How to eat local in Hong Kong
It’s a weekend afternoon and for once you’ve decided to eat at home.
So you wander down to the nearest supermarket to pick up a chicken fillet, some broccoli and a few oranges for dessert. It’s a simple recipe for a home-cooked meal.
Except there are a lot of hidden problems.
The chicken? It’s from a factory farm in Brazil, where it’s pumped full of hormones to keep it fat and complacent.
The broccoli? Grown in China where it was sprayed with pesticides.
The oranges? They’re from Florida, and because they were picked too early so they could be shipped around the world, they’re dry and sour when you cut them open.
There’s a solution to all of these problems: eat local.
“We’re so conditioned to being able to walk into a supermarket and buying whatever we have in mind, even if it’s out of season and tastes like garbage,” says Christine Smith-Mann, spokeswoman for Homegrown Foods, a new service that home-delivers local organic produce.
Not only does that pose a serious environmental problem -- shipping food around the world creates a lot of pollution -- it means we are eating stuff that isn’t nearly as tasty or nutritious as it could be.
Locally grown produce, on the other hand, is picked at it's peak and thus has more time to soak up sunlight and nutrients from the soil. It also tastes better.
Smith-Mann never liked beetroots until this winter, when she tried one grown on a New Territories farm.
“It tasted nothing like the beetroot I had tasted before," she says. "I have three children and trying to get them to eat vegetables is like an episode of 'Fear Factor.' They pull faces, they refuse to eat it.”
That’s not a problem with fresh local veggies, she says. “I baked it like a potato and it was so sweet.”
Though the skyscraper-studded slopes of urban Hong Kong might not seem especially fertile, that’s not true for the green valleys of the New Territories, where there are more than 1,900 farms, of which 84 are certified organic, a three-fold increase since 2004.
Only three percent of the produce consumed in Hong Kong is locally grown, but Kenneth Law, market manager for the Vegetable Marketing Organization, which helps local farmers sell their vegetables, says that more and more people are interested in the ecological, health and culinary benefits of local food.
“It’s fresh, tasty and it’s safe, which is important when we’ve heard so much negative news from China about fake stuff and toxic food,” he says.
Local food faces a few stumbling blocks.
Hong Kong’s most productive growing season is the winter, when more than 20 crops are produced; fewer than 10 grow in the summer.
Supermarkets and consumers used to a consistent, year-round supply of vegetables find it hard to adapt to seasonality, says Law.
Another problem might be termed the Express Rail Paradox.
“Because of the high speed rail and Tsoi Yuen Tsuen, more people are aware of the importance of conservation, and that there are good local vegetables in Hong Kong,” says Law.
But Chu Pui-kwan, who started one of Hong Kong’s first organic farms in 1995, says that the express rail’s construction has led to a surge in land values in Yuen Long, where many farms are located.
Chu recently lost half of her 250,000-square-foot farm after it was sold by her landlord.
“Villagers are anxious to sell their land, because they’ve never been able to make this kind of money in all their lives,” she says. “Developers have been circling and now land prices have reached thousands of dollars per square foot. In the past it was barely more than one dollar per square foot.”
Still, Law sees a bright future for local food. “We’ve got more crops, more farmers and more markets,” he says.
So put down the steroid chicken and pass by the out-of-season broccoli. Here’s how to eat local in Hong Kong.
1. Embrace the seasons
Hong Kong is blessed with a year-round growing season, but that doesn’t mean that all types of produce are always available.
Eating fruits and vegetables when they are in season is tastier, healthier and more fun: there’s always something to look forward to.
Some of the fruits and vegetables that grow during Hong Kong’s winter months include bok choi, choi sum, pumpkin, dragonfruit, sweet potato, wild bananas, strawberries, wolfberries, lemons, tomatoes, white radish, beetroots, carrots, ginger, taro and okra.
In the warm months, local fields yield water spinach, lettuce, white eggplants, Chinese cabbage, sweet corn and bittergourd, along with several other crops.
Pomelos, lychees, longan and mangoes are all local fruits that grow in the spring and early summer.
2. Get to know the farms
Local farmers sell their produce at four weekend markets around town.
You can also visit many organic farms.
“Come and we’ll make you a soup,” says Pad Chu, whose simply named Organic Farm is located in Kam Tin.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department maintains a webpage with links to information about local organic farms.
If you’re tight on time, you can still buy local produce at certain outlets of Park ‘n’ Shop, Wellcome, CitySuper, Yata, Jusco and Vanguard.
Spot them by their special Vegetable Marketing Organization packaging, which includes a bilingual label and information about the farm where the veggies were grown.
3. Get it delivered
Many farms will deliver produce to your doorstep if you just ring them up.
The Vegetable Marketing Organization also makes free home deliveries for orders over HK$100. Check out their online list of vegetables in season and give them a call at +852 2387 4164.
Last year, chef Todd Darling launched Homegrown Foods, which assembles a weekly basket of seasonal vegetables grown on five local organic farms and delivers them to households on Hong Kong Island. Baskets range in price from HK$248 to HK$546.
Since the service caters primarily to expats and overseas Chinese, the baskets usually include more Western vegetables than you would find at most local farmers’ markets.
4. Honey instead of sugar
One spoonful of Hong Kong’s locally produced honey and you’ll be tempted to do away with refined sugar altogether.
One of the best and most accessible is Wing Wo Bee Farm, just a few minutes’ walk from the MTR in Pai Tau Village, Shatin.
Open since 1983, when beekeeper Yip Ki-hok moved to Hong Kong from rural Guangdong, it produces honey that varies dramatically from season to season.
Wing Wo’s winter honey, thick, white and creamy, carries the rich, powerful essence of the mountainside ap geuk mok tree.
Spring honey tastes like longan and lychee, with a tangy, almost medicinal flavor. Summer honey is light and somewhat smoky thanks to wu kau flowers.
5. Choose your meat and dairy carefully
Though Hong Kong has no shortage of local fruit and vegetable farms, the number of animal farms has dwindled to the point where it is nearly impossible to avoid imported meat.
Some of that is due to urban development -- nobody wants a pigsty next door -- but much of it is the result of the recent SARS, avian flu and swine flu scares.
One of the last local organic pig farms is run by restaurateur Tam Keung. You can get your hands on his meat at Sun Kee Butcher in Wan Chai (40 Wan Chai Road, Tel. +852 2575 7675), where it is so popular it usually runs out by midday.
Local milk is almost as hard to come by.
Kowloon Dairy and Trappist Dairy both started out as modest operations in the New Territories -- Trappist’s milk was originally made by monks on Lantau Island -- but both have since moved their cattle to Guangdong, though they maintain their milk-processing plant here.
It’s far from organic, but if you’re concerned about your carbon footprint, these two brands are a better choice than milk imported from overseas.
One of the last truly local dairy farms is the organic Hong Ning Dairy whose milk, which sells for HK$12 per bottle, is sold at 74 outlets in Kowloon and the New Territories (and one in Wan Chai). Production is limited to 6,000 bottles per day.
6. Eat out
In Tai Po, Simply Farmhouse takes the local food experience even further by holding workshops that give you a chance to make a dish from harvest to finish.
Food writer Nana Chan will be getting in on the action this spring with Teakha, a café, private kitchen and community space.
She plans to source many of her ingredients from Hong Kong and she will also give pride of place to local products like honey.
“It will be more than just a café,” she says. “It’s a place where people can live in a sustainable manner.”
And of course there is locavore superstar Margaret Xu at Yin Yang, her private kitchen, where she cooks up Cantonese feasts using local organic produce.