Cosmopolitan Sai Kung has acquired a taste for an exotic range of food
Once populated by fishermen and farmers, Sai Kung has grown into a cosmopolitan locale. The food on offer reflects this, writesRobin Lynam
Hong Kong city dwellers tend to have a bucolic notion of Sai Kung as being populated by unsophisticated folk: farmers, fishermen, Cathay Pacific pilots, and the like.
For better or worse, this is no longer entirely the case. The pilots and fishermen are still here, but the farmers have mostly gone out of business, the area is overbuilt and is plagued by constant traffic jams.
What's more, Sai Kung has become one of the more cosmopolitan places in Hong Kong. Residents come from an exotic mix of cultural backgrounds and walks of life, and this is increasingly reflected in the diversity of the town's food and beverage businesses.
Its restaurants, primarily the seafood outlets on the waterfront strip, have been a draw for townies for many years. But there's more to Sai Kung than seafood. There has been a boom in restaurants offering a range of Asian and Western cuisines - French, Italian, Japanese, Indian, even Belgian - in recent years.
Some are distinctly pricey for the neighbourhood, but there is also value to be found.
A profound sense of shock at the high price of French cheese, as well as the limited choice, in local supermarkets motivated Sai Kung resident Olivier Vogeleer, formerly a restaurant owner in France, to begin importing it himself.
Vogeleer moved to Sai Kung to be with his wife and business partner, Dolly. Returning from a trip to Paris a couple of years ago, he carried back a suitcase of artisanal cheese and wine from a friend's chateau, which the couple took out on a boat trip for a tasting session.
They asked their guests whether they would buy the produce if they were to begin importing it, and the unanimous answer was yes.
"For the first year, we said everything should be French. Now we bring in produce from other parts of Europe because people want more variety," says Vogeleer, who is of Belgian and German parentage.
"We have customers from almost every country. They are mostly foreigners, but not primarily French. British, Australians, and Canadians come, and now also more and more Chinese are coming. I speak French, English, and German, so Germans and Swiss come here. For that reason, we diversified into food from those areas as well," he says.
The company's product range includes Bernard Robert grower champagne, Bordeaux wines from Chateau Turcaud, charcuterie, including Iberico ham, and bakery items, but most of all a fine selection of cheeses from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany.
As well as offering cheeses that the supermarkets don't carry, D'Oli competes with them on price. Vogeleer says he is not worried about losing business to the large new branch of Fusion that opened late last year a couple of minutes walk away at Centro, 1A Chui Tong Road.
"We have started to deliver more to Central. Sai Kung people check what we have online, but they tend to come here in person. People from Central order mostly cheese, as well as frozen foods, which we've started doing," he says.
According to director Danny Wong, locals and visiting urbanites make up the customer base of The Bottle Shop, which opened at 114 Man Nin Street on the Sai Kung waterfront about six months ago.
The Bottle Shop had previously been functioning as an online retailer for about a year. It specialises in craft beers and ciders from Europe, North America, Australasia and Asia, but also a range of other niche products, such as high quality mixers like Fever-Tree tonic water, bitters, boutique spirits such as Michter's Bourbon and Monkey 47 Gin, confectionery, and upmarket crisps.
"The strip that we're on is basically a seafood area, so people don't expect to shop here for gourmet stuff. But so far, the reception has been good. We now have an opportunity to talk to customers directly about the quality of craft beers, and how they differ from commercial varieties," says Wong.
"We have built a pretty good customer base, and there are people who come all the way from Hong Kong side to hold the actual product in their hands," adds Wong.
The Bottle Shop also supplies beers to bars and restaurants, including The Globe in Central, and has recently begun offering that pub's home-made pies to take away. "Some of the products we carry are an attempt to provide what the community needs," says Wong.
"I think Sai Kung desperately needs good pies, along with other products like Aussie confectionery and unusual crisps and olive oils. We want to be part of the community here in Sai Kung. Even though our focus is on craft beers, it is incumbent on us to find other things that locals want."
Chinese seafood is still Sai Kung's speciality, but away from the restaurant strip, along the waterfront promenade, Asians and Westerners are now to be seen eating authentic British fish and chips as they stroll along.
These come from Chip In which opened at 9 King Man Street in November 2012. It was established by Vicky Chan, whose aunt owns a fish and chip shop in Norwich. "It's a popular food, and I thought it would be successful in Sai Kung," says Chan, saying the fish is fried in traditional beer batter, and cooked in omega-9-rich canola oil with no trans-fat.
Deep-fried battered sausages and a range of sandwiches - including, of course, a chip butty - are also on offer, alongside a few items you probably wouldn't find in a British chippy, such as calamari and king prawns.
"I don't think Chinese people would regard scampi as being as good as deep fried king prawns, so we went with those instead," says Chan. "But I still try to promote things like curry sauce and mushy peas, and obviously malt vinegar is very important. Quite a few kids love the chip butties."
Real chocoholics in Sai Kung will gravitate towards the nearby retail arm of Belgian chocolatier Valentino, at 22-40 Fuk Man Road. This is the place to come for hazelnut creams, fondant creams, ganaches, et al - although the prices may cause a sharp intake of breath.
The shop also offers a modest range of French wines and Belgian beers. But if you think that's eclectic take a stroll across the road to the pet food store directly opposite.That also sells high-end Bordeaux and XO Cognac. Sai Kung is that sort of place. It can only stand so much sophistication.