High-end beef products are becoming hugely popular with Asian consumers, both in restaurants and retail, reports Daniel Creffield

The quality beef market in Asia has been growing in size and consistency for more than ten years. Speaking at a conference recently, Victoria Santini, head of Asia at the Institute of Grocery distribution, said that while six or seven years ago you could only find rib-eye steak in a restaurant, there were now retailers across the region offering at least eight different kinds of rib-eye to buy pre-packaged.

“The key selling points in Asia are quality, brand and health,” she suggested, adding that these were more important in the premium meat sector than price.

“Premium retail has seen good growth, with a growing middle class looking for more and better products. Main trends retailers and restaurants should be aware of include satisfying the increasingly sophisticated Asia shopper; communicating quality and provenance; showcasing product expertise and responding to changing lifestyles.”

Hong Kong is now the most significant market outside the EU for British beef and veal, with shipments increasing three-fold year-on-year, according to EBLEX, the organisation for English beef and lamb.

The value of products exported to Hong Kong is also of higher value, while offal exports to the SAR also increased by 43% on the year to £25.7 million (US$42 million).

Head of exports Jean Pierre Garnier says that English beef remains the reference point for beef quality, having developed the modern way of eating beef 300 years ago.

“We invented bovine genetics in the late 18th century, pioneered new ways of producing beef from the agricultural revolution to the modern developments of molecular genetics and the science of meat quality,” stresses Garnier.

“British breeds, such as Aberdeen Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn, have been exported all over the world and remain the reference point for beef quality.”

Hong Kong is a key target market for English Beef in Asia and EBLEX created the brand ‘English Beef the Royal Standard’ just for Hong Kong and Macau. English Beef re-entered the Hong Kong market over two years ago.

“We feel there is a gap in the market for premium grass-fed beef, especially for the discerning consumer looking for a true eating experience,” adds Garnier.

“We are aiming for high tenderness of course, but also striving for a long and deep grassy flavour allied with good product juiciness and fibrous mouth feel. This is a different product from the traditional grain-fed beef served in Hong Kong but beef connoisseurs and more generally all self-declared gourmets will appreciate the difference and superior taste. In addition, grass-fed beef has great nutritional benefits.”

Raising the steaks

Stephen McCrimmon, regional director of operations – Asia of Morton’s of Chicago, agrees that the beef market, specifically at steakhouse restaurants, is growing steadily and becoming a focus of menu type at any new western restaurant, whether independent or hotel.

“The selection of beef is actually very good in Asia,” he suggests. “As well as beef from the US and Canada, you can get Scottish, South American, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese. Wet aged and dry aged are also available.

“So the choices are staggering and it really all comes down to personal preference, but to be able to have such a huge choice I think is very welcome from a supplier, restaurant and guest perspective, plus the varied price points also suits all types of guests!”

McCrimmon believes that the higher end market will continue to grow, and Morton’s foresees more independent steakhouses opening, which is a trend that has sustained in the US.

Do Asia consumers want their beef prepared differently from US steak lovers?

“Our steaks are cooked on the same brand of broilers that we use in the US. Where permissible by law we also import the same US beef cuts weekly. We do find in China our guests prefer their steaks on the bone rather than boneless, but again they have the similar expectations as guests in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore or any of our other US restaurants.

“Our most popular cuts in China are the 22oz bone-in rib-eye and 24oz porterhouse. In Hong Kong and Singapore our most popular cuts are the 16oz boneless rib-eye and 20oz New York strip.”

Strengthening market

Deana Kao, senior manager, business development – Taiwan, Southeast Asia with the Canada Beef International Institute, represents and markets Canadian beef and veal products.

“Asia is definitely a strong market, particularly Southeast Asia, with increasing beef demand in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a global marketing organisation for Canada beef; we focus not only on North America but also in Asia; which includes China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Southeast Asia. We have a strong brand image that allows us to represent our industry and products to the Asia market.

“Our beef is unique and comes from cattle born and raised in the wide natural land of Canada. Cattle feed on grassland forage for the most part. A blend of grains such as barley, wheat or corn is mixed in as cattle reach maturity.”

Angliss Hong Kong Food Service, one of the region’s primary food importers, offers some of the world’s leading brands of cattle, both grass and grain fed, from Australia, USA, Brazil and New Zealand – bred for the finest grade of marbling and richness of flavour.

Angliss recently began distributing certified Piedmontese beef.

“It is a new product for our company and we will target fine-dining customers such as Italian restaurants, premium steak houses and five-star hotels,” says the company.

Angliss is also seeing growing demand for quality. “People are more health conscious, and Piedmontese beef that is naturally tender, succulent and flavourful is a good choice for them. While it is a leaner product, it is also tender, not relying on marbling for tenderness but instead on genetics.”

Restaurant manager and executive chef Zhao Li of He Jiang Sichuan and Huai-Yang restaurant at Hong Kong’s Cosmopolitan Hotel prepares three signature beef dishes: stir-fried beef with scallions, braised beef in red chili soup and braised beef rib with chopped chili, Cheng Du style.

He uses local rib-eye for the stir-fry and braised beef in red chili soup as this part is tenderer with less muscle fibre, while for the beef Cheng Du style he uses longer ribs, imported from the US, with higher proportion of meat.

“Sourcing beef from different regions depends on the origin of the dishes,” he reveals. “The stir-fried beef and braised beef in red chili soup has local origins, therefore local beef is more suitable. While for the rib, the dish comes from the US, I just reintroduced it using the Cheng Du cooking method.”

Does he prepare it any differently in Hong Kong than he would have to in China?

“In order to bring our guests the authentic flavour of the dishes here, I follow the same recipes for the braised beef in red chili soup and stir-fried beef with scallions as I would in Sichuan. The only difference would probably be the spiciness of the red chili soup, as in China it can be really spicy!”

Meanwhile braised beef rib Cheng Du style is a new fusion dish invented by chef Zhao when he arrived at the restaurant three years ago.