How Western restaurants in Asia are catering for Hong Kong palates
Hong Kong restaurants such as The Pawn, Catalunya, and Aberdeen Street Social serve European-inspired menus with Asian influences
When the team behind MeatLiquor, the food truck turned gourmet burger chain, opened their first outlet outside Britain in Asia this summer they knew their signature, Dead Hippie, would be on the menu. But alongside the various burgers for which they've become known they also introduced new dishes not seen in their British venues.
Sambal wings (chicken wings glazed in house sambal sauce) is a dish inspired by the cuisine in MeatLiquor's new locale, Singapore. Sambal, made from a base of chilli and variously shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, spring onions and vinegar (depending on the region and the cook) is a staple across Southeast Asia.
"It's an homage to sambal, it's our take on it," says co-founder Yianni Papoutsis.
The sambal also tops French fries (along with a fried egg and crispy onions) at MeatLiquor, which might be seen as a potato-based version of the Indonesian nasi goreng. In another twist, Papoutsis and his partner Scott Collins have put sambal wings and fries on the menu of their Covent Garden, London outlet.
MeatLiquor is the latest Western restaurant to localise its menu in Asia. The Pawn in Hong Kong, revamped last year with British chef Tom Aikens brought in to consult, touts a British/Western menu but includes Asian-influenced dishes.
"Because I wanted to bring what I'm doing in the UK to Hong Kong, I really tried to stick to my cooking philosophy and recreate some of my classics here. Having said that, with different palates and with Hong Kong being such a vibrant culinary region, I have started experimenting with Asian ingredients, which I use in some of the more refined dishes on the menu," says Aikens.
"Whenever I'm in Hong Kong, I try and eat locally as much as possible, exploring new flavours which I take back with me for inspiration. The great thing about coming to work in different countries is it opens up a whole new scope of ingredients and cooking methods."
One example is soy marinated tuna tartare. "That was about using lots of different Asian flavours and tastes that work well together, like sesame and soy," says Aikens.
Among the modern European dishes for which Aberdeen Street Social is known is a "Peking duck" salad on the Bar & Bistro menu. Executive chef Chris Whitmore says: "We were looking to expand the salad selection on our all-day menu. Knowing that duck is popular in Hong Kong, we thought it would make a nice addition as a starter or sharing dish. It's now one of our most popular items that guests often come back for."
The duck is marinated for 24 hours with rock salt, thyme, bay leaves, rosemary, garlic and white peppercorns. The roasted duck is tossed with a Western/Asian hybrid of rocket, spring onions, bean shoots, coriander, shitake mushrooms, toasted sesame seeds, and cucumber. "Guests then add the house-made hoisin sauce themselves," says Whitmore. "It's a carefully curated combination of soy, hoisin, honey, rice wine vinegar, dry shiitake mushrooms and sesame oil."
At Catalunya, head chef Josep Casas Freire says Asian influences are deep rooted in his country's cooking. "Oriental flavours have influenced Catalan cuisine for many centuries. A number of the signature ingredients used in Spanish dishes come from Asia. With our tapas, we try to emphasise the flavour, ingredients and techniques from both worlds."
These include sweet and sour pork ribs. "We bring the ribs from Spain and combine with a quince paste, cooking them for eight hours at a low temperature, creating a sweet and sour flavour. With this dish we tried to bring a signature ingredient of Spain and adapt it to Hong Kong tastes."
A new addition this month is scallop empanadilla in black garlic cream, which resembles a Chinese dumpling. "The concept of the empanadilla is used in many cuisines all over the world. We combine it with Asian ingredients like black garlic, which balances the flavour and helps to emphasise the taste of the foie gras and scallops from Europe. For the presentation, we took inspiration from Chinese dim sum."
When Sean Mell joined Nobu at the InterContinental in March as executive chef he devised dishes exclusively for Hong Kong, including foie gras bao with pickled cherries. "The dish was inspired by the pork cha siu bao. It's meant to mimic the flavour and texture of the original dish, but recreated my way," says Mell.
"With the cha siu bao, you have rich pork that's cooked with hoisin and oyster sauce, then you have soft bread. For the foie gras bao I use the rich flavour of foie gras combined with a sweet onion soy sauce with the soft toasted bao. I add the pickled cherries and sakura relish to cut through the richness of the foie gras and to rejuvenate the palate."
At the other end of the spectrum, the fast-food sector has long been localising its menus. KFC was the first to recognise the importance of adapting to tastes in Asia, serving bowls of fish ball soup and congee alongside buckets of fried chicken in its China outlets.
McDonald's followed suit, introducing teriyaki and chicken katsu burgers in Japan, bubur ayam McD (chicken strips in rice porridge) in Malaysia and McSatay burgers in Indonesia. McRice - using rice cakes instead of buns - is popular in Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia. McDonald's in India doesn't serve beef or pork, but instead offers the Maharaja Mac with chicken. The chain has also upped its vegetarian options, including McAloo Tikki and McSpicy Paneer wraps. During Lunar New Year, the Prosperity Burger (two patties in black pepper sauce) is a familiar sight at McDonald's outlets on the mainland and in Hong Kong.
Latest additions at KFC include umadare (a "Japanese-inspired: tangy yet savoury sauce") and yeng yem ("Korean - sweet and spicy") wings served in a bento box with a mound of rice in Singapore and masak merah rice wraps in Malaysia.
Chefs in Hong Kong say their creations not only adhere to local tastes but are driven by the competitiveness of the dining scene here. Says Nobu's Sean Mell: "Hong Kong is a city that will push you to do more. I feel like you always have to create something that will intrigue customers to come in, and even more so to keep them coming back."