Hong Kong chefs deal directly with fishermen and seafood farmers in the name of sustainability
Some Hong Kong restaurants are offering lesser-known species and farmed seafood to protect fish stocks
Being surrounded by water, Hongkongers have always had a passion for seafood. Be it a tiny shrimp atop a siu mai at breakfast dim sum, the ubiquitous crab claw at Chinese wedding banquets, or a steamed whole fish at a family dinner, seafood is a central and well-loved part of the city's dining scene.
"There is also an association with feasting and opulence in fine dining, I think that's the main appeal of seafood here," says Victoria Chow, founder and managing director of new oyster and seafood bar The Walrus.
Chef David Lai, known for his seasonally-driven restaurants Neighborhood and On Lot 10 (now closed), is the culinary force behind one of the city's new seafood ventures - Fish School in Sai Ying Pun. As the name suggests, Fish School is fish and seafood focused.
"We take 'catch of the day' quite literally," says Lai. Rather than focusing on the cuisine of a particular nation, Fish School serves whatever is fresh that day. This might include lesser-known varieties such as local lobster, yellow-foot sea bream, threadfin and moray eel. These fish are rarely seen in restaurants, and aside from helping diners try new things, this wider focus could help prevent popular species from extinction.
Lai says, "Those open-water boats stalk the fish with hi-tech satellites and sonar and they have no chance to escape or recover. I believe that food trends, such as the worldwide popularity of sushi in the past couple of decades, have a lot to do with the wholesale depletion of stocks of fish such as bluefin tuna."
He's not the only cook to seek out lesser-known types. "There are excellent qualities in many different types of seafood out there, but they don't always have the marketing value, popularity and demand. Our job as chefs is to introduce them and demonstrate exactly how good their quality and depth of flavour can be," says Agustin Balbi, executive chef at The Ocean, another new seafood restaurant.
Like Fish School, The Ocean's menu is dictated by what the seas have to offer, and the restaurant uses a range of techniques and inspirations from around the world. Aside from contemporary French à la carte and degustation menus, there is also a sushi bar. Balbi says: "Our menu changes according to what seafood is available, rather than what we need for the menu. If a certain fish is not available, that is not a problem."
Chow, who is also behind cocktail bar The Woods, decided to open The Walrus as an oyster and seafood bar. "We felt Hong Kong needed a casual oyster joint where the food doesn't take itself too seriously and is not a white tablecloth occasion. By focusing on one type of seafood, and relying on an ever-rotating market-fresh menu, we are able to ensure high turnover of perishable items," she says.
Chow says the most popular are the Baywater Sweet, a Pacific oyster from the eponymous farm in Washington state, served natural, and the Oompa Loompa, an oyster topped with salmon tartare and blood orange sorbet.
"Oyster farming is sustainable," she says. "We work closely with two oyster farms that have family or close friends based in Hong Kong who oversee their imports - ensuring the time the oysters spend out of the water is as short as possible before they get to our restaurant. For other seafood, as much as possible, we source locally. Our chefs are good friends with some local fishermen who go out once a week and we get much of our line-caught big fish from them. I'm particularly looking forward to sea urchin season in February. We will be working with a local farm for that. Many people don't know that sea urchin is farmed locally."
For this new breed of seafood restaurants, being clear about the source of the produce and working with smaller suppliers or directly with fishermen isn't simply a trendy marketing ploy.
Balbi says: "The basic goal is to protect marine species from being overfished, or, in the worst case, disappearing entirely. Every fish or shellfish plays a vital role in its habitat. It requires time to mature and to reproduce. If it is caught too early, or the fishing is done in an uncontrolled way, the damage can be serious not just for that species but for the entire marine ecosystem. As a restaurant we work very closely with our producers to monitor supply. It takes trust in your suppliers, fishermen and the methods they use, but thankfully we have an excellent relationship with them."
While Chow also works closely with her suppliers, sourcing line-caught fish from local fishermen, she feels there is still some way to go in helping the public understand the importance of sustainability and how to choose the right seafood. "I have to dig so hard for information and I still doubt the credibility of a lot of what I find," she says.
Lai says: "One advantage of working with fishermen and smaller suppliers is that they are usually very aware of the seasons and the environment. Most fish we get are migratory and can only be found during part of the year. If it's the wrong time of year and the species is not in the area it would not help to send out 1,000 boats. We allow for that flexibility in our menu and we don't have to serve any one fish all year round."
Fish School, 100 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun, tel: 2361 2966
The Ocean, shop 303, The Pulse, 28 Beach Road, Repulse Bay, tel: 2889 5939
The Walrus, 64 Staunton Street, SoHo. No bookings