When supermarket chain Sainsbury’s first introduced the avocado pear to UK customers in 1962, unwitting shoppers assumed the new fruit should be eaten with custard, just like tinned peaches.
But a decade later the avocado had become a symbol of Britain’s growing post-war affluence. No discerning dinner party was complete unless avocado had been served as the starter (the prawn cocktail was another favoured hors d’œuvre much enjoyed by middle-class diners in the seventies).
Now it is China’s turn to be perplexed by this nutrient-heavy fruit, which tastes like a vegetable and should be eaten only when its rind has turned an off-putting shade of murky brown.
CBN reports that Chinese avocado consumption has jumped 127 fold over the past four years, with consumers chomping through almost 4,000 tonnes of them last year.
Exports are still the preserve of just two countries, Mexico and Chile, although New Zealand hopes to join the list of approved exporters this year as it tries once again to cash in on the Chinese desire for fresher produce, which not only confers health benefits, but also conveys a visible stamp of prosperity.
Julie Escobar, a sales director at fruit-and-veg trader Robinson Fresh tells CBN: “China’s consumption of perishable goods has experienced dramatic changes in the past couple of years. It all stems from the growing middle class and their desire to adopt a healthier lifestyle with more fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Social media has also accelerated interest in avocados, says CBN, with international celebrities such as Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively helping to create greater public awareness thanks to the promotion of vegetable-based drinks and shakes on their lifestyle websites. Supermarkets and local importers have also worked hard to educate shoppers, with tastings and giveaways, while in-store posters help customers out with tips on how to tell when an avocado is ripe, how to peel it and how to best serve it.
CBN says importers have also had to learn how to handle the fruit in order to maintain their margins. In the early days, a single avocado would retail at about Rmb20 ($3.20) because of the high wastage rates (typically up to 30% of consignments were spoiled before they reached the supermarket shelves). Zhao Guozhang, founder of fresh-food e-retailer Fruit Day says he has managed to reduce his loss rate to 5% after understanding how to vary storage temperatures according to the different seasons, and in figuring out the maturity profiles of the fruit after its 25-day shipment from Latin America to China.
Consumers can now buy avocados for Rmb7 to Rmb10 each, although Zhao says this has been at the expense of his own profit margins. However, he says he is happy to accept the squeeze while he builds demand for a product known as an ‘alligator pear’ (the literal translation of an older English term for avocados, which were thought to resemble crocodile skin) or as ‘butter fruit’.
Avocados have gone through almost as many names in their history as there are ways to eat them. The modern day term comes from the Spanish word aguacate, which is thought to be derived from the indigenous identifier ahuacatls, or testicles, because of their shape and supposed aphrodisiac effect.
In modern day Mexico, avocados are eaten with salt alongside a cup of coffee, while Brazilians tend to mash them into ice cream as a dessert. CBN says China is creating its own culinary traditions. Many of the new devotees are simply slicing them into tofu like blocks and dousing them in soy sauce. Others have begun using them as filling for dumplings. There is even an avocado themed restaurant that opened last summer in Shanghai. Dishes include avocado and beef cheesecake, and raspberry and avocado mousse.
The Chinese are also beginning to explore cultivation of avocados of their own own. The hope: that the soil and climate in sub-tropical provinces such as Hainan, Guizhou and Guangdong could be suitable for production.
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