Olive oil is becoming one of the hottest ingredients in Asia
From Tokyo to Singapore, olive oil has gone from a rejected item to most loved item in dishes.
Twenty years ago, when chef Shinobu Namae cooked at the acclaimed Italian restaurant Acqua Pazza in Tokyo, he had trouble selling dishes made with olive oil, one of the cuisine’s featured ingredients. Customers frequently asked him to omit it from their order.
Today, says Namae, “people in Tokyo love olive oil.” At his Michelin three-star L’Effervescence, the chef can now source locally made oil from Souju, a farm in the Kagawa prefecture that once grew Bonsai plants. Because the owners were expert at pruning, Namae says they can control the growth of the olive trees to sustainably “harvest good fruits constantly.”
Japan’s increasing taste for olive oil has spurred local producers. The country won eight awards, including four gold ones, at the 2020 NYIOCC World Olive Oil Competition. A big winner, Green Basket Japan, has olive groves in Odawara, about an hour outside Tokyo.
In 2019, Japan exported 276.23 metric tons of olive oil, a 209 % increase from 2018 and a 545% increase from 2014.
China is also committing to the olive oil business. In 2020, the extra-virgin, organic oil Xiangyu Coratina won double gold at the Athena International Olive Oil Competition out of 430 entrants. The company that produced it, Xiangyu Oil Olive Development Co., hired an Argentine agronomic engineer, Pablo Canamasas, to produce the winning oil.
“Extra-virgin olive oil consumption in China is increasing at a significant pace,” said Canamasas via email. “Particularly in big cities and in a segment of the population aged 25-35 that has traveled abroad and is more exposed to the Mediterranean diet or has heard of it.”
Xiangyu’s olives are grown in the Wudu District in China’s western Gansu province. The climate has enough similarities to the Mediterranean coast to produce quality olives, including slightly alkaline soil and plenty of sun, according to Xiaoyong Bai, chairman of Garden City Olive Technology Development Co. His Garden Taste oil won a gold medal for quality at the 2018 International Olive Council’s Awards, where it was recognized for its “ripe fruitiness.”
Bai has been growing olives for 23 years; his plantation now encompasses more than 3.7 million acres. A retired civil servant and committed environmentalist, Bai said that he’s helped plant trees “on many barren mountains” via a translator over email. He added: “At present, China consumes 6,000 tons of olive oil every year, with an annual growth rate of 18%.” In 2020, his company exported a batch of olive oil to South Korea, the first time he sold product outside China.
The Asia-Pacific olive market is expected to record a annual growth rate of 4.2% from 2020 through 2025, according to market research firm Mordor Intelligence. Mordor sees the region’s market for olive oil growing rapidly to meet surging demand from consumers because of its health benefits.
In Singapore, Sebastien Lepinoy is likewise pushing world-class oil, but he’s not using local olives. The chef at Michelin three-star restaurant Les Amis spent five months developing a blend to complement his modern French cooking for such dishes as Langoustine de Loctudy—giant shrimp with zucchini and an extra-virgin emulsion.
“I needed an olive oil to match with my cuisine and also, for cheese,” Lepinoy says. He used five kinds of olives from Château d'Estoublon, in Provence, France, to create a blend that he imports, uses, and markets to customers.
Lepinoy has enough confidence in the market for olive oil in Singapore that he’s selling bottles of his smooth, subtly peppery oil for $36 ($48 Singapore). He says there has been good demand for a more healthful fat as an alternative to his restaurant’s famed butter.
Although travel restrictions have kept away tourists who might buy souvenir bottles of oil, restrictions have also kept the city-state’s well-off residents home, and they’ve shown a lot of interest in the olive oil, Lepinoy says.
Still, there is some resistance to olive oil in Asia. “Crazy as it may sound,” says Canamasas, who helped produce Longnan Xiangyu’s award-winning oil, “the Chinese public have the same view we outsiders have on Chinese products: that they are of poor quality.”