In Hong Kong that peace has been elusive recently. The regular drumbeat of food-safety scares in Greater China—tainted milk, expired meat, and, most recently, “gutter” or recycled waste oil—has been driving a surge of interest in food localization. “In Hong Kong information is very open, so every problem that occurs, everyone knows about,” Wong says. “China has many food problems, people know it’s not safe for sure. So now they’re thinking locally.”
In addition to Island East, Poon’s Hong Kong Markets Organisation now runs several other events, including the PMQ Night Market, an edgier, more design-focused affair on the grounds of the former Police Married Quarters in Central, since reborn as a retail space and incubator for creative types. Weekend markets have also popped up at the iconic Central Star Ferry pier and the expat enclave of Discovery Bay. One of the more prominent recent arrivals is Harbour Artisanal, which has at regular intervals taken over a pedestrian path in the trendy Tai Hang neighborhood, delighting foodies with a roster that includes hydroponic vegetables, handcrafted beers, pure organic honey, and barbecued bratwurst, all made by small-scale producers in Hong Kong. At Harbour Artisanal’s inaugural event, which was intended to run all day, hungry revelers cleared many of the vendors out in a mere four hours.
“We believe the popularity stems partly from the variety in an environment where big chains have come to dominate the landscape,” explains Harbour Artisanal co-founder Timothy Bush. “We’re also a community social activity, and this is something Hong Kong has lacked.”
Elements of community are also appearing in Hong Kong’s notoriously competitive restaurant scene. In July 2013 former ad exec Larry Tang opened Locofama in the up-and-coming Sai Ying Pun neighborhood, a short hop west of the trendy bistros of Central. His approach was very different; simple, no-fuss food that employs organic ingredients but doesn’t feel like denial—wraps, salads, even short ribs—in a modest, café-like setting. “We want to change the perception of organic food being bland—and vegetarian,” Tang says. The response was immediate. Barely a year later Tang has opened a second restaurant, Sohofama, in the PMQ complex in collaboration with legendary local lifestyle brand Goods of Desire.
Focusing on Chinese comfort food, it’s a small but cozy space where (thanks to advanced hydroponic technology) greenery literally springs out of the walls, and is sometimes plucked by the restaurant’s skilled mixologists to garnish a killer list of cocktails. While not everything is sourced locally, Tang is determined not to go any farther for ingredients than is absolutely necessary. In fact, some of Sohofama’s vegetable supply comes from a miniature agricultural operation on the premises overseen by WKND Farmers’ Club, a local collective that uses an ingenious system of moving trollies to coax maximum yield out of a limited area and also runs regular urban farming workshops on-site.
Farmers, restaurateurs, and market operators are all likely to have to get similarly inventive as the localization movement runs up against the crowded city’s perennial space constraints. Stratospheric rents put many a quality eatery out of business and make large markets or urban farming operations like those seen in cities like Chicago or even Singapore tricky. But insiders say these limits have less to do with physical realities than government policy. “There’s really not a lack of public venues in Hong Kong,” says Harbour Artisanal’s Bush. “However there is a lack of public venues that the government will allow these types of events to be held in.” Wong of Au Law Organic Farms says that the possibility of rezoning for commercial redevelopment, and profiting as a result, prevents many land owners from renting or selling to farmers, crippling the city’s agricultural potential.
In a place where trends don’t tend to enjoy long life spans, there’s also the question of how long the new taste for local will endure —and just how many artisanal markets or organic restaurants the city can support. Poon agrees that market and food events have proliferated recently, but sees that as a sign of success. And in terms of future plans, it seems to be full steam ahead. Tang intends to set up an e-commerce portal that will enable consumers to connect with organic farmers and have produce, as well as pre-prepared ingredients for healthy chef-designed meals, deli-vered straight to their homes; according to Bush, Harbour Artisanal is poised to carve out a permanent space where it can hold events with greater frequency. For visitors and residents alike, genuinely local experiences are likely to be easier to come by than ever.
Make for the Market
Harbour Artisanal: An outdoor weekend market featuring a rotating cast of the city’s top boutique food vendors; visit their website for news about upcoming events.
Island East Markets: Held every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at TaiKoo Place in Quarry Bay.
Visit a Farm
Au Law Organic Farm: Set in rural Yuen Long in the New Territories, this enterprise welcomes weekend visitors (852/9108-1731).
Dragontail Farm: Donald Latter’s organic farm on Lantau Island runs recreational and educational programs geared particularly toward children (852/5422-2844).
Grassroots Pantry: French-trained chef Peggy Chan sources unprocessed local ingredients for her café’s organic vegetarian menu; suppliers include Zen Organic Farm in the New Territories (12 Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Ying Pun; 852/2873-3353).
IPC Foodlab: The high-ceilinged Central branch of this farm-to-table restaurant grows some of its own produce at its HQ in Fan Ling, where facilities include a rooftop farm, food lab, and mushroom nursery (38A Caine Rd.; 852/2810-6083).
Locafama: Across the road from Grassroots Pantry in laid-back Sai Ying Pun, Locafama showcases “fresh organic bites” in dishes like salmon ceviche with quinoa and a tofu-topped kale salad (13 Fuk Sau Lane; 852/2547-7668).
Posto Pubblico: The fare at this buzzy Soho osteria is true New York-Italian comfort food, but with an emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients (28 Elgin St.; 852-2577/7160).
Sohofama: An offshoot of Locafama, Sohofama pairs urban farming with homey Chinese cooking (think truffled xiaolongbao and seasonal herbal soups) in an indoor/out- door space at the revamped Police Married Quarters (PMQ) in Central (G/F Block A, PMQ, 35 Aberdeen St.; 852/2858-8238).
Yin Yang Coastal: Recently relocated from Wan Chai to a house on Ting Kau Beach, the private kitchen of Margaret Xu dishes up nouveau Cantonese cuisine made from wild-caught fish, farm-raised poultry, and produce from the chef’s own organic gardens (117 Ting Kau Village, Tsuen Wan; 852/ 2866-0868).
This article originally appeared in the December/January print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Homegrown Hong Kong”)