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Chinese develop a taste for "butter fruit"

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BEIJING, July 1 (Xinhua) -- Zhang Meng eats avocado everyday. The 26-year-old bank clerk makes a smoothie with three avocados and a cup of yoghurt. "It tastes great," she says.

But for many Chinese, the black-skinned, pear-shaped tropical fruit tastes greasy and bland, like butter.

"This is the most awful fruit that I have ever tasted," said a post on the Sina Weibo social network. Others shared their disgust of the Mexican native. In the Chinese mainland, American oranges, Taiwanese pineapples, and kiwifruit are the most popular imported fruits.

The avocado (or alligator pear) originated in Mexico and Central America, but the Chinese named it "niuyouguo" - literally "butter fruit" - for its taste.

Even so, "avocados are healthy and nutritious, loaded with important nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats," says Julian Ventura, Mexican Ambassador to China.

It is slowly making inroads since the government granted market access to Mexican avocados in 2005, and to Chile and Peru in 2014.

An article titled "How to Eat Avocado with Style?" drew 100,000 clicks on WeChat, China's most popular instant messaging service. Thousands of people share pictures of recipes on Weibo. It is strongly promoted on e-commerce sites, and cooking sites have many avocado dishes, including salads, desserts and main courses.

The online popularity is supported by trade figures. According to China Customs, China imported 31,800 kilograms of avocado in 2011, but in 2014, it reached almost 4.07 million kilograms.

NEW FLAVORS

"People are gradually understanding the importance of nutrition and healthier eating," says Gu Zhongyi, a nutritionist at Beijing Friendship Hospital.

He outlined on WeChat the nutritional values of avocado - it's rich in dietary fiber and potassium.

He points out that one avocado usually contains 6.7 grams of dietary fiber per 100 grams, almost triple that of an apple. While a banana is considered potassium rich at 358 milligrams per 100 grams, an avocado has 485 mg.

In 2007, Zhao Guozhang, founder of Fruit Day, an online Shanghai fruit trader, ate avocado for the first time while traveling abroad. He appreciated its unique taste and decided to expand imports. At that time, an avocado could cost 20 yuan in high-end supermarkets in the mainland.

The high price and unfamiliar taste scared Chinese away. Zhao says most comments his company received in the early years were along the lines of "Weird taste!" and "How to eat it?"

When the company began marketing the fruit by offering nutritional information and recipes in its stores, online shops and social media, sales began a slow but sustainable growth.

Since 2010, its sales of avocados across China had risen by an average 300 percent every year. Last year, it sold more than 2 million avocados.

The surging popularity of avocado reflects the cosmopolitan tastes of China's growing middle class, who are ready to pay a little extra to sample new flavors, particularly if they come with health benefits.

"More Chinese people are incorporating aspects of foreign cuisine and Western cooking styles into their diets," says Zhao.

A GOOD CHOICE

Chinese retailers advertise the fruit to people wanting to lose weight or to those suffering from skin ailments, asthma and hypertension.

Zi Jing, owner of a fruit shop chain in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province, says avocado is ideal for infants because it is nutritious, soft and low in sugar. "Parents always complain it is difficult to find a suitable fruit for babies," says Zi. "Avocado is a very good choice."

She began feeding her baby girl avocado in 2011, despite it being rare and extremely expensive in a second-tier inland city at that time. "But parents don't begrudge the money spent on their children," she says.

An avocado in her shop normally costs 7 or 8 yuan - more than one U.S. dollar.

The most expensive avocados are those shipped directly from overseas to the customer's door at a cost of 12.5 yuan - more than four times the price in a Mexican market.

Retailers argue their markup is minimal as the 20-percent import tax and the sophisticated logistics required also contribute to the high cost.

CHINESE STYLE

Zhao Guozhang also attributes the surge in avocado sales to e-commerce and social media. "Customers can quickly get any information on a fruit online, much faster than they can at grocery counters."

On Chinese social media, avocado is pictured with Western staples such as toast, salad or dairy products, or it complements expensive delicacies like salmon, shrimp, pasta and sushi, and other imported fare that is a growing feature of Chinese supermarkets and eateries.

However, smart chefs are creating new avocado dishes in a Chinese way. Recipes involving rice and light soy sauce have gone viral online.

Zhao is working with chefs to put the fruit into Chinese specialties: "I have eaten wontons with avocado inside - they taste very special, with a slight fragrance."

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