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How Hong Kong's dining scene is embracing its culinary roots

As the city's restaurant scene returns to the international stage, dining options in Hong Kong are more exiting than ever, writes Carolynne Dear.

Champagne and char siu at Ho Lee Fook, Central.

Hong Kong has long been known as a foodie paradise. From local street fare to Michelin-starred fine dining, the city is awash with tantalising treats and an ever-revolving door of new establishments. The saying goes that if a man is bored of London, he’s bored of life; the same could easily be said of Hong Kong’s dining scene.

But one of the city’s strongest emerging food trends in recent years is that of local provenance, a move that has also been gathering pace globally. Where in years past exotic fare flown in from afar was the latest word in sophistication, the menu descriptor ‘jet-fresh’ is increasingly being replaced with ‘just up the road’.

Of course the city hasn’t always relied on shipments of ingredients from foreign lands. Strip back the concrete and the high rise and Hong Kong was once a tiny collection of fishing villages with plenty of rice terraces and farmland. Along with vegetables, fruit farms, such as pineapple, pomelo, orange, pear, lichi, persimmon and pomegranate, were common at the turn of the 20th century. There was even a dairy farm on Hong Kong Island. Agricultural pursuits fell away in the face of massive industrial development in the 1950s onwards, but recent years have seen a revival in traditional rural industries and urban farming. Commercial rice farming returned to the territory in the early 2000s with the cultivation of Yi O rice on Lantau island and despite creeping urbanisation, many working farms remain in the New Territories.

And now the Hong Kong dining scene is beginning to look to its roots.

Jet-fresh seafood imports have been superseded by the local catch-of-the-day at Hyatt Regency.

Hyatt Regency Hong Kong Sha Tin, located in the city’s off-the-beaten-track New Territories area, has recently announced a collaboration with a local seafood supplier. Eschewing fish and crustaceans fresh from an ice box in a plane hold, the hotel is trumpeting home fished specialties. Produce will be delivered to the luxury hotel by Aqua Millenium fish farm in neighbouring Sai Kung district, home to one of Hong Kong’s most important fishing towns. The farm, located at Yung Shue O village in Sai Kung’s tranquil country park area, is a snappy 16km from Hyatt Regency, meaning produce can be delivered to the hotel in just half an hour. The lower carbon footprint is one of the key drivers behind the hotel’s decision to switch to a local supply chain.

Another benefit is the wide variety of produce available and not usually seen on hotel dining tables. Hyatt Regency points to soft-shell lobster as its hero product, an ingredient that is rarely found in the local markets since fish farm specialists catch and freeze the lobster within half an hour after molting. It will now feature on the hotel’s Sha Tin 18 specials menu until the end of June.

Hotel chefs will also be working with batfish, a new species of fish that has been developed in cooperation with Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), while established local delicacies such as white croaker and pompano will also be gracing diners’ plates.

Aqua Millenium is accredited by the AFCD as quality sustainable seafood and the fish farm is also recognised by the World Wide Fund for sustainable and environmentally friendly fare.

This isn’t the first time Hyatt Regency has embraced its backyard. Last year, The Chinese Restaurant at the hotel filled its summer menu with locally grown vegetables.

“Much of Hong Kong’s farm produce is extremely high quality,” said hotel chef Wong Ho Kan. “It also of course has a shorter delivery distance and it’s good to be able to present fresh, seasonal produce as well as supporting the efforts of our farms.”

In-season ingredients included organic peanut shoots, Chinese yams, Chinese purple yams, oyster mushrooms, purple sweet potato and lily bulbs. Locally-farmed Kurobuta pork has also been included on menus. According to Wong, the hotel’s restaurants have been relying increasingly on locally-sourced ingredients in recent years.

“Local suppliers have been very supportive, providing us with ingredients for menu creation trials before launching the dishes,” he said.

Kowloon Dairy milk gelato at Cafe Bau, Wan Chai.

Another restaurant to join the local trend is Cafe Bau which recently opened in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district under the helm of chef Alvin Leung, formerly of the city’s two-Michelin-starred Bo Innovation. Cafe Bau’s farm-to-table concept champions local agriculture, as well as minimising its carbon footprint. Vegetables, fruit, fish and meat will all be sourced from Hong Kong farms. The tasting menus showcase Leung’s interpretation of local cuisine with highlights like roast Ping Yeun yellow chicken with wild mushrooms and homegrown Yi O rice, grilled squid and spicy Shatian pomelo jam, catch of the day with bok choy and Yangjiang black bean vinaigrette and slow-cooked oxen brisket. Seasonal desserts include sugarcane juice jelly and the ubiquitous egg custard tart, a Hong Kong speciality.

Photographs of old Hong Kong on the walls serve to underscore the local nature of the dining experience. The moniker, Cafe Bau, comes from Bauhinia, the flower that is the emblem of Hong Kong. According to Leung, the name is symbolic of the restaurant’s food that is “born, nurtured and sublimated locally.”

Another renowned local chef, Vicky Lau, has gone so far as to open an entire restaurant dedicated to the soya bean, a staple local ingredient. Mora launched last January in trendy Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island, focusing on French-influenced Chinese cuisine with soy products such as tofu, soy milk and tofu skin at the heart of the menu.

Hong Kong dining influencer, chef Vicky Lau.

Earlier this year, Lau collaborated with Michelin-starred Chaat at the city’s luxury Rosewood Hotel to create a ‘soy and spice’ menu to celebrate the hotel’s fourth anniversary. Lau and chef Manav Tuli of Indian-influenced Chaat worked together to create an unusual menu featuring dishes such as fermented tofu marinated tandoori octopus, soya chaamp ki biryani and mango coconut mousse with soy yoghurt meringue. All soy products used in the menu were made in Mora’s own, Hong Kong-based, soya milk factory.

“Traditionally, Indian cuisine is known to use soybeans in abundance but only recently started incorporating tofu in recipes, which makes this collaboration all the more interesting,” said Lau.

“It was an absolute pleasure working together (with Lau) to come up with fun recipe ideas for collaboration,” added Tuli.

Chef ArChan Chan at Ho Lee Fook.

Along with local produce, there has been a shift towards local cuisine, too. Dining spaces formerly dominated by international menus are becoming more Hong Kong-focused. The perennially popular The Pawn restaurant transformed during the pandemic into Woo Cheong Tea House, boasting a more local-facing Cantonese menu. Overlooking Wan Chai’s Johnston Road, the restaurant offers diners views of the city’s famous ‘ding ding’ trams sailing by as they tuck into dim sum, an extensive tea menu and cocktails. Delectable steamed, deep-fried and baked dumplings feature alongside rice and spring rolls, tofu puddings and sweet soups.

One of the city’s most prolific dining groups, Black Sheep, recently brought chef ArChan Chan, fresh from a stint in Australia, on board to bump up the Cantonese offering at its Ho Lee Fook restaurant. Along with newly arrived dim sum chef Winson Yip, Chan now also helms the restaurant’s recently launched Good Fortune Club, a Sunday-only dim sum and champagne feast. Described as an ode to the city’s most beloved dining tradition, the dim sum-dominated menu also includes Chan’s speciality char siu pork, traditional Hong Kong snacks like fried turnip cake with Ho Lee Fook XO sauce and salt and pepper tofu with crispy garlic, a number of wok-fried dishes and locally-inspired desserts such as pandam milk bread French toast with peanut butter, smoked maple syrup and toasted coconut, and a dish celebrating another of the city’s obsessions, Ho Lee Fook Mahjong Tiles, with tofu sorbet, dates, goji berries and white fungus.

It seems the city is quickly getting back on its feet after the dark years of the pandemic. And as it increasingly embraces homegrown heroes, its dining scene is reemerging all the stronger for it.

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