From celebrity chefs to fine-dining restaurants, distinctive Japanese food ingredients are fast becoming the darling of the food and beverage scene across Europe.
These are exciting times for anything Japanese in Europe. The recent announcement that the European Union (EU) and Japan have agreed in principle to ratify a free trade agreement (FTA) was a much-needed boost amid current anxieties faced by the EU such as Brexit, economic difficulties, political conflicts and migration issues.
For me, being based here in Italy and actively involved over the years in introducing Japanese food ingredients to consumers in this part of the world, the FTA is expected to significantly impact the flow of Asian cuisine into Europe, Japanese food in particular.
While imports from Japan to the EU have become synonymous with automobiles, electronics, machinery, optical and medical instruments and chemicals, food ingredients from Japan are rapidly gaining in popularity with consumers over here. Today, terms such as yuzu, sudachi and konatsu are becoming as familiar as brands such as Nissan, Honda, Canon, Sony and Uniqlo.
I believe there are three big opportunities that await food manufacturers who are keen on bringing Japanese food ingredients to the European markets.
Even before the proclamation of the historic FTA, Japan has become the EU’s second biggest trading partner in Asia after China. The Japan Business Council in Europe stated that the EU’s imports from Japan totaled Euro 59.8 billion or 3.5 percent of its total imports in 2015.
Once the FTA is ratified, this trading bloc will cover 640 million people, 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and 40 percent of global trade by volume. It is the single largest FTA ever undertaken and agreed upon by any country or region in the world.
Among the key items in the deal include the EU reducing restrictions on Japanese automakers in European markets and Japan eliminating its high tariffs on wine and dairy imports over the next ten to 15 years.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant incident in 2011, the EU had put in place strict controls over all imported feed and food products originating in or consigned from Japan. Six years on, the imports of all food from Japan are still heavily restricted and subject to strict quarantine and inspection requirements.
However, many countries around the world, including those in the EU, have taken steps to gradually lift these import restrictions including on rice, vegetables, beef and marine products from Japan.
EU officials recently said that they are looking to revise import regulations for some food products from 13 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Rice from Fukushima as well as mushrooms and seafood from other regions would be among those set to be exempted from the list of restricted food items.
The craving for Japanese culture and cuisine has been on the ascent across Europe over the last decade. Having initially stirred European consumers’ interest as an exotic fare, Japanese food has now become fashionable due to its stimulating flavors and unique combination of food textures.
One example is the yuzu or Japanese citrus fruit. Consumers instantly fell in love with the distinctive fragrance of the yuzu when it was first introduced to Europe several years back. It offers a unique blend of the bitterness of grapefruit and the sweetness of lemon and mandarin orange.
The Kochi Shimbun newspaper reported that in a mere two years after the EU opened its doors to fresh yuzu in 2012, import volume reached JY 130 million in 2015. Today, the vitamin C-rich fruit is regularly featured on cooking shows for its nutritious values and recommended by celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater.
Much like the yuzu, the sudachi, a small, round and green Japanese citrus fruit is also quickly finding its way into European dishes. Typically, the sour citrus is not consumed as a fruit, but instead used as food flavoring or as garnish with Japanese dishes such as fish, soba, udon, nabe and beverages.
Beyond its unique taste, Japanese food ingredients are also growing in stature owing in some extent to how the world sees Japan – a nation built on a culture of producing high quality products, a healthy population and emphasis on safety; the very same elements you would demand from the food served to you.
If you are keen on tapping these opportunities for the food and beverage market here in Europe, reach out to me with your ideas.
Key challenges in sourcing for Japanese food ingredients
As the popularity of Japanese pop culture and its entertainment industry expands into the rest of Asia, along with it comes the desire for the country’s cuisine as food manufacturers and food and beverage (F&B) operators strive to fulfill consumer demand.