CHEF Jimmy Chok could not contain his excitement when he saw broccolini - a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale - sitting on the shelf recently at the Cold Storage supermarket in Holland Village.
He says: 'I'd read about the vegetable and seen it in books. But I never had the chance to get hold of it and cook it myself. It's not commonly known here so stores don't usually carry it.'
The 37-year-old executive chef at The Academy Bistro in the Supreme Court took a few packets of it home and sauteed the 'sweet and tender' vegetable with garlic and butter.
Indeed, fruit and vegetable importers and retailers have been introducing newfangled produce, such as purple cauliflower and yellow-skin watermelons to the market here in recent years.
For importers like Ban Choon Marketing, bringing in novel fruit and vegetables such as black mission figs from Turkey and broccolini is a way to stand out from the crowd.
Retailers, on the other hand, are stocking their shelves with these 'exotic' produce in response to changing consumer demands, and to cater to the ever-growing expatriate market here.
FairPrice, a chain of 79 supermarkets islandwide, now carries such items as blood oranges from Australia, Yukon Gold potatoes from the United States and even square watermelons from Japan in some of its outlets.
A spokesman says: 'Our customers today are well-travelled and exposed to diverse cultures. Hence, they are better able to appreciate fruits and vegetables that are not commonly found in Singapore.'
And Singaporeans' appetite for exotic mushrooms prompted Dr K.K. Tan, 60, chief executive officer of the year-old mushroom farm Mycofarm, to cultivate foreign strains such as the willow mushroom, which is common in Europe, and sell them fresh.
He says that only the dried version was available here before. The mushrooms, with their spindly stems, are fragile and do not ship well fresh.
Mr Tony Ng, 29, fruit and vegetable department manager of Cold Storage at Great World City, says he began offering Kyoho grapes, deep purple and with a fragrant wine-like taste, at the outlet after Japanese expatriate customers asked for them.
He says: 'Even if some of the exotic fruit and vegetables, such as artichokes, don't sell as well, I continue to carry them at the store because I want to ensure that customers who are interested in buying these produce will not be disappointed.'
To grow the local appetite for novel produce, importers and retailers have been reaching out to consumers by offering in-store product sampling. Brief write-ups are also displayed to create awareness.
These efforts are paying off, given the 5 to 10 per cent annual increase in volumes of imports of novel produce, according to the fruit and vegetable importers LifeStyle spoke with.
FairPrice, for example, recently sold out its entire stock of 3,000 Diana watermelons - a Taiwanese breed of yellow-rind red flesh watermelons named after Princess Diana - a week after the fruit hit shelves here for the first time.
And while these exotic items are more expensive than local fruit and vegetables - from a few dollars for items such as yellow dragonfruit and pearl onions, to a few hundred dollars for the square watermelons from Japan - it has not kept people from buying them.
Housewife Felicia Tan, 44, who recently bought yellow dragonfruit and Kyoho grapes from FairPrice Finest in Bukit Timah Plaza, says: 'I don't mind paying for the novel experience and I plan on buying more of these fruits because they're much sweeter than the ordinary dragonfruit and grapes.'
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