A theme park of food
To see the true spirit of Hong Kong, visit the TDC Food Expo in the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. Four packed floors purvey everything edible, with much of it being cooked for you to try freeing or buying. Other halls offer gourmet food and drinks, fresh produce and tea. It’s a theme park of food, with everything from third-generation Hong Kong brands like Tung Chun soy sauce to Japanese Minami Cattle Feedlot offering fried beef samples. Some stands supply handy trolleys to cart away bulk purchases. Much food is free, but the paid-for products are heavily discounted, so this is a feeding frenzy. Determined grannies forage for a year’s supply of soy sauce and frozen dim sum and haul laden trolleys over your feet without a backwards glance. They have paid their HK$40 entrance fee and they are going to get their money’s worth. Today (19th) is the fifth and final day of the Expo, which stays open until 10pm. The crowd packs the walkway from Wan Chai MTR to the Convention Centre, with marshalls corralling them into fenced lanes. You’d think they draw was a hot rock concert, not a few free dumplings.
Not for the faint hearted
Elbows sharpened, hardened Expo professionals dive in for free anything, but especially beef. You can detect a Japanese wok frying tasty beef from 50 paces by the heaving mass alongside. They queue for five minutes for one bite, then re-join the line for another. It’s an object lesson in how to muster a crowd in Hong Kong - offer free food. As an Expo virgin I checked out the public halls, then retreated to nurse my bruised feet – and headed for the calmer trade halls. En route I passed several Chinese provinces displaying their wares, and tea producers, but tea lacks the box office appeal of teriyaki beef, so these corridors were calm. I tried to talk to the Guangxi folks, about their backdrop of barnyard chickens. Were they into free range eggs? The girl shook her head. ”Not chickens - tea,” she said. But there was no picture of tea. “Tea - and pork,” she added. But there was not a pig in sight. I realised she had been dragged over as the only English speaker for several metres, so in all probability this was not her stand.
Tranquil trade floors
The range of countries represented is vast and bewildering: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Mexico, it seemed endless. Products ranged from Iberico Jamon Melon Ice Cream, yes, that’s ice-cream made of 24-months dried Spanish ham and Hokkaido melon, to Indonesian free range Luwak coffee at HK$150 a cup (having first passed through a civet cat) from the Safety Stop restaurant in Sai Ying Pun, to cheese from OZO, the Polish Dairy Cooperative. Not to mention Xiang Fei raisins, known as Xiang Fei (Emperor’s concubine) raisins, a tribute to the Qianlong Emperor and Xiang Fei during the Qing dynasty, made by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Fruit Industry Co., Ltd.
Then there were Mini Snowy Moon Cake with Chunky Blueberry and Bean Paste, from Tai Pan Bread & Cakes, and La Favorita Truffle and Barolo Delicacy, which combines Italian Barolo wine and summer truffle to spice up pan fried foie gras, by JC Foods, Hong Kong. I could go on and on. There was Iranian Caspian Sea Water Beluga Huso Caviar, the world’s rarest category 1 caviar, back on the market after 13 years, from Caviar Bank. That’s just a few examples of what the nearly 1500 stands had to offer. And every business has a story.
Apart from the jolly Germans from The Monkey’s Consulting Ltd on the Frueh Kolsch beer bay, the stands having the best fun were Guam and State of California: a positive party in fact. Like most, they seek distributors and importers. California had olive oil, bottled gluhwein, barbecue sauce, jelly bean vitamins and broccoli. Mainland Chinese love Californian broccoli, said Derrick Stinnett, export and sales manager of vegetables producer Beachside, who looked like he’d rather be flogging wine. Pretty bottles of artisan olive oils from Santa Barbara were attracting attention. Luna Olivio, makes an interesting cooking blend: 40 per cent grape seed and 60 per cent olive oil: which can stir-fry at up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit without burning. With flavours like blood orange, toasted sesame and Habanero Hell, and balsamic vinegar flavoured with vanilla fig, blackberry, and orange and lime, they sounded good enough to drink.
Next on California was a couple surrounded by bottles of what looked like red wine. You have to admire two people who find their favourite drink, gluhwein (spice-infused wine) is not available in America, so ditch their real estate careers and start making it themselves as Spicy Vines and turn it into a hip San Francisco bar cocktail. “Everyone told us we were mad,” said managing partner Crystalyn Hoffman. Spiced wine has been popular since Roman times, so why not? It’s robust and would go well with Chinese food, heated or cold. Mixed as mimosa cocktail with champagne and orange juice, it’s even nicer, an obvious winner with novice female drinkers, you’d think. Has no one copied this simple idea? “Not yet,” says Hoffman.
Next was another great idea, vitamin pills disguised as jelly beans for kids. Finally, the barbecue fanatic who markets his own sauces: Mike Keller and he gave up his career as a broadcaster “in the telecoms space to pursue my real passion.” His California Rancher range includes Oaky & Smoky barbecue seasoning, which tastes pretty good. How was he doing? “People are into flavours, so I’m here because I want to know how it works in this country,” he said.
Guam branches out
Nearby were the folks from Guam, which is a lot more than a US military base. This was their first time. Mostly family businesses, they were a bit blown away at the amount of interest they were getting. It seems the mainland Chinese buyers had stumbled on their stand and suddenly discovered fresh fruit, vegetables and products made to USA FDA standards on China’s doorstep. “They don’t seem to have much faith in their own food, do they?” said one of the Guam team. As anyone who has been to Guam’s DFS duty free galleria knows, the island produces American quality fruit and vegetables, pork and chicken, coffee, Coco-Jo’s and Island Memories cookies, Warehouse Pacific dried beef snacks, mango cakes and much more.
Fired by lychee
A few steps away was another simple, yet different new item: lychee cider and spirit. Australians love lychee as much as Chinese do, and this comes from the southern highlands south of Sydney. How was Lychee Gold doing at the Expo? “Very well,” said Alan Aston of Aston Gold Estate. It tastes exactly like lychee, but is not too sweet. The three grades of Lychee Gold spirit, 18, 38 and rocket-fuel 80 per cent are aimed at the Chinese toasting market, with edible gold flakes suspended in the 80 per cent brew. I get confused between proof and alcohol by volume, but Aston said the 80 per cent is 53 per cent alcohol. It’s strong stuff regardless, but as an alternative to mao tai, it could have a market. But it could also blow your head off.