Vegan, farm-to-table and health-conscious eating: How is Hong Kong’s food scene changing amid the push to be more sustainable?
With flavours ranging from southern Cantonese to northern Pekingese and everywhere in between, Chinese cuisine is diverse. Each province offers its own unique taste, influenced by regional plants and spices, local environmental conditions and hundreds of years of tradition. With char siu bao, Sichuan chilli peppers, roasted mutton, dan dan noodles and more to choose from, the cuisine leaves ample space for both diversity and individuality to flourish.
However, as dietary trends take the world by storm and the idea of a “foodie” keeps evolving, it remains an open question how a cuisine thousands of years old will adapt and mould itself to fit new times. While it is unlikely that the hunger for traditional Chinese tastes will be drowned out, fresh variations might emerge, marrying flavours of the past with recent trends and ideas, and birthing something unique.
This week, City Weekend explores some of these foodie trends and analyses how they might fit into Hong Kong’s Chinese food scene.
Veganism and vegetarianism are growing rapidly in popularity, both in Hong Kong and across the world. Between 2014 and 2017, the US saw a whopping 500 per cent surge in veganism, according to digital media company Global Data. While the meat market in Asia is considerable, in the five years between 2015 and 2020, China is expected to see a 17 per cent rise in veganism. What is more, because the Buddhist diet is grounded in vegetarianism (linked to a belief in reincarnation), advocates predict the move to a plant-based diet from an omnivorous Chinese one will not be difficult. The shift has begun in Hong Kong, with just one example being the founding of “meat-free Mondays” in 2012 by local sustainable living start-up Green Monday. In terms of Chinese cuisine, fully vegetarian restaurants abound locally, from Diamond Hill’s Chi Lin Vegetarian, to Causeway Bay’s numerous options. Many local restaurants have grown mindful of the plant-based trend, increasing their meat-free options such as in their dumplings or buns, or even creating a separate vegetarian menu.
As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, sustainable and organic food options are on the rise. While China ranks second in Asia and eighth globally in seafood consumption, its diet has drawn ire in some quarters for contributing to overfishing and touting delicacies that endanger species.
Yet thoughtful food choices are not solely about eschewing traditional Chinese flavours. Instead, they entail turning towards higher-quality seasonal produce and enhancing menus by encouraging sustainable food choices. Be it simply using local farmers’ produce or keeping ingredients regional and seasonal, restaurants such as Margaret Xu’s Yin Yang and Central’s Mott 32 look closely at their sourcing and advertise their honouring of the farm-to-fork philosophy. They prove, once and for all, that the Chinese diet is more than compatible with organic and sustainable ingredient sourcing.
The health-conscious eater
Health food is also resurgent as people turn away from oilier, MSG-filled options and towards a more balanced, clean diet. Statistics show that consumers want healthy foods, with many more than willing to pay extra for “better” alternatives. Whether this means Hongkongers patronise small “wellness” stores, such as Green Common and O’Farm, or massive supermarket chains such as Market Place, they are changing their shopping and consumption habits. In terms of eating out, this may manifest as a move towards healthier versions of the traditional, such as leaner dishes at Hong Kong Park’s Lock Cha Tea House.
As the world continues to globalise, the merging of Eastern and Western cuisines known as fusion has gathered steam. Places such as Bo Innovation, Xi Yan Private Dining, Ho Lee Fook, Man Mo Cafe and Mrs Pound have proved that a marrying of the two traditions of flavours can equal an art form. Hong Kong boasts 74 Michelin-starred restaurants, including eight that have three stars – accounting for an impressive eight per cent of the world’s three-star options. Not surprisingly, chefs have good reason to flock to the city. The ascent of hybrid dining, therefore, will only intensify as the influx of chefs from abroad continues, fostering an exchange and mingling of flavours and tastes, and giving rise to new ideas and culinary experiences.
Small places that focus on singular craft items are yet another emerging trend in Hong Kong. The idea is simple: forgo comprehensiveness and throw out a book-length menu in favour of a handful of items done exceptionally well. The concept is not new to the city. Cha chaan tengs that almost exclusively sell macaroni noodles and egg sandwiches, such as citywide chain Capital Cafe, have lined local streets for decades. But in step with the previously documented trends, a genre of tiny eateries has cropped up. Restaurants such as chef May Chow’s Little Bao, which focuses on blending the traditional steamed bao with pan-Asian-inspired fillings such as Sichuan fried chicken bao, look poised to burst onto a food scene overflowing with attractive choices.