Kitchen Confidential: Janice Leung-Hayes, food writer and founder of H - Profood Limited
  • Kitchen Confidential: Janice Leung-Hayes, food writer and founder of Honestly Green

This month, we’re launching a new series of Kitchen Confidential interviews here at Profood, where we’ll be chatting all things culinary with some of the leading lights of Hong Kong’s food scene – and who better to kick things off than one of the city’s top food writers, Janice Leung-Hayes!

In addition to being something of an authority on Hong Kong cuisine – she’s written on the subject for the likes of the New York Times, South China Morning Post, Eater and of course, on her own blog e_ting, plus takes guests on food tours around the city for Little Adventures Hong Kong – Janice has channelled her passion for ethically-sourced, locally-grown food into creating Honestly Green, a social enterprise that sees her co-organise various farmers’ markets around town, including the immensely popular Tong Chong Street Market in Quarry Bay. We take a delve into Janice’s pantry and discover how she got into writing, what she loves eating and what are some of her favourite farmers’ market finds.

Tong Chong Street Market’s current farm stand at Taikoo Place, which is running every Monday-Friday until the end of September - Tong Chong Street Market. 

How did you get into writing and blogging about food?

Back in the early 2000s, blogging was the “hot new thing” and I just jumped on that bandwagon like every other kid. Coincidentally, I’d just moved back to Melbourne then and was learning to live more independently, including cooking and eating by myself. I began documenting what I ate – more specifically, I began imitating the writing styles of well-known food reviewers in the newspapers, as a way of experimenting with the form – and that eventually grew into an almost obsessive interest in food itself.

My family and friends got wind of my blogging antics, and one of my cousins referred me to the editors of a new magazine in our community in suburban Melbourne, and I got a restaurant column there. As for writing professionally – one summer when I was back in Hong Kong, I got an internship with LUXE City Guides and after graduation was offered a full-time position. I was there for around five years and then I decided to freelance, concentrating on food.

Tell us a bit more about Honestly Green; what inspired you to start it?

Honestly Green looks at food holistically and critically, at the junction of people, planet, technology and business, to create a better food system for Hong Kong – such as promoting the work of our city’s very own farmers. I think starting Honestly Green was a need rather than a result of inspiration – it’s unbelievable that no-one knew we had farmers in Hong Kong. Local food is an essential part of any food system, and the fact that we, as a city, had forgotten that is alarming.

Locally-grown strawberries at Tong Chong Street Market.

I feel like some people would be surprised at the number of fruit and vegetables that are grown locally here – what have been some of your favourite market finds?

Strawberries are definitely the most surprising to people, and they’re also the tastiest, in my opinion. They come into season during Hong Kong’s winter (around December to January), which adds to the confusion. They’re amazing – much better than the overpriced stuff at supermarkets, because the local ones are ripened on the vines, which makes a world of difference when it comes to flavour. When they’re in season, the entire market smells divine.

Where do you shop for ingredients in Hong Kong?

I’m a big fan of HKTV Mall – they have a decent range of responsibly sourced fish, meats and meat substitutes. I get most of my vegetables and fruits from local farmers when our markets or farm stands are open.

Janice meets Yip Tin of Yuan’s, a Hong Kong condiments producer famed for their Royal Soy Sauce.

What are some of your pantry essentials?

As someone who grew up on Cantonese food, soy sauce is essential. I always have at least three bottles – dark, light and “first-press” soy sauce. Oils and fats are also key; I have rice bran or grapeseed oil for general purpose cooking, a good olive oil for finishing and butter, which is good for just about anything! I cook very simple dishes at home, so I’m always looking for flavour shortcuts – red miso is my go-to for most savoury dishes, as well as dried shiitake. I keep a small selection of pretty traditional Chinese dried foods at home, like goji berries, red dates, apricot kernels (aka Chinese “almonds”) and Job’s tears (coix seeds). Staple foods like rice – I rotate between short grain white, brown, red and wild rice – noodles and pasta are always on stand-by, and in the fridge I’ll have eggs and vegetables on hand for a simple meal. 

Locally grown veggies at TCS Market.

What’s your go-to recipe to throw together when you want an easy, satisfying meal?

I’m a really lazy cook, so I prefer to do everything in one pot (or pan). When I’m cooking for myself, I do a version of claypot rice – basically cooking rice in a heavy pot, and when the rice is just about ready, adding whatever proteins and vegetables I have on hand. When I’m cooking for two, my go-to is probably salmon en papillote – you just wrap the fish in foil and pop it in the oven – it doesn’t really get much simpler than that!

What are some of your go-to food resources?

It’s worth having physical copies of classic reference books like Larousse Gastronomique, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, and A Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander. Columns by the late Hong Kong writer Mong-yan Chan are a treasure trove of Chinese food knowledge – his columns and recipes have now been published as books, albeit in Chinese only. As for websites, I find Food52’s recipes quite useful, and for local restaurant news, I read Hong Kong Tatler Dining and Eat and Travel Weekly (in Chinese).

What are some of your earliest food-related memories?

My earliest (good!) food memory was probably successfully stealing M&Ms from the top of the fridge while my mum was cooking dinner – I wasn’t supposed to have snacks before a main meal!

Traditional date pudding at Seventh Son 

What are your five favourite restaurants in Hong Kong?

Kin’s Kitchen, Seventh Son, Happy Paradise, Serge et le Phoque and Caprice Bar.

 Janice takes Little Adventures tour guests for some of Hong Kong’s quintessential char siu rice.

A friend who’s never visited before is in Hong Kong for 24 hours – what are the quintessential HK eats?

Char siu at Fu Sing, wonton noodles at Mak’s on Wellington Street, and a Hong Kong-style milk tea with a pastry (like an egg tart or pineapple bun) at Honolulu.

 Dessert at Alinea in Chicago, one of Janice’s favourite food cities.

What are some of your favourite food cities in the world and why? Any particular must-visits in those destinations?

Melbourne, where I lived and first found a love for food, is an amazing food city. It’s home to Queen Victoria Market, the oldest market in Australia, and the various immigrant populations have created a diverse and ever-creative dining scene; the produce and wine in the surrounding region is superb. I’ve also recently fallen in love with Chicago – it’s a great restaurant city and I think envelope-pushing chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea have given confidence and motivation to other chefs to do their own thing, and at a high level. Malaysia, in particular Penang and Malacca, has food that just explodes with flavour – I personally love Peranakan food, which is from that region, and think that everyone needs to get with the program!

Janice’s tallow doughnut at Smyth.

What was your last mind-blowing dining experience?

At Smyth in Chicago, where I was served a brioche that was deep fried in tallow and made to be dipped into beef jus – one of just many other courses that delighted and surprised. It was also fantastic to know that they work closely with one farm. The food was unquestionably high-end, and the whole experience was seamless and professional, but it was the opposite of pretentious – exactly how “fine” dining should be.

Who inspires you in the food scene and why?

Anyone working to change perceptions about local and sustainable food systems – it’s still an uphill battle, because we as a society are so used to cheap, abundant food. It’s quite difficult for people to see that food issues are much more pervasive than we think; public health, the economy and the environment are all directly affected by the food choices we make.

Locally grown pineapples at TCS Market.

Locally grown tomatoes at TCS Market.

What are some of the easiest, small changes that Hong Kongers can make to lead a more sustainable lifestyle food-wise?

Buy local. Markets, farm stands and online shops all sell local produce now – it takes a bit of getting used to because it won’t be in your local supermarket or even wet market sometimes, but try and make it a new habit. The rewards are worth it, I promise! Also, stop using single-use plastic. Bring your own bag when shopping for food (especially those small thin bags often used for produce or bread rolls), say no to plastic straws (just drink without a straw or bring your own reusable one) and ask for a drink to stay rather than to go (or bring your own to-go cup).

Any predictions for the next food trends to hit Hong Kong – and any trends you would like to see the back of?

Food trends are hard to predict but I think a few things on the rise are good quality Taiwanese food, and minimal yet delicious cocktails. I also think more restaurants will make sustainability a core part of their operations, for instance by having food waste treatment processes and good filters for drinking water instead of selling bottled water. I would like to see the end of pointless adornments like gold leaf, but somehow I doubt that will end soon!

Janice in Tallin

What’s next for Honestly Green?

We’re continuously finding more ways to make local food accessible, be it online or offline – there’s a lot to do!

Keep up to date on when and where the next Honestly Green farmers’ markets are on their Facebook Page.

All food photos by Janice Leung-Hayes

About The Author

Rachel Read is a freelance writer, editor and blogger with over a decade’s worth of media experience under her belt. In addition to co-founding writing & editing agency Editors’ Ink and writing her own lifestyle and beauty blog Through The Looking Glass, Rachel is a food lover whose job frequently involves checking out the latest restaurant openings in Hong Kong – yum! Follow her on Instagram for #foodporn aplenty.

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