Three local food lovers explain how their cooking carries a social message
Cooking with a social conscience is catching on across the globe. Mischa Moselle meets three local food lovers who are embracing the trend
These days your dinner is as likely to be garnished with some sort of social message as it is a carved carrot. Whether it's Rob Lyons (author of Panic on a Plate) pressing consumers to demand higher standards from purveyors of mass-produced food, or restaurants giving richer consumers the chance to buy an extra meal for the less well-off, activists in Hong Kong are not immune to the trend, and we meet three residents expressing their consciences through cooking.
The entrepreneur with a social conscience
Verybite exists to bring together cooks with time on their hands and in want of a little extra income with either the time poor or the vulnerable in need of deliveries of home cooked food.
However, it didn't start that way. Verybite founder Julie Ng is Malaysian-Chinese, and after acquiring an MBA she wanted to start a small, but profitable company.
While Ng has a healthy interest in food, she's no cook herself - at university, "I paid my roommate to cook for me", she says. Her original idea was modelled on travel website Airbnb, a platform where people with spare rooms to rent meet travellers looking for cheap accommodation. After crunching the numbers, Ng decided such a business would not be profitable, but she liked the idea as a social enterprise and now runs it as such in a subsidised space.
Verybite has no connection to the very similar Cookisto, which was started in Athens but has since spread to London. Like Cookisto, Verybite was originally designed to make a profit, but has evolved into a way of helping the less well-off - either retired or unemployed cooks or the elderly and needy clients they cook for.
Cooks are recruited via Facebook and recommendations from women's associations or other grass-roots organisations. Two members of the Verybite team will try the prospective chef's food before the cook can promote themselves through the company. Also, Ng and the team inspect the kitchen for hygiene and quiz candidates on their motivations. The company takes an 18 per cent to 25 per cent commission on every dish sold.
The service launched last week. Verybite plans to hold regular surprise inspections to ensure hygiene standards are maintained.
Ng acknowledges that the company is operating in a grey area. There is no central kitchen so there is nowhere for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to licence. Ng has sought legal advice and is confident the company can operate as it does. Hygiene standards are part of the agreement she signs with chefs.
The home cooking on offer will not generally be local. As a customer, you visit the website, browse dishes and contact the cooks who are supposed to live near MTR stations to ensure fresh, hot deliveries. The dish descriptions on the website contain extensive ingredientlists for the health conscious or picky consumer.
Some of the dishes that Ng rates highly include a potato salad with a sour cream dressing, pasta in a pumpkin bolognese and a quinoa salad. Ng says she had never heard of a pumpkin sauce for pasta. "The cook not only made the sauce, he grew the pumpkin as well," she says.
Michelle Kwok finds baking erotic. "Everybody is obsessed with food just like with sex. Food should be sexy and inviting," she says. Kwok is also a perfectionist who would like Hong Kong to raise its game when it comes to the quality of its pastries.
She is a relatively recent convert to the joy of baking. At boarding school and university in England, cooking was a necessity that became a pleasure. Kwok would cook and, in return, her friends would provide ingredients and wash up. The intense focus on baking was inspired by a car trip she made from Cambridge to Heathrow for the flight home after graduating. She saw a sign for a farm shop, and, thinking this might be her last time in Britain, she decided to follow it and found herself at a chilled-out farm cafe.
She ordered a piece of lemon polenta cake that "was so moist, it was amazing".
The cake left her lost for words and wondering why she had not been able to find baked goods of a similar simplicity and quality in Hong Kong. The city's pastries tend to be local and denatured or expensive, as they are made by international hotel chains or brands.
After returning to the city to pursue a career in engineering consultancy, Kwok developed an obsession with baking high-quality goods to sell at a local farmers' market. Her company chEATS is not yet a money-spinner, but it pays for her love of baking.
Obsessions have included the original lemon polenta cake, which she now makes with yuzu and ground almonds; angel food cake topped with lemon curd and passion fruit; and brownies. Many brownies in Hong Kong can be too cake-like, she says, with too much flour instead of chocolate, or too fudgy. She's aiming for a balance.
The formula for perfection lies in testing recipes to destruction and recording everything while doing so: changing the ratios of ingredients, the temperature the items go into the oven in increments of five degrees Celsius, and cooking times. Kwok has been working on the perfect chocolate chip cookie for a year. She finds most examples of the cookie too hard, crispy and dry, or too soft.
Baking for her Sunday market stall starts after work on Friday with a trip to Wan Chai to buy fresh ingredients. Cooking starts around 8pm and lasts until 3am. Then it's up early again on Saturday to carry on baking until the early hours of Sunday morning. It's a similar schedule when she caters a child's birthday party.
Israeli Ayelet Idan can't see herself setting up a restaurant, but reflects that when she was 17 she couldn't see herself living on an island in Hong Kong. The Lamma resident runs cooking classes and an occasional market in her garden under the auspices of her company Olive Leaf.
The emphasis of her cooking classes is on teaching that food is a medium for giving and sharing. "Sharing is very normal, but some people have no idea about sharing," she says.
She's not a stickler for exact amounts and precise formulas. "Recipes are not to be followed, but allow you to create your own dish from a base - change it with what you have at home."
She encourages her students to be intuitive and use the ingredients at hand. By the end of a class, a student should be able to make basic things such as hummus, lots of salads, flat breads, a main dish and a dessert. "If you create that at home, you have a whole brunch," she says.
Classes are a way to subsidise importing ingredients from Israel that she cannot obtain elsewhere, such as her favourite olive oil, date honey, flavourful tomatoes and herbs such as za'atar and hyssop. She also imports Turkish coffee.
However, Idan's motives are not only practical, she is also keen to preserve several traditions that she grew up with. As a child growing up in Israel her grandmothers came from very different Jewish traditions - one from Ukraine and the other from Egypt.
What they did have in common was an emphasis freshness and on self-reliance. "We didn't buy bread or jam ever," she says.
She is bringing up her children not only in the Jewish tradition but also as vegetarians. When she creates menus she tries to keep them dairy and egg free within the limits of what her students would like to learn to cook.