Expensive cuisines more a matter of price and prejudice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 9:11am

Some friends and I had a discussion on what cuisines were "worth" high prices. I've pondered this often. When I lived in the US and would recommend Chinese restaurants to friends, they'd agree that the food was good, but would complain "it's so expensive!" This irritated me because these restaurants were far better than the standard Chinese-American places that served chop suey and lemon chicken. I'd explain that Chinese cooking techniques were just as varied and difficult as French - a cuisine for which they'd pay top dollar.

I know history is partly to blame - Chinese immigrants who opened restaurants weren't always trained as cooks and the ingredients were often the cheapest they could find. The food was Chinese in name only. Because the restaurateurs usually used family as staff, they didn't pay for labour, so they could pass the savings on to the diner. As a result, it was seen as a cheap cuisine.

These days Chinese is recognised as a great cuisine in its own right and experienced Chinese chefs are considered skilled labourers when they apply to immigrate. But many still think it should be cheap. Not in Hong Kong - people here are willing to pay for quality.

But forking out top dollar for other cuisines is another story. People here accept high prices for French, Italian and Japanese food, but not for Indian and other so-called ethnic cuisines. Many of us lament the closure in 2007 of Veda on Arbuthnot Road. It served the most delicious, refined and skilfully prepared Indian food we'd ever tasted. But many people said it was too expensive. Would they make the same complaint about a French establishment? No.

Recently, I found myself defending the prices at Socialito Taqueria on Wyndham Street. I grew up in Southern California thinking that good, cheap tacos were my birthright - we'd pay about US$7 (about HK$55) for a filling meal. At Socialito, tacos start at about HK$70 per pair and, if I'm very hungry, I could eat two orders. Yes, they are much more expensive. But I accept the prices because importing ingredients is expensive, and Socialito fills its tacos with things such as duck carnitas and pork belly.

The price of food should depend on its quality, not on where it's from.