A comment in the Twittersphere earlier this year alerted us to the fact that while New Zealand lamb hotpot rolls were a popular fixture on Shanghai menus in 2007, a year before the signing of the China-New Zealand free trade agreement, it is a rarely mentioned menu ingredient now. Interest piqued … Ali Spencer went to find out why and found out it’s partly down to price, partly down to food fraud, but that there’s actually more New Zealand sheepmeat than ever going into them and also that New Zealand’s doing its own research on adding value to the rolls.
In China, hot pot rolls – thinly sliced rolls of meat – are a delicacy and the foundation for the delicious and popular ‘hotpot’ style cuisine into which are also added vegetables and stocks for cooking and enjoying communally at the table. Lamb, mutton and beef are popular meat choices, though seafood is an increasing option. Traditionally, it’s a winter dish. Over recent years, however, hotpot has taken off, with the style of cuisine spreading across China through chain restaurants – some of the big ones have over 500 outlets. The cooking space has shifted from centre-table to individual hotpots by each diner, often on an induction plate. After the winter season, the cuisine continues with the broth moving to more of a consommé.
Creating the rolls themselves is a skilled process involving boning out of cuts, layering them into a log roll shape – each log precisely weighed to two or 2.5kg – and then hand rolling to a tight pack. The logs are then wrapped in clear film with brands and various food safety marks added, before they are placed in the freezer. The logs are sliced very thinly using a slicer and roll onto themselves, like a brandysnap. These hotpot rolls are then packed into neat packs, some with branding ready for retail or restaurant. They are destined mainly for the mass market, but this is a market of consumers whose taste and preference is developing quickly.
Meat Industry Association figures show that in the year to end December 2015, 138,371 tonnes of New Zealand sheepmeat, worth $660 million, was exported to China, New Zealand’s number one sheepmeat market. This is 430 percent more volume, worth over 450 percent more than five years earlier, at the end of 2010. A large proportion of that is processed into the rolls for the mass market hotpot cuisine and it has turned the traditional New Zealand concept of processing a lamb carcase on its head.
There is, in actual fact, more New Zealand lamb heading into hot pot than ever before, it’s just that often the lamb loses its country-of-origin identity and becomes a generic ‘lamb’ or sheepmeat product, says Singapore-based marketing consultant Paul Stephens, who carries out work for New Zealand’s largest sheepmeat processor Alliance Group. He has notched up well over 100 visits to China over the past 30 years.
“It also uses cuts of lamb and mutton that return better value to New Zealand and also to Australia,” he says, adding that consumers are always upgrading to better quality and standard of restaurants, along with improved retail products and packs.
It was through visiting the hot pot roll processors many times over the past two decades, other companies like Blue Sky Meats fully appreciated the differences required in processing primal cuts for the purpose, which led to that company adapting its way of cutting up a carcase accordingly, chief executive Ricky Larsen said some time ago.
Exporter Tim Harrison is managing director of Advance Marketing that has also been selling to China for the past two decades. He comments that, with a flock of 250-300 million themselves, the Chinese have plenty of sheepmeat and don’t need to be told how to eat it.
New Zealand lamb flaps, in particular, found good demand in the market, because they have a good meat yield and the meat is found close to the bone, an important consideration for Chinese consumers, he explains.
Prices for both domestic and imported meat were pushed up through fierce competition in China from new importers and government-owned corporations and lamb flaps rose to a “ridiculous” level of US$6 per kg in mid-2014.
“At that time, New Zealand lamb and mutton became like a hot potato, like manuka honey,” adds Stephens. “Many companies wanted to buy, exporters were inundated with demand, the business became a speculative bubble that popped at the end of 2014. During this time, the rising price sucked in more sheepmeat from China’s massive domestic production (four million tonnes a year). There was just too much supply and the market prices started to drop quickly.”
With prices rising, lamb rolls were made more competitive by mixing with domestic lamb, mutton and duck breast, which was less than a third of the price of lamb. To make these, Harrison explains that companies used the lamb rack cap, which is more than 80 percent fat so the lamb flavour dominated.
“It delivered a fantastically flavoured mixed roll with New Zealand lamb. Rack caps rose up to US$5.00 with this practice, but the roll could be sold for much less.”
Chinese government policies to stamp out food fraud also had an impact. The new laws meant that this mixing of meats was outlawed in recent years, as was mislabelling other substandard meats as New Zealand lamb, which has a very good reputation in China for food safety.
Work by meat scientists at AgResearch, in conjunction with Australian company DuoTech and NZ company Oritain, is ongoing into new technology to quickly and easily establish the provenance of meat. This is aimed at countering any counterfeiting of product by species and origin, as a presentation from senior scientist Marlon Reis at the recent Meat Industry Workshop showed. Another presenter at the workshop, Arvind Subbaraj, is just starting work on metabolic fingerprinting of New Zealand meat, based on another project completed on milk.
Resurgence of interest in mutton
More recently, Harrison has also been surprised by a resurgence of interest in New Zealand mutton for the rolls. In the very early days, as there is no Chinese word to distinguish mutton from lamb, importers in China bought mutton from a North Island plant, which was sold as lamb.
“Once the difference was clarified, no one would buy mutton, but with the rapid rise in lamb prices, commercial pressure led them to reconsider it,” he says, adding that the early imports also led to an incorrect perception that lamb from the South Island is better than lamb from the North.
Mutton is also used in other cooking methods, not as a roll, in more central China.
NZ research adding value to hot pot rolls
Improving the value for New Zealand in the hotpot cuisine market is another subject for research.
AgResearch senior scientist Mustafa Farouk leads a team working on an interesting project, co-funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment alongside the crown research institute, to find out what level of visible fat content is acceptable in beef hotpot rolls to Chinese and Korean consumers.
This involved producing the hotpot rolls themselves, Farouk explained at the workshop. ‘Logs’ of meat trimmings were made from which they then very thinly cut into two to three mm slices to form into the rolls. A range was produced with different visual fat levels which they put to two sample groups: one a Chinese church congregation in Hamilton; and the other a Korean church in Auckland and asked them to rank preference on a scale of one to six. Overall, the fattier cuts won out with the Chinese consumers, though the team noted that the female respondents aged between 30-50 years of age preferred the leaner rolls. In the Korean sample, most preferred the leaner versions, though the males tended towards the fattier versions.
This means potentially that different fat levels could be targeted at different groups, suggested Farouk.
More work will be done in the area, including including conducting the same consumer survey on a Japanese group based in New Zealand and possibly groups in Asia. It will also look at the effect of log fat content, pH and storage on sliced hot-pot meat quality. The research also offers other added-value opportunities using the hot pot slicing and presentation formats, says Farouk.
Trials were also done using lamb trimmings, working on forming a log in New Zealand, to be exported and sliced in the market. That revealed, from a consumer point of view, sheepmeat fat has a smoother, silkier consistency in the mouth than beef.
“The questions that also need to be answered are what are the effects on the log fat content and the length of frozen storage pre-slicing on the quality and acceptability of the sliced hot-pot pieces,” says Farouk.