Long renowned for its healthgiving properties as well as its rich taste, olive oil is used extensively in Mediterranean and European cuisine and is becoming increasingly popular across Asia. What are the latest trends in olive oil and what are chefs using, asks Michelle Cheng

“Extra virgin olive oil can be used with every course of a great Italian meal, all the flavours will explode in your mouth!” laughs Giuseppe Ferreri, head chef of one of Hong Kong’s top Italian restaurants, Lupa.

“I definitely use extra virgin olive oil, because it comes from the first squeeze of the olives. All the properties of the olives remain in the first pressing. It is rich and full of taste.”

Ferreri’s passion for quality olive oil is evident. “Olive oil has multiple uses; preservation of food is one of them. Back in the days when fridges didn’t exist, we cooked the food and put it in extra virgin olive oil to preserve it, because fresh vegetables or other foods were not available all year around.”

His favourite uses of olive oil include blending it with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and serving it with bread. “Lighter oils can be used on salads; stronger oils can be used in pasta and meat dishes. Doctors also suggest cooking with olive oil – it is rich in omega 3. Cooking with this oil you don’t get the bad chemicals that come with cooking with others, such as palm or seed oils. And the smoking point of extra virgin olive oil is 220oC, compared to 180oC of most other oils.”

But how does he decide which olive oils to purchase for the restaurant? “Of course, quality comes first, but there has to be a balance between price and quality. I always taste it first. Acidity is important. Sometimes there is a bitter flavour at the end that is not good. I look for olive oils with not too much acidity and of course, no chemicals.”

And can olive oil replace the traditional oils used in Asian cuisine?
“In theory, it could. Asian cuisine has a very low quantity of fat. If used appropriately, it can fit well with Asian cuisine. Its taste is not as aggressive as other fats, for example, butter. But the problem is the price. Olive oil is much more expensive and I’m not sure [Asian] restaurants would be willing to pay that price to replace cheaper oils with olive oil.”

A process of education

Despite its high cost, olive oil is becoming more popular among Asian consumers. “As far as the Hong Kong market goes, customers are definitely becoming more demanding about the quality of the oil they use,” says Flora Chang, managing director of Hong Kong import and distribution company The Green Olive Ltd.

“People are becoming more educated in matters of olive oil, and are starting to realise that a good olive oil is much like a good wine, and how important it is to bring the right flavour to a dish. Customers are willing to pay a higher price if they know that the quality of the product will leave them satisfied, and we can see this in the steadily increasing supply coming from Italy in order to satisfy our customers – since last year we’ve had a 20% increase for our olive oil sales.”

“However, in the Greater China market only a few understand and cherish the quality of a good extra virgin olive oil, while many still consider price the most important factor.”

That is why The Green Olive launched the Ottavia brand, made in Italy by the same oil makers that supply its other brands, using blends of Mediterranean olives. Through this more affordable line of extra virgin olive oil, the company hopes more people will be able to enjoy quality extra virgin olive oil in the future.

The Green Olive is currently active in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Customers are mostly high-scale restaurants and hotels, as well as gourmet shops and supermarkets. Best selling products include its Lorenzo oils.

“Olive oils from our Lorenzo line have recently been awarded prizes at BIOFACH, the largest organic food fair in the world. They are the first choice for professional and amateur chefs who know how important a good olive oil is in order to create a great dish.”

Green Olive’s products include medium to high-quality extra virgin olive oils. Its more affordable Ottavia oils are made in Italy from a blend of Mediterranean olives while its Lorenzo line is produced using only handpicked olives from three different areas in Sicily. Lorenzo No1 and No3 are high quality mono-varietal organic olive oils, and No.5 is made using only pitted olives.

And which place in the world produces the best olive oil, does Chang believe? “Most of our olive oils come from Sicily. People want to eat healthy and know what is inside what they are eating, and rightly so. This is why we are happy to supply the best organic olive oil, Lorenzo No1 and No3, to the China market.

“Apart from that, the competition between the main producers of olive oil in the Mediterranean region (Greece, Spain, Turkey) keeps on increasing, but we are firm in our belief that Italian, and particularly Sicilian, olive oil is the best in the world!”

Fat buster – the truth about oils

Enjoi Limited is based in Hong Kong from where it specialises in, developing packaged products as well as delivering authentic, certified by licensed IOC laboratories – extra virgin olive oil, high oleic canola oil and a mixture of both, specific for the Hong Kong and China marketplace.

Something of an evangelist for clean, quality oils, Enjoi’s director sales and marketing – Asia Pacific, Steven Horton, says the company’s oils are being sold where international visitors and knowledgeable locals are eating and where there are high volume fast food menus that seek to offer quality, fresh, healthier and 100% pure foods.

“Real 100% pure, fresh, mild extra virgin olive oils are rare. Food programmes on Hong Kong and mainland television and food coverage in the media and online is highlighting this quality more, and more foodies are looking to learn (like wine) what is the best available, says Horton. However, most retail stores are selling cheaper oils, that have already started decomposing, to their unsuspecting customers.

“Enjoi is selling double the volume of unsaturated, low trans fat frying oils compared to last year. Over a period of six to 10 days, Enjoi’s oil does not change the flavour of the foods being fried. Whereas local saturated oils decompose within 36 hours and over the time cost more and have higher operational overheads.”

There is now a swing for upscale Asian food halls and supermarkets to buy longer lasting, healthier oils, Horton suggests.

“Chefs are saying ‘no’ to the appearance of food cooked with poor quality oils, of Indian, Greek and Italian foods lacking the right aromas. And of course, when the food has to be packed and later eaten there is high wastage because it does not reach the expected standards.

Chefs are realising that most extra virgin olive oils are not worth buying as they decompose or change the flavours of the food, whereas Enjoi’s EVOO (the company’s all-rounder oil) does not.”

Because the content of Enjoi’s oils are pure, fresh, non genetic and grown in a sustainable environment they do not break down or decompose as fast when they are exposed to air, light and temperatures above 25oC for long periods, Horton maintains.

“As a result, Enjoi oils are attracting F&B professionals seeking genuine, healthy oils, which make high quality foods easily, meet food safety standards and can also save money.”