Send them packing
Takeout breakfast, lunch at a convenient dim sum palace and dinner at a favourite hotpot joint: eating out is so convenient and routine that some families regularly have all three meals outside the home. It's a wonder their kitchens are used for anything more than making tea or the odd bowl of instant noodles.
However, the balance is shifting towards greater interest in home cooking with heightened health consciousness, especially among the middle class. Now a couple of Web-based ventures are tapping into their concerns by delivering washed and chopped ingredient packs for ready-to-cook dishes.
They have made converts of novices such as Amanda Cheung Man-yee. An executive in a health products company, Cheung never used to cook at home; her routine after work each day was to select a restaurant for dinner with her husband.
'I know eating out isn't that healthy but who wants to cook after an exhausting day,' she says.
But the Cook Easy service has enticed Cheung to take regular turns at the stove since she came across the website last December. She was hooked, she says, precisely because the venture provides such a simple, trouble-free package.
Placing her orders with a few clicks on the computer, Cheung has a couple of ready-to-cook packs delivered to her home: one containing strips of locally raised, hormone-free chicken, with washed and cut organic vegetables for a stir-fry and another containing ingredients for a carrot and pork soup. All come with easy-to-follow instructions.
'It's hard to go wrong with this,' Cheung says. 'They've done the tedious work for us. The cooking part is actually pretty fun.'
Now she places orders for the meal packages to cook at home once a week and even hosts the occasional dinner party for friends. 'My husband said he never realised I could cook.'
A social enterprise jointly operated by Towngas and the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, Cook Easy employs people with disabilities to assemble the ingredients for each day's orders each morning for delivery in the afternoon. Prices range from HK$19 for a pack of organic vegetables for a stir-fry to HK$289 for a hotpot special, including slices of Angus steak and Iberico pork. There are also packs for cookies, cakes and barbecues.
Business has picked up quickly since Cook Easy launched in 2009; the enterprise now supplies about 100 packs daily during the week and up to 180 packs during festive periods.
Part of the reason for its success is growing awareness about healthy eating, says Cook Easy organiser Fanny Ong. 'Steamed dishes are the most popular here because they are simple and healthy. People are also more interested in organic vegetables.'
But Ong also believes people realise that making and sharing meals can help strengthen family bonds.
'It glues the family together. The experience encourages communication during the cooking and the whole family can sit down and enjoy a meal.'
Cook Easy's social mission is an added attraction for civil servant Yolanda Ho Man-chung. Although she employs a domestic helper, Ho has been a regular customer since the site was launched two years ago.
'It's hard for my helper to juggle caring for my two children and grocery shopping. The food packs are quite affordable and they are fresher than the ones in the supermarket,' she says. 'And it makes me feel good that I'm helping others while ordering food.'
The recently launched Fresh To Go is a more upmarket service that uses premium ingredients including wagyu beef and Hokkaido scallops. Their most popular pack is minced pork with salted egg, a simple dish that many families make at home. But their version uses Iberico pork; hence the HK$75 price tag.
Its menu, which changes every fortnight, is put together by a chef and a traditional Chinese physician who advises on the use of medicinal herbs. A three-dish meal package with soup typically costs about HK$300 and can go up to HK$500.
Fresh To Go co-founder Rainbow Ng Wai-po says personal experience prompted her to start the company with her partners.
'I used to eat out a lot but many restaurants use MSG to enhance flavour. I thought there must be people like me out there who want to eat more healthily but don't have time for all the prep work.'
A former interior designer, Ng says that as a strictly commercial operation it's smarter for them to target the high-end market.
'The biggest challenge is logistics. It doesn't make sense if we are selling food packs for, say, HK$20 but charge HK$50 for delivery to make a profit.'
And the lower costs of running an online business helps offset the expense of using premium ingredients, Ng adds.
'For us, selling meat is more like selling designer bags. Just as bags have tags to show authenticity, pieces of steak have stickers to indicate their origin - if the cattle were grass-fed or if the meat has been dry-aged.
'We use modified atmosphere in packaging, first vacuuming out all the air and adding nitrogen for better preservation. Each dish comes with its own ice pack so there won't be a change of temperature during delivery,' she says.
The service, which launched in October, delivers to more than 30 customers each day and Ng thinks business will continue to improve.
'Busy, working people won't mind paying a little more for such services so they can eat healthier.'
Still, customers such as Ho and Cheung are a little put off by Fresh To Go's hefty prices.
'I'll probably give it a try but I'm not sure if it's necessary to cook with such luxury ingredients at home,' Ho says.
On the menu
Cook Easy (cookeasy.tungwahcsd.org)
Designed by the Town Gas Cooking Centre, balanced meals combine a vegetable dish with meat or seafood and soup. Customers may pick any combination of some 50 dishes. There are also a few set meals.
The healthy meal set for three-four people features stuffed hairy marrow, chicken with celery and cashew nut, hairy marrow, dried shrimp and bean vermicelli pot for HK$99.
The HK$100 easy meal set consists of steamed meatcake with mushroom and dried squid in waterlily leaf, mushroom with black fungus and loofah, and sole fillet with bean vermicelli and garlic. The most popular are steamed dishes and those using locally raised Kamei chicken.
Fresh To Go (freshtogo.hk)
The company introduces new dishes every couple of weeks using seasonal ingredients. For customers who have trouble making a selection, it offers three set menus combining three dishes and a soup.
Its HK$530 supreme set features black chicken soup with ginseng, Shyu Ichi wagyu cubes with garlic flakes, steamed Kamei chicken with yellow wine, and organic vegetables with dried seafood and vermicelli. Meals are for two people.
A less expensive set features clams with Japanese potato and leek soup, Iberico minced pork with salted egg, Japanese onion with hormone-free Australian chicken and fresh cucumber with vinegar for HK$250