A fare to remember
What do Hong Kong's expats do when they crave food from back home? It seems they make it themselves or they make do. Far from their native countries, what do they pine for, and what lengths will they go to for the taste of home?
What Ilaria Maria Sala craves the most from Italy are her grandmother's tortelli di erbe (herb ravioli) and passatelli in brodo (noodles in broth), both lovingly made from scratch.
Thinking ahead to curb her cravings, the author, literary consultant and 10-year Hong Kong resident always reserves space in her luggage on trips to Italy for gourmet items: a herb salt mixture from her home region of Emilia-Romagna, whole spelt grain and cicernia (a bean popular in Rome).
'The problem starts with fruits and vegetables. They simply don't taste the same [in Hong Kong],' Sala says. 'Onions in this part of the world are stronger and garlic a lot milder. Other things just can't be found, like black cabbage and zucchini flowers. It's a bit like looking for bitter gourd or kabocha squash in a Florence supermarket.'
When dining out, Sala has a few bones to pick with Hong Kong's Italian restaurants as well. 'In Italy, nobody serves drinks without [free] snacks, but here sullen waiters begrudge you an olive,' she says, adding that she prefers to cook her own Italian food. But Sala says certain foods, such as pizza, which requires high-temperature cooking, cannot be made at home, and she goes to Isola in Central when a pizza craving hits.
'Certain regional flavours can never be replicated exactly. If you have pizza in Naples, you'll have a revelation. It's like having Sichuan food in Chengdu versus in Shanghai - incomparable,' Sala says. And of her attempts to recreate her grandmother's dishes, she says: 'I dare not aspire to such greatness.'
'It's not that you can't find good French food in Hong Kong. It's that you have to pay stupid prices for it,' says Philippe Cosentino, a language teacher who moved to the city four years ago from the French Alps. 'I cannot eat at L'Atelier [de Joel Robuchon] every day.'
It's far more economical for Cosentino to cook at home, which he often does after shopping at stores such as City'super and Great. 'French products cost easily twice as much here as in France, but that's to be expected,' he says.
On other occasions, he prefers getting his fix of the French dining experience in places that, ironically, don't serve French food. Cosentino, who lists Life Cafe and the Fringe Club in Central as two regular spots, says healthier continental fare works well with the French palate.
'The problem with French food in Hong Kong is that it is 'too French'. It's so overdone, with heavy, buttery sauces. But French food, especially in the south, can be very light and fresh.'
Moreover, the slow rhythm and outdoor terraces of the two cafes resemble the pace of typical dining spots in France. 'You can sit there and have coffee all afternoon,' he says. 'And in France, when we go for coffee, it can really last an entire afternoon.'
When Camille Genuino's mother-in-law visited from Manila last year, she brought over so much food that guests were invited just to help finish it. The stash consisted of 20kg of fruit (mangos, guavas, chicos [sapodilla fruit], lansones [a cluster fruit] and pomelos), a dozen chicken pies, 2kg of pastilles de leches (sweets made from carabao's milk), 50 pieces of pans de sal (soft bread rolls) and an entire leg of glazed ham.
In her four years in Hong Kong, the homemaker and entrepreneur has often relied on relatives from Manila to restock her kitchen with Filipino essentials. 'Giving gifts when you arrive from a trip is very common in Filipino culture,' says Genuino. 'We call it pasalubong, which translates as 'something you give when you arrive'.'
For Filipino expats without frequent visitors, she suggests speciality markets Quezon Pinoy in Wan Chai and Victory in Worldwide House in Central, or to dine at restaurants such as Cinta J's and the takeaway barbecue joint, Mang Ambo's, both in Wan Chai.
At a pinch, though, she suggests Thai and Malaysian restaurants, saying those cuisines share elements with Filipino cuisine. 'Take tom yum kung [Thai spicy and sour lemongrass soup], for instance. The Philippines have something similar called sinigang. Beef rendang [Malaysia's slow-braised coconut and beef stew] is similar to Filipino kaldereta,' she says.
'In the west, people chit-chat about the weather. In Greece, we talk about what we ate yesterday,' says financier Kosmo Kalliarekos, who has just completed his first year in Hong Kong.
Kalliarekos says his Indian housekeeper is getting better at following his mother's Greek recipes. 'At first, it was Greek food prepared with an Indian touch, so sometimes it was very spicy and other times too sweet.' For Kalliarekos, small accents of spices brought back from Greece are the secret to making dishes taste authentic. 'A sprinkle of dried thyme from Attica brings back all the smells from your memory.
'What I would really like are some dolmades [stuffed grape leaves],' he says, explaining that the dish is so important that at Greek weddings brides are often required to make a batch for the groom's family for approval before the marriage is blessed.
Although he hasn't found dolmades or Greek restaurants that are up to par in Hong Kong, Kalliarekos makes do with eateries serving other types of cuisines. 'Even Greek food isn't 100 per cent Greek. It's a m?lange of Italian, Lebanese, Middle Eastern and Turkish flavours,' he says.
'We don't buy beef jerky or pineapple shortcakes any more when we go to Taiwan,' say primary schoolteachers Tressy Chang and Olivia Huang, adding that those signature Taiwanese items are considered da lu huo (main street items) that are parochial compared to lesser-known Taiwanese treats.
'I go for the black pearl lian wu [a variety of bell fruit], milk dates, and yogurt beverages,' says Huang. For Chang, coveted items to bring back include her friends' homemade condiments and sauces. 'Vinegars, soy sauce, and different chilli pastes are all made locally in Taiwan, and those brands are not exported in large quantities,' she says. 'At the Bon Bon Bon [a small shop in Central], you can find a small selection of Taiwanese brands.'
Huang says the problem is that a lot of these foods, such as mian xian (rice vermicelli in soup), chou dou fu (stinky tofu), and luo ba bang (braised minced pork) are made at hawker stalls in night markets. 'Nobody knows how to create them at home,' she says.
'Da Po Beef Noodle in Wan Chai comes close. But beef noodles are an iconic dish in Taiwan and come in over 200 different varieties. It's hard to measure up. The best thing to do is take a one-hour flight to Taipei and go for a weekend of eating,' says Chang, adding that she and Huang go back three or four times a year to do just that.
The world traveller
Like so many of the expatriates in Hong Kong, former journalist, blogger and digital media director Thomas Crampton's background includes an eclectic mix of countries. The dual passport Irish-American has at one point or another called himself a resident of Paris, Bangkok, New York, Washington and Beijing, prior to settling here in Hong Kong.
Crampton often hungers for Mexican and southern Cajun cooking, both of which he finds scarce in Hong Kong. And although the city offers other foreign delights that Crampton enjoys, he calls them the 'Disney versions', explaining that many restaurants here are 'packaged products' rather than authentic eateries.
'It's more than just flavours that are missing,' he says. 'There's an absence of a strong immigrant population [in Hong Kong]. Immigrants are the ones who set up the real authentic restaurants making up the colorful culinary landscape of places like New York and Paris.
'The culture of markets in Hong Kong is also different,' Crampton says. 'In Paris, the stalls are very specific, and there's a great range throughout the market. There's even a gourmet market called Picard that provides every high-end frozen ingredient you can imagine. Here in Hong Kong, local stalls all sell the same items.'
As a newlywed, Salvadoran Vanessa Herrera Hogan attempted to make Salvadoran tortillas for her husband. Having watched her grandmother's expertise as she flipped tortillas with her bare hands on the hot comal (griddle), Herrera attempted the same. 'The cornmeal fused onto the griddle and ruined the pan,' she says. 'Luckily the marriage is still going strong.'
Hong Kong's complete lack of Salvadoran restaurants inspired Herrera and husband, Jeremy Hogan, who have both lived in Hong Kong for five years, to brush up their cooking skills.
These days, Hogan, an American, does most of the Salvadoran cooking, regularly serving rice and beans in a dish called a casamiento, meaning 'marriage'.
'[In El Salvador], virtually everything on your plate is raised or grown on the farm,' says Herrera. Even the coffee beans are hand-picked from the family's organic plantation, Coffee Forest.
Although the couple have found a source of black beans and masa (white cornmeal) in the Gateway shop in Central, they still carefully ration out the ingredients hand carried on the 24-hour flights they take at least once a year to El Salvador.
In addition to their favourite cheeses, Herrera also loves horchata powder, a mix of morro or calabash tree seeds, ground cocoa, sesame seeds, cinnamon and sugar. 'Mixed with water, and it becomes a Latin American milkshake,' she says.
On most days, however, the couple are just as comfortable sipping Hong Kong-style milk tea, a flavour that has become as familiar to them as horchata.
'If we ever leave Hong Kong, I know that I'm going to crave the steamed scallops in the outdoor seafood restaurants in Cheung Chau,' says Hogan.