The Straits Times, a popular Singaporean newspaper, dedicated an entire article to the preparation of the perfect ‘pasta all’arrabbiata’ some weeks ago. A tribute to Italian cuisine that conveys the idea of the true potential that Italian food can have in Southeast Asia. Pasta all’arrabbiata is a delicious dish that people like, wrote the Times. This is also because it’s spicy, which is a main characteristic in that area as the chili pepper is a fundamental component in many preparations; for example it is a staple ingredient in Thailand. Besides the ‘arrabbiata’, Singapore has loved Italian food for a long time and appreciates its extensive variety. There are dozens of Italian restaurants around the island, some of which are quite sophisticated and that offer a quality of food that is par with the best Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy. They are also pushing the food scene to include original fusion restaurants, such as Terra Seita, which is a well-known restaurant that is known for its Italian – Japanese cuisine.
Singapore and the ‘others’
Italian cuisine is so well regarded in Singapore that it has become a victim of ‘Italian sounding’, a problem that many Italian products must deal with in many markets. This is obviously a problem, but it is also a signal that the market on this small island still has room for growth with regards to the offerings of Italian products in a market that can adequately reward quality, seeing as its income per capita is quite high. The real challenge for Italian food in the Far East, though, is the rest of the Asian countries, other than China. The first have a combined population of over 600 million inhabitants, while the second is closer to 1.4 billion. Much has been written about China, but less so about Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, etc., which have seen their combined economies do a complete turnaround and have started growing at a good rate and who import a total of nearly 10 billion euro of middle-to-high quality agricultural products. Just six years ago this total was less than five billion euro, which is evidence that the appetite for quality food is increasing and testimony to the fact that Italy can take advantage of this rise with its high quality food offerings. Roughly half of the 10 billion euro of imported goods is traced back to the premium alcoholic beverage sector, which has seen imports grow by 68% since 2011. What is most interesting though is the increase in sugar, chocolate, sweets, and ice cream (715 million euro, +191% compared to 2011), fruits and vegetables, processed and packaged goods (424 million euro, +401%), water and non-alcoholic beverages (352 million euro, +101%), biscuits and baked goods (350 million euro, +116%), packaged tea and coffee (324 million euro, +438%), oil, condiments, and spices (220 million euro, +148%), packaged rice, pasta, and flours (168 million, +210%).
Educating consumers about taste is key
Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are the countries that have the highest potential with regards to Italian products, but investments need to be made with regards to both presence and educating about taste. Economic growth will then do the rest, thanks to a booming future middle class with spending power that is compatible with our prices. Just like what is happening in China, the market that everyone is betting on but where retail potential for Italian products is still very far away. Exports in 2017 began growing once again after a drop in 2016 and will hopefully continue in this manner.