Olive oil seen enjoying second boom in Japan

by Shinichi Tokuda

Kyodo

Fancy a few drizzles of olive oil over your ice cream? Or how about becoming a certified “olive oil sommelier”?

Olive oil is once again gaining popularity in Japan, after first coming under the spotlight in the 1990s for its health benefits. Various olive oils from several countries are entering the market, and consumption is on the rise.

At a recent tasting session organized by the Olive Oil Sommelier Association of Japan, 10 participants — men and women in their 20s to 50s — listened attentively as a lecturer explained how to properly taste the oil: Sip some onto the tongue and inhale.

The participants tried out five different kinds of olive oil, imported from Spain, Israel and Australia, including some that are rarely found in Japan.

Then they filled in tasting sheets with comments on the taste and aroma of each kind of oil, just as sommeliers do for wine tasting.

“This one had a peppery note at the throat,” one participant wrote.

With the aim of promoting knowledge about olive oils, the Tokyo-based association offers courses not only for those in the food industry, but also for ordinary consumers. Lessons in Tokyo as well as other cities attract participants from around the country.

Kumiko Arai, 48, has a sommelier certificate from the association and participates regularly in the tasting events.

“I became interested because of my love for cooking Italian, French and other cuisines,” she said. “It tastes good, too, when added to Japanese miso soup, or drizzled on top of tofu or ice cream.”

According to the Finance Ministry’s foreign trade data, the amount of olive oil imported in 2012 totaled 46,406 tons, up 28 percent from the previous year and 64 percent over 2007.

Olive oil is rich in oleic acid, which is said to be effective in lowering so-called bad cholesterol.

It first started gaining attention among Japanese consumers in the 1990s, and the rising popularity of Italian food at the time also helped boost consumption of olive oil.

As interest in health issues continues to grow in Japan and more products become available, olive oil has become a regular item in family kitchens and is seen as enjoying a “secondary boom.”

At Isetan department store’s Shinjuku branch in Tokyo, olive oil specialty shop Olioteca offers about 30 varieties imported from Italy. Flavors range from light to rich, depending on region, and all can be tasted before purchase.

Most of the olive oils at the shop are relatively expensive, ranging from about ¥1,600 to ¥1,800 per 250-ml bottle, with the majority of customers women between 40 and 60, Olioteca officials said.

“We saw a sharp rise in demand starting sometime around last year, with an increasing number of customers who would come and buy a specific brand,” said Minako Maki, an Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd. buyer.

Meanwhile, Nippon Olive Co. sells online a rare olive oil produced at its own olive plantation in Spain that has won praise from food lovers around Japan. The 450-gram bottles cost ¥2,625 each, with only 12,000 available each year.

To maintain high quality and minimize oxidation of the oil, it is extracted within eight hours from when the olives are harvested, said an official of the company, which is based in Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture.

The oil is said to have a fruity flavor resembling green apples.

“Many of our customers buy the olive oil to enjoy the subtle differences in flavor resulting from each year’s harvest,” the official said.