Red wine, blue cheese and imported oysters. If ever there was a sign that culinary decadence had gone mainstream in Cambodia, this was it. At the Apsara Palace Resort in early October, the Siem Reap F&B Expo was something of a coming out party for the fine dining sector, with more than 200 exhibitors and brands from 16 countries putting their products on display in a bid to forge a path into Cambodia’s maturing consumer class.
Regional consumers are willing to pay a little extra for foods and drink with nutritional value, or whose production processes are guaranteed against contamination.
“Oysters are now very important for us,” says Priscilla Kruse, marketing manager at the AusKhmer Import Export Company. “All our oysters come from France. Our bestseller is Fine de Claire Live Oyster #3 from Cancale. But cheese is the new trend in Cambodia, especially Australian cheeses.”
A decade or so ago, sales of dairy produce to Cambodian consumers were negligible. Now, cheese and cheese products are booming. Part of the reason for the new prominence of cheese in the Cambodian diet comes from it being stocked and promoted in the gourmet sections of supermarkets such as Lucky and Bayon, according to Kruse, who said that an uptick in the Cambodian economy had seen a surge in sales of expensive cheeses, European oysters and fine wines.
“ OYSTERS ARE NOW VERY IMPORTANT… OUR BESTSELLER IS FINE DE CLAIRE LIVE OYSTER #3 FROM CANCALE. BUT CHEESE IS THE NEW TREND IN CAMBODIA, ESPECIALLY AUSTRALIAN CHEESES.”
– Priscilla Kruse, Marketing Manager, AusKhmer Import Export Company
Fast Food, Fast Changes
The introduction of international fast food outlets, such as Burger King and Domino’s Pizza had similarly driven cheese sales upwards, she says, as have bakeries, which are now using more and more of a product once dismissed by Cambodians in a similar fashion to the way that foreign palettes dismiss the pungent local fish paste, prahok.
But, unsurprisingly, it’s the changes at the high end of the wine market that have Kruse most excited. She makes particular note of a $300-per-bottle Grand Cru, which has a “very big market among upmarket Khmers” and says that “Champagne Bernardin is the number three winemaker in our company and number three in Cambodia.”
And while wine tasting sessions hosted by AusKhmer and Celliers D’Asie were a popular and convivial gathering point for many of the 3,000 who attended Siem Reap F&B, visitors could also sample another European favourite that is seeking a foothold in the newly cashed-up Cambodian market — cider.
Chas Geschke, general manager of the Asia Pacific Cider Company, which brews, bottles and distributes Bruntys Cider in Cambodia, tells MANAGEMENT INSIDER that his product was doing just that. “While the wines and the companies representing them were quite visible at the expo, Bruntys Premium Cider is one of the key products making an impact in the beverage market for a new product,” he says.
The Cider Experiment
The premium brand cider, billed as “Best of British, made in Asia,” was launched in Cambodia in May 2013 and while tourists and expats were an obvious market, from the outset the company wanted its share of the new middle class market in Cambodia and regional neighbours such as Thailand and Vietnam, where it is also distributed.
To meet the Cambodian market, where sweet tastes are much preferred over bitter ones, Bruntys brews three flavours – the traditional apple, and also pear, plus a much sweeter strawberry flavoured cider. “The Western market knows and understands what cider is,” Geschke says. “However the Asian market is still learning.”
“Essentially our target market is Asians, and that is why we produce in Southeast Asia and why we have adapted a cider more fitting for the Asian palate. A stronger presence in the Cambodian and full Asian market is what we are aiming to achieve.”
Somewhat surprisingly, health also emerged as an important factor at the expo, with many exhibitors wooing regional consumers who were also willing to pay a little extra for foods and drinks with nutritional value, or whose production processes were guaranteed against contamination.
Foreign Favourites Adapted for Local Tastes
Several bakeries featured healthier but more expensive breads and pastries. German company Ireks promoted its organic, gluten-free sourdough and malt bread mixes.
In the non-alcoholic beverages department, healthy drinks, particularly juices and low-sugar juice extracts, were prevalent. Thai company N.B. Value promoted two health-focused beverages: one based around a traditional Asian cure-all, aloe vera pulp, the other with the more experimental tastes of basil seed and honey.
Somewhat ironically, the United States, infamous for flooding the global market with junk food, painted itself as the ambassador for health food at the expo, with a large contingent of American organisations exhibiting U.S. agricultural products via offices based in Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia.
And it is an image appropriation that is paying off, according to Le Dang Nhat Uyen, who headed the California Milk Advisory Board’s pavilion. She says milk was increasingly popular throughout Vietnam and noted that consumers favoured the imported U.S. dairy products because they’re regarded as being healthy and safe.
Likewise, Tong Phuoc Thanh Long, who represented the Washington Apple Commission, said U.S. American apples were outselling Chinese apples in Vietnam, again because of health perceptions [America’s apples were considered safer to eat because of guarantees of being free from harmful sprays and other adulterations, promises that China cannot make.]
Dr. Dee Richmond, of the U.S. Dry Bean Council, was also on hand to promote nutrient-rich potatoes, but pointed out that it was a difficult marketing mission here because Cambodians confuse potatoes with sweet potatoes or, even worse, with cassava which, if not processed properly, can be lethal.
Armed with weapons of mass instruction – a formidable array of pamphlets, brochures and booklets extolling the health benefits of soy, particularly over meat – the energetic Alan Poock, of St. Louis, Missouri, headed a pavilion set up by the American Soybean Association in conjunction with the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He told MANAGEMENT INSIDER that he had investigated the Cambodian market seven years ago and figured potential was limited, but decided to return this year because of the economic uptick, which has brought with it a willingness to pay more for ostensibly more nutritious foods.
Those who attended the expo were part of a new initiative. Until this year, Siem Reap had only one venue capable of holding such large international gatherings. F&B 2015 doubled as the official opening of the luxurious Apsara Palace Resort and Conference Centre, and placed Siem Reap as a player in the profitable trade show and exhibition sector.
Showcasing Siem Reap
Going online for the first time, there were technical teething problems for organisers, the AMB Events Group, but nothing that could stop the show, with general satisfaction prevailing from most involved, according to to AMB director Andrew Siow.
“More than 3,000 trade visitors attended the three- day event. The exhibition was sold out and set the record for the largest hospitality show in Siem Reap with pavilions from many countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam,” he says. “The culinary competitions saw hundreds of participants including international teams from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.” A questionnaire showed that 96% of exhibitors rated the exhibition a success, Mr. Siow adds.
Words by Peter Olszewski |Photography by George Nickels