Mouthing Off
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Hong Kong label chasers lap up luxury food trends: Wagyu, white truffles, Wuliangye

Always keen to try the next new and trendy thing, Hongkongers don’t mind having their egos exploited if it also means proving their crazy rich credentials

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 7:10pm

Hong Kong people want the best of everything and they know the brand names to prove it. From fashion to jewellery to restaurants by celebrity chefs, there is no better way for them to prove their crazy rich credentials than to engage in label chasing.

Bars and restaurant owners are as aware of this tendency as any other type of business. They’re not afraid to exploit our egos by pushing on us their most ostentatious ingredients. After all, Hongkongers don’t just enjoy wearing bling, they like to eat it too.

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When red wine got a little too mass market for the oenophile nerds – I mean, connoisseurs – a snifter of whisky became the routine drink in expensive bars. Trend snobs would boast about single malts, dusty bottles from obscure distilleries, and the impressive number of years their drink was aged in oak barrels. Then, when the oracles of alcohol declared the best stuff was made in Japan, the lemmings started looking eastward.

As that fad plays itself out, booze brands are now pushing other bandwagon products. Have you noticed Chinese baijiu is suddenly being used in more cocktails? I suppose it’s to wean us before suggesting we should do the alcohol in straight-up shots. Once you’re hooked, naturally you’ll want to move some of the whisky bottles to make room in the cabinet for some Mao-tai and Wuliangye.

The same marketing trick happens with food, too. I remember only being able to order buffalo mozzarella in restaurants. Now it’s available in supermarkets, so the fancy trattorias want to sell me burrata instead. Stuffing cream into mozzarella is, of course, more premium and, naturally, pricier. And just like that, mozzarella is relegated to second-class status.

I also remember when Kobe was the best beef you could eat. We were lured with mythic stories about the cows being massaged and fed beer. Then wagyu came along. Even though Kobe is technically a type of wagyu (which means “Japanese breeds of beef”), the label stuck and people who don’t know any better think wagyu is more elevated than Kobe.

As wagyu started selling by the cattle load, producers began raising them in other places. In Australia, it was crossed with cattle breeds like Angus, so wagyu suddenly started appearing in steakhouses and French restaurants. Burger joints used it to make really marbled patties for their luxury sliders. At Repulse Bay’s Fratelli pasta bar, they even have an Italian wagyu beef on the menu. Will a McWagyu be next?

This summer, a hot new beef name arrived in Hong Kong. Elephant Grounds’ pop-up cafe with Japanese brand Wagyumafia introduced us to an HK$800 Ozaki beef sandwich. What is Ozaki? It’s wagyu raised in Miyazaki in southwest Japan, but specifically on a farm owned by rancher Muneharu Ozaki. You want exclusive? Post pop-up, the beef is only available in one Causeway Bay restaurant, Marble.

But the most successfully marketed luxury ingredient in Hong Kong has to be truffles. Around this time every year, restaurants with Michelin stars (or Michelin-star ambitions) will start shaving white truffles all over their dishes for status-seeking diners who essentially tell them, “Here’s my money, please show everyone what a big deal I am.”

We can thank 8½ Otto e Mezzo chef Umberto Bombana for introducing us to this heavenly aromatic fungus; he was using white truffles way back in his days at Toscana, when the Ritz-Carlton was in Central. But his annual Alba truffle auctions are now little more than an excuse for tycoons to compare the size of their … wallets.

As the truffle obsession has grown, the rest of the year we want black truffles from France, Australia and even China. To give the grovelling masses a taste, there are synthetically simulated bottles of truffle oil to use with pizzas and pastas. Personally, too much truffle makes me slightly nauseated, so no thanks to all those eight-course truffle meals so popular in Hong Kong.

I can’t help but buy marked-down food. Sometimes that’s the best stuff

Of course, I say that because I’m broke. If I wasn’t, maybe I would be ordering an Ozaki steak marinated in 30-year-old whisky, topped with burrata, white truffles and plenty of gold leaf.