China has its own day for lovers, Qi Qiao Jie (sometimes called the Double Seven Festival because it falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar), which is on Aug 6 this year. But the Western St. Valentine's Day, on Feb 14, has found a following. And that means chocolate, often in heart-shaped boxes with the words "I love you." It is a sweet time for people who work with one of the most romantic foods on earth.
It started a few weeks ago for Jean-Luc Vasseur, executive pastry chef at the Kempinski Hotel in Beijing's Lufthansa Center. In search of special treats for his customers, he rose at 6 each morning, said goodbye to his wife and worked almost 16 hours with chocolate powders, molds, thermometers, ovens and colorful candy tins.
He has prepared two events for Valentine's Day - a sweet feast for lovers, including silky chocolate fondues and fountains, and a chocolate-making session to teach romantics how to create desserts for their dearest.
At the hotel's Kempi Deli, which some local websites rank as one of the most popular bakeries in Beijing, Vasseur and his team members created a chocolate tree adorned with heart-shaped macaroons and chocolate pralines.
"Chinese customers especially love chocolate with peanuts, mangoes, raspberries and strawberries," Vasseur said. "But they have become more adventurous and are trying new flavors, so innovation is very crucial for attracting them."
After his first taste of Chinese hot pot with sesame paste as seasoning, Vasseur created Sesame Bitter Chocolate Gateau, which is a French bitter chocolate mousse combined with roasted sesame. Life Week Magazine ranked it among the 100 most creative dishes of 2009.
Louis Liu, assistant general manager of Hotel Kunlun in central Beijing, is courting his customers with a chocolate-themed afternoon tea through Feb 28. Hundreds of chocolate pastries and pralines as well as French chocolate are available for tasting.
"Chocolate is a gift you can give anyone at any time and never make a mistake or be inappropriate," Liu said. It's also a marketing essential, he said. "Just like a superior cocktail lounge or a cigar bar, chocolate has become another selling point as well as a compulsory segment for a world-class hotel."
And not just any chocolate. Liu said the most popular type among Chinese gourmets is called 72 percent chocolate, meaning it is 72 percent cocoa. Chocolates from France, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany are also high on the shopping list, he said.
Those shoppers apparently are buyers, too. According to Euromonitor International, global retail sales of chocolate confections surpassed $300 million in 2009, up 21 percent from a year earlier (the most recent figures available). Euromonitor predicted retail growth for chocolate of 25 percent in 2010 and 18 percent this year.
In China, chocolate sales reached 7.7 billion yuan (nearly $1.2 billion) in 2009 after growing by a compound annual rate of 10 percent since 2004.
However, chocolate isn't integrated into Chinese people's daily menus, with per capita consumption at 100-200 grams a year. Compare that to 10 kg in Switzerland and 5.3 kg in the United States. Even in Japan and South Korea, the figure is close to 2 kg.
Thanks to the country's economic boom, China's potential chocolate consumption is estimated at more than 20 billion yuan, mainly dominated by foreign brands, according to the China Association of Bakery and Confectionery Industry.
Boxed assortments made up about 40 percent of chocolate sales in China in 2009 as wealthier consumers sought to show off their rising status by lavishing chocolates on business associates, according to Euromonitor.
Ehab Abou-Oaf, China president of US-based candy maker Mars Inc, told media in November that China would become the second-largest chocolate market within 10 years.
Zhao Hong, general manager in China of Chocolate Debauve & Gallais, a French chocolate maker, quit her government ministry job in the early 2000s and started a career in chocolate five years ago.
"My first year of introducing Debauve & Gallais was tough and most people could be scared away by its stunning prices of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan for 1 kg on average, almost the most expensive in the world," she said.
Established in 1800, the company has more than 2,000 kinds of chocolate. Zhao said truffles are among the most popular with Chinese consumers because of their smooth taste. A 99 percent dark chocolate also has lured many Chinese followers due to its pure and strong taste, she said.
Industry insiders also said China will see steady growth of chocolate consumption in the coming 10 years and high-end chocolates are expected to see the fastest growth, which is also in line with the global trend.
"Chocolate is not a necessity," Zhao said. "It's more about branding and emotional attachment and promotion of corporate culture. It is a bit similar to wine."
Search "Valentine's chocolates" at China's largest e-commerce site, Taobao, and you'll find tens of thousands of items available, including hand-made chocolates with lovers' names and sweet wishes, chocolates shaped like the iPhone 4, chocolates made into bouquets and chocolates filled with mustard or hot pepper.
The eBay-styled site reported more than 40,000 boxes of chocolates were sold every day last week, 105 percent more than the week before Valentine's Day last year.
Dong Xiaohua, food sector manager at Taobao.com, said Truffles, Dove and Ferrero Rocher are among bestsellers online.
Apple Liu, an imported-chocolate vendor at Taobao, said: "The market is competitive and getting more so. You have to inject inspirations and creative ideas as much as you can ...
"I have sold almost 200 boxes of black chocolates mixed with Hello Kitty, Doraemon or teddy bear-shaped candies in the past week, priced from 200 to 500 yuan," she said. "Adorable boxes tied with delicate silk ribbons are another key to the chocolate business."
Han Song emphasizes individualism in chocolate by turning it over to amateurs - with guidance.
He opened a do-it-yourself chocolate shop named Binghuoyouhuo (the temptation of ice and fire) at Xidan in Beijing's Xicheng district in 2004. The inspiration came from his girlfriend, who enjoined him to send her self-made chocolates on Valentine's Day, as she had seen in Hollywood movies.
No matter how clumsy or handy, he said, lovers have headed to the shop and its various molds, colorful syrups and chocolate liquids to stir something up for their sweethearts. And yes, the shop will be open on Valentine's Day for those who push deadlines.