From Farm to Plate
New cuisine on the menu in Hong Kong.
With more than 11,000 fine dining restaurants and casual eateries, Hong Kong is certainly one of the world’s best cities for food. Unfortunately, its love affair with shark fin and turtle soups has received much criticism from animal rights groups in recent years; at the same time, cases of contaminated meats and vegetables imported from mainland China, as well as the liberal use of MSG in Cantonese-run restaurants, only add to the perception of an irresponsible and unhealthy dining scene.
But things are looking up, as local organic farms and restaurants celebrate the pleasures of eating ethically and homegrown.
While socially conscious eating has gone mainstream in Europe, North America and Australia, it is slower on the uptake in many Asian countries. In Hong Kong, agricultural space is limited, so most foods are imported and sustainable dining has taken longer to gain momentum.
“I can never quite tell if my oranges, which might have been picked too early from a farm in Florida, will be sweet and juicy or dry and tasteless,” says Hong Kong local Vickie Chan, who enjoys cooking and throwing big weekend parties for her friends yet finds the markets to be a gamble.
Although Hong Kong isn’t exactly an agricultural nation, there is still much arable land in the New Territories, a low-density, 952-square-kilometer region (368 square miles) stretching from Kowloon to the border of China, where much of the city-state’s food is produced.
Before the 1980s, the New Territories consisted mainly of old villages, open fields and duck farms. Since then, it has become more urbanized, thanks to massive, government-subsidized housing projects. Yet it still retains much of its rural character as compared to other parts of Hong Kong. Here, wide-open spaces, countryside and rugged mountains stand in stark contrast to the urbanity of the main island and Kowloon. So you’ll be forgiven if, upon visiting, you think you’ve stepped into another world.
Organic farming started in Hong Kong in the 1990s with just 10 farms, but today there are more than 400, and the government has an assistance program for conventional farms that wish to convert to organic practices. Since 2004, the area has witnessed a threefold increase in such farms.
Hong Kong has arrived late to the party, but at least it has arrived.
Consumers in Hong Kong are becoming far more conscious about where their food is sourced, because of the recent food scares and scandals.
“Of course, our land is limited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get more imaginative with our farming techniques,” says Christine Smith-Mann, spokeswoman for Integrated Hospitality Management, a group that has started multiple restaurants with a commitment to local, “clean” (pesticide-free) food.
IHM works with farms like Zen Organic that use no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or genetically modified seeds. Additionally, organic farming values greater crop rotation than traditional farming, explains Joey Ng, owner of Zen Organic. That way, he says, “the soil gets to rest and remains nutrient-rich for generations to come.”
Ng’s 250,000 square-kilometer farm is one of the pioneers in Hong Kong’s burgeoning organic movement. There, in the greenest area of Ta Kwu Ling in the northern New Territories, you’ll find Mediterranean varieties of heirloom and cherry tomatoes, rainbow carrots, gorgeous sweet peppers and creamy eggplants. Visitors are welcome Tuesday through Sunday.
Other farms across the region also offer educational and interactive experiences, including Rainbow Organic Strawberry Farm, Kadoorie Farm, Lavender Garden and Wing Woo Bee Farm. Some even have cafés, BBQ pits and petting zoos, so visitors can easily make a day trip to one or more farms in the New Territories to get better acquainted with the land.
Less is more and fresh is best
In 2009, the responsible food movement in Hong Kong got a much-needed boost when New Yorkers Todd Darling and Rob Spina, the duo behind Integrated Hospitality Management, opened their dream restaurant. Posto Pubblico is a New York–style Italian Osteria that uses only local, organic produce.
Best friends since age 5, Spina and Darling grew up in New York and had always wanted to open a business together. Spina’s family has owned and operated Italian restaurants since they emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in the 1940s. Following Posto Pubblico’s rapid success, IHM launched two new Italian restaurants, Linguini Fini in 2011 and Pizzeria Pubblico in June 2012.
The approach in the Posto Pubblico kitchen is less is more and fresh is best. There’s no need to complicate things when you’re using only the freshest goods, so most dishes comprise four or fewer ingredients.
Posto Pubblico’s chefs serve up hearty Italian classics such as veal piccata, eggplant parmigiana, cacio e pepe (a minimalist pasta dish with cheese and pepper) and desserts like Sicilian cassata icebox cake. To further enhance the flavors and nutrients, Posto Pubblico uses clean cooking methods (baking, shallow frying and grilling) for lighter and healthier meals.
“Before we opened,” Spina says, “Hong Kong had never heard of New York Italian. We saw a real opportunity to cut through the clutter and do something completely new in this city. Much like the way Italian immigrants made the most of the produce available to them when they arrived in New York, we are taking the same recipes and working with local producers as much as possible.”
“You just can’t compare the taste of local produce versus imported produce,” Darling says. “It’s a remarkable difference.”
More than 90 percent of the vegetables are served within 48 hours of being harvested. Bread is baked daily in onsite ovens and the mozzarella cheese is handmade every afternoon.
Friends of the farmers
Darling deals with about 10 to 12 local farmers and knows them all on a first-name basis. They all have their own specialties and for many, what they produce and howthey produce it is a family legacy. “At first they thought we were a little crazy,” Darling says, “as none of our competitors were taking the time to go out to the farms and get produce. They just weren’t used to it.”
Spina and Darling spent a year seeking out and nurturing relationships with these farmers, to develop a wider range of crops and to keep an eye on the quality and integrity of their food sources.
“Being able to look your local producer in the eye, and personally seeing the conditions in which your ingredients are grown, is truly rare in Hong Kong,” Darling says. “But having this luxury gives you greater peace of mind that what you are serving in your dishes is the best quality it can possibly be. And it’s important that diners are confident about the quality of the ingredients too.”
Of course, sourcing locally affects a restaurant’s menu. Some fruits and vegetables — like bok choi, choi sum, pumpkin, beetroots and okra — only grow in Hong Kong’s winter months; sweet corn, lychee, mangoes, white eggplants and spinach only grow during the summer. So the menu at an organic restaurant is never static, and diners can always expect to be surprised by a new invention when they return.
But Spina and Darling are not the only ones making a difference. Margaret Xu, a good friend of the duo, is a well-known locavore and celebrity chef in Hong Kong who whips up stunning Cantonese banquet meals using local organic produce in her private kitchen restaurant, Yin Yang. There is also Life Café, a trendy little space in the SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) district that serves only organic vegetarian fare and is almost always packed during lunch. One of the newest kids on the block is Teakha, an organic teashop and bakery opened by Hong Kong food writer Nana Chan in January this year.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until Hong Kong’s reputation as a mecca for fine cuisine will be replaced by a different, healthier recognition entirely.