What would you do if a well-intentioned host offered you pig’s blood cakes, chicken testicles or stinky tofu?
Happily, I wasn’t directly confronted with any of those on a recent visit to Taiwan, although I saw them offered in Taipei’s famous night markets. I was fortunate in June to attend Food Week Taiwan, an umbrella name for three connected shows that put Taiwan’s best products in consumer food, processing machinery and packaging before a world audience. The Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) brought them together at the Taipei World Trade Center.
While there were a few shockingly unusual foods, most of the fare was merely unfamiliar. Much of it was delightful.
Just like the Chinese (Mandarin) language itself, there were some things that would translate well to the States and some things that just won’t work. I saw a number of dishes that might make successful imports here, learned of opportunities for American exports and noticed some interesting differences in processing technology and packaging.
Fish-pork dumplings, anyone?
There were 801 exhibitors and 50,652 visitors to three Taiwan shows-in-one.
Dumplings are a favorite of many Asian cultures, and Taiwan was no different. Northwest Foods was sampling two that were delightful yet different. The first was a cheese ball, simply a strong, Cheddar-like cheese inside the dough. Instant acceptance.
The other took some courage to try: fish and pork together in the same dumpling. Somehow, the two tastes complemented each other wonderfully. Both come in common grocery store frozen boxes, reheatable by conventional oven or microwave, and both would make delectable appetizers for any dinner, not merely an Asian one.
As a special foreign guest of the show, I was handed a cool drink while waiting for an event to start. When I finally found the English on the label, the description “plum vinegar” made me pause. Too thirsty to think twice, I took a swig. It was good; not a cola-like, craveable, I-could-drink-several-of-these-a-day flavor, but as a daily nutraceutical or maybe mid-morning pick-me-up, it might work.
Of course, there was tea everywhere. Green, black, white. Some of it heavily laced with herbs and botanicals.
I turned a corner and there was a familiar sight: Del Monte canned vegetables. The traditional picture of corn immediately caught my eye. But it was on an unfamiliar, at least in this application, package. The Tetra Pak aseptic brick boxes that we’re still getting used to (think Hormel and Stagg chilis) make perfect sense in a country concerned with minimizing packaging and solid waste.
I don’t know about these, however: Mirado and Is’ Mi Co. are developing foods that transcend health to improve beauty. I never quite understood what was in The Pearl Beauty Fiber Crackers (probably at least fiber), but Slim Beauty Tea and Miracle Slim Chewing Pills apparently increase metabolism and block “the absorption of starches and the synthesis of fat.” Whether they work or not, there’s probably a market here.
What they might like
Taiwan is a $2.7 billion importer of American food, though mostly agricultural commodities. Key packaged food imports are canned foods (especially corn) fruits (especially cherries), plus snacks and confectionery. U.S. trade representatives are asking for more access for apples and pet foods.
Taiwan exports to the U.S. total only $350 million and are mostly orchids, star fruit and lychee. Taiwan is seeking more access for longans, pomelo and poultry.
A number of U.S. firms were exhibiting, most of them in a U.S. pavilion. Along with the big, logical names (such as Cargill and Tyson) was Salmon Creek Farms, Twin Falls, Idaho. CEO Patrick Florence said his company starting selling pork byproducts in Taiwan six years (nearly 10 years ago in Japan), but the product line moved upscale (and up in price and margin) in steps. The firm recently began selling its Falls Brand Natural Pork at a premium mostly into Taiwanese foodservice channels because the upscale restaurants and their savvy diners appreciate the higher quality of this pork and its natural (although not quite fully organic) certification.
Rice drinks and chips make for healthy snacks. In addition to a handful of Taiwanese companies manufacturing them, East-West Development, with an office near Cleveland, was importing both from Lundberg Family Farms in northern California.
East-West also was representing (and offering samples from) 4C Foods Corp., Advanced Food Products, Clabber Girl, Good Health Natural Foods, La Nova Wings, La Tapatia, Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends, Reed’s Inc. and World’s Best Cheesecake.
“It’s a developing market. People here are developing Western tastes,” said Thomas Kafski, a German sales manager for Weber Machines, Kansas City, Mo. Kafski said Taiwan sales of Weber’s slicing machines, especially for ham and bacon, are growing steadily. “Here, too, the time available for food preparation is shrinking. They need more convenient, semi-prepared foods. And they’re seeking Western foods, as they sample them from retailers like Carrefour and Wal-Mart and food chains like McDonald’s and KFC.”
The market for machinery
I was told Taiwanese food sanitation standards are a little more lax than those of the States. That makes high-quality U.S. machines a little pricey for this market, especially with freight, and it makes many lower-quality Taiwanese machines unsuitable for the U.S. I noticed in my walk-arounds of the machinery show not all the equipment was stainless steel.
But New Solid International Corp. has some proprietary technology for plastic forming, both film and bottles. Working in PET, PVC and OPS, I-Jan Bill Fang, director of corporate development, says all his customers are either foreigners or exporters. And with recyclability a growing concern, both on this island and elsewhere, he believes it’s a coup that his firm will be one of the first to blow-mold PLA (polylactide acid resin) from Cargill Inc. (PLA formerly came from a joint venture between Cargill and Dow Chemical Co.). With a well-established U.S. presence, he says he has several very interested American customers.
Fang said New Solid International will be exhibiting at the Oct. 29 Pack Expo show in Chicago.
Getting back to dumplings, those little dough shells are popular in many ethnic cuisines, including Italian, Polish and Indian. So Anko Food Machine Co. has seen yearly growth in exports of its specialty: dumpling-forming machines. With an office in San Francisco, U.S. sales have been growing annually for 10 years.
Just as a number of observers say Taiwan’s tastes are becoming more Western, Robert Ouyoung, Anko president, says he’s counting on the continued internationalization of the American diet. “Chinese food has been popular in America for a long time. Now it’s regional Chinese. Next I think it will be Indian. Either way, we can sell more of our machines.”