Chefs are going the extra mile to source speciality ingredients from their homelands. Sometimes it's because of the quality, sometimes it's the lure of childhood memories.
This week until the end of September, chef Pino Lavarra at Tosca is offering a tasting menu based around 10 varieties of tomato from his native southern Italy. "The tomatoes from the south are incredibly tasty," says Lavarra, who was born in Puglia and worked in Campania before moving to Hong Kong. "A tomato salad with olive oil, salt and pepper was always on the table during the summertime when I was a kid."
In Puglia, the sight of pomodori growing or drying in bunches to be preserved and eaten in winter is a familiar one. "All my family used to make preserved tomato sauce," says Lavarra. "We all worked for a week. Each of us had a duty. Mine was to pierce and mash the tomatoes to make the sauce," he says.
Chef Zhao Li at He Jiang sources duck, pigeon, pepper and chilli from his home in Sichuan province. Likewise, Hideki Endo, executive sushi chef at Nobu, sources uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), hotate (scallops) and conch from his home prefecture, Hokkaido in Japan. Endo remembers first eating uni on diving trips with high school friends near his home.
"The most delicious uni, which have a sweet flavour and a vivid orange colour, are caught in Hokkaido," says Endo.
Pedro Samper at Zafran imports several ingredients from his home town of San Sebastian in the Basque Country, in Spain, including cod neck (kokotxas de bacalao). "Cod neck is one of the most precious parts of the fish. The texture after cooking is very gelatinous, it melts in your mouth, and its flavour is unique," he says.
Samper serves the kokotxas in salsa verde. Cod neck is also the key ingredient in pil-pil, cooked in olive oil and stirred so the gelatin of the cod and the oil mix to make a very thick sauce.
Philippe Orrico at Upper Modern Bistro says vanilla, the pollinated seed pod of a specific orchid, was part of his life when he was growing up in the French-administered island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. "Vanilla has been there since I was born. It was everywhere in my grandmother's house; in coffee, duck, cake and with rum of course," he says.
"I remember a little market in the middle of Saint-Denis where I'm from, where old women would check the quality of the pods one by one."
It's the quality of the pods and their subsequent treatment that differentiates Réunion from other vanilla, Orrico says.
"Each orchid is fertilised by hand with care. This method was created by a 12-year-old slave, Edmond Albius, in Réunion in 1841."
Vanilla is always on the menu in different guises at Upper Modern Bistro. "The taste of vanilla always takes me back home," he says.
Perry Fuller, the new executive chef at Zuma, grew up in New South Wales, Australia. "I first heard about Rangers Valley beef when I was working in Sydney. The beef is highly marbled and rich in flavour. It is the most consistent beef on the market," says Fuller.
"I remember using their wagyu rib-eye at a barbecue on a sunny afternoon in Sydney. I loved how the beefcaramelised on the grill. It was extremely buttery and tender."
Now Perry is using fillet, rib-eye and sirloin from Rangers Valley at Zuma.
White truffles have a special resonance for chef Andrea Fraire at Grissini. He grew up in Piedmont, the Italian region where white truffles are harvested.
"It was always so exciting when my father came home with a piece of white truffle," says Fraire. "We prepared some simple dishes such as scrambled eggs or risotto with them."
Fraire uses the truffles in traditional Piedmontese recipes such as ravioli. "We only use truffle from Alba. If it is a good season, it's not difficult bringing them to Hong Kong. Of course, if there aren't so many in Alba, it becomes a challenge."