also known as Zoneco, opened a high-end shop and dining facility in the central city of Wuhan, and shrimp specialist Zhanjiang Guolian Aquatic Group (国联水产) opened a large store in Zhanjiang city. They both offer imported premium seafood that can be taken out or eaten in-store. Seafood promotion in China increasingly relies on social media platforms such as Dianping (大众点评) or WeChat (微信). Thanks to the boom of e-commerce, Chinese consumers can buy their favorite premium seafood on electronic commerce platforms such as Tmall and JD that have a high reputation and reliable operating system. For example, Canadian lobsters are available on Tmall.com and fresh Australian lobsters and oysters will be soon too. The Chinese can also buy raw oysters on WeChat.
Luxury seafood industry in China: Beyond the health benefits, it offers, premium seafood reflects social status
There exist many reasons why Chinese consumers are ready to pay 250RMB per kilogram to consume abalone or 600RMB per kilogram to eat lobster. Regarding imported premium seafood, it is believed that it has a higher quality and taste than the domestic one, partly because of food safety issues. For instance, Australian lobsters are widely popular among Chinese consumers for its high nutritive value and delicious taste. On the other hand, luxury seafood products such as shark fin, sea cucumber, swim bladder, and abalone are part of the “Eight Treasures of the Sea” (海八珍), foods thought to have powerful medicinal properties according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Sea cucumber is rich in protein, low in fat and cholesterol. Abalone can ensure immune system functions as it contains most of the essential amino acids that the body needs. Shark fin can improve the function of internal organs and increase upper body strength, and is a traditional dish served at most formal banquets.
Talking about banquets, luxury seafood products play an instrumental role in celebratory banquets or special occasions. With its bright red shell, lobster is a synonym of prosperity and luxury and is considered memorable seafood by Chinese people. It is widely consumed at Christmas according to Eva Kam, and during weddings where there are usually one or two lobsters to impress the guests. Luxury seafood is important for birthday celebrations, festivals such as Chinese New Year when abalones are much consumed, and during business lunches or dinners. According to a Hong Kong restaurant owner, the four treasures of Chinese cuisine (abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin, and swim bladder) are “a must-have for all luxurious Chinese banquets. It’s a necessity when treating guests.” Purchasing premium seafood is a matter of face. As a Hong Kong Chef working in an American-style restaurant that serves lobsters, abalones, and oysters says, Chinese consumers like eating luxury seafood not only for the taste but also for the high price. Thus, luxury seafood products contribute to social life and business success.
What do restaurants offer to satisfy Chinese consumers’ appetite for luxury seafood?
As most of the banquets and celebrations are held in restaurants, let’s have a closer look at what restaurants do to meet Chinese consumers’ demand, for example at the way lobsters are cooked in China. Lobster is not cooked the same way that in the West where lobster is served boiled with a nub of better. The Chinese “usually add a lot of ingredients, like ginger and scallion” to put “a greater emphasis on the overall taste, aroma and the color” according to Chen Shanshan, a food writer, and nutritionist. Lobster is also cooked with chilies, Sichuan pepper, and other strong spices. Chef Szabolcs Diviki of Park Hyatt Beijing’s China Grill restaurant explains that grilled lobster is a favorite, maybe because Chinese consumers like seeing the whole lobster with its shell on their tables, but lobster linguini, lobster soup, and lobster served cold are also popular.
According to Eva Kam, the seafood market is more dynamic in Hong Kong than in mainland China. The market is innovative regarding sales concept: lobsters, that are traditionally used in Chinese dishes, are now offered in widely spread high-end salad bars. Fusion cuisine restaurants grow in popularity. Innovation also involves new ways of cooking premium seafood, as chefs now smoke abalones, which is a unique practice to Hong Kong cuisine.
Case study: Luxury seafood industry in China
A national food organization working on the promotion of seafood products worldwide contacted Daxue Consulting to get a clear understanding of the Chinese market. Daxue Consulting undertook a consumer research and realized interviews in Hong Kong restaurants to respond to this request.