Published: 27 January, 2012
by JOSH LOEB
Chinese food company Lee Kum Kee (LKK) began life in 1888, when its founder, chef Lee Kum Sheung, was working in a restaurant in southern China.
The story goes that one day Mr Sheung became so involved in a discussion with a friend that he clean forgot about the pot of oyster soup he had placed on the boil.
When he returned to it he found a thickly reduced stock, which he tasted and found to be delicious.
The canny entrepreneur then started bottling it and selling it to customers, and so oyster sauce was born.
Four generations of the Sheung family have since been involved in running LKK, and the company now distributes in more than 100 countries worldwide, according to LKK Europe’s marketing director, Maria Chong.
It provides over 220 choices of sauces and condiments across the five continents.
Ms Chong emphasises the importance of educating Western consumers about authentic Chinese cooking techniques.
“The reason we are focusing on education is to really promote the credibility of the product,” she says. “So many people don’t really know who is the expert and we are trying to show them. It’s about building a reputation for dependability and trust between ourselves and the producers.”
As part of this educational drive, LKK prints recipe leaflets and even a cookbook called Wok Along telling people how different condiments and sauces are used in everyday Chinese cooking.
On the company’s website is a section telling readers how to cook sumptuous meals such as grilled black cod in banana leaf and stir-fried angel hair with double deluxe soy sauce.
“We don’t want to make it look difficult,” says Ms Chong. “It can be very easy to make tasty Chinese food.”
But she says that, while products like soy sauce are widely known about in Europe, shoppers can lack knowledge about oyster sauce and may therefore be less likely to buy it.
“Lots of people think the only sauces used in Chinese cuisine are soy sauce and chilli sauce,” she says. “But oyster sauce is a major component.”
LKK has been exporting its products to the United States since the 1920s.
In Britain there is a growing market for Oriental home cooking products – as testified to by the fact that LKK opened its European headquarters in Docklands.
Another big market for the company is Germany, and Ms Chong said her team were focusing on boosting take-up of their products among “mainstream consumers”, meaning Europeans rather than Chinese immigrants.
The Corporate Support Centre of Lee Kum Kee is based in Hong Kong and has five production bases in Xinhui, Huangpu, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Los Angeles. The Xinhui factory is the largest operation occupying 1,700 acres.