26 September, 2012

That Girl: Janice Leung, food blogger queen & co-founder of Island East Markets

26 September, 2012

This week’s That Girl is HK’s food blogger queen, Janice Leung (you may know her better as e-ting – and yes, people have thought that was her name!). Janice has just launched an exciting new project as co-founder of Island East Markets, a fantastic weekly organic farmers market in Tai Koo… and the first one is this Sunday!

We chatted with Janice about her fave restaurants in Hong Kong (and the world!), whether you can make a career from food blogging, where to head for the best dai pai dongs and wet markets and what we can expect from the first Island East Market (it sounds awesome!)…

Fill us in on your background…
I was born in Hong Kong, and left at the age of 3 for Sydney then moved to Melbourne when I started primary school. My parents are HK natives, and we moved back here for most of my school years, then I finished high school and went to uni in Melbourne – so I call Melbourne and Hong Kong home.

As a kid my biggest passions were reading and ballet. I wasn’t into food at all, until high school in Melbourne. Because I loved to read anything that crossed my path, I began reading the local broadsheet, The Age. The food reviews caught my eye – a natural sceptic, I questioned if I could really believe what the reviewers were saying, so I felt I had to go try the restaurants myself. Australian food photography is also amazing, so on the whole, food was too sexy to refuse!

Where do you live? How have you made your place your own?
I live in Tseung Kwan O with my fiancé; we intend on leasing the apartment out when we can afford a bigger place, so I haven’t done very much to it at all, except for some small things like getting the kitchen cabinet doors changed (they were a hideous pastel green before!).

Right above my desk, I have a poster of one of my favourite movies of all time, In The Mood For Love, which does a great job at reminding me why I want to bring that slower lifestyle back to Hong Kong, where your neighbours know your name and people bring their own containers for takeaway dinner.

How do you describe your personal style?
My wardrobe is full of things that will get me out of the door ASAP, without so much as looking into a mirror, as I seem to be in a hurry most of the time… and really, I’m just plain lazy! Most things I own are black, navy, white and grey. I like dressing up, but to be honest, I don’t think styling comes naturally to me; if I was a millionaire celeb, one of the first people I would hire full-time is a stylist!

Most days, I just try to look semi-presentable. I go through “uniforms” – combinations that I know will work. Lately, it’s been dark cropped trousers, a loose-ish plain coloured top and ballet flats. I wear ballet flats almost every day – I even have rain shoes that are ballet flats! Dresses are good too – I can just pull them on and go. I particularly like vintage ones for their cutting and cute patterns (check out Me & Gee in Mong Kok). Once it starts to get cool, I basically live in my black leather motorcycle jacket – it goes with everything (almost!).

What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
The Chairman: quite possibly the only high-end Chinese restaurant that doesn’t do abalone, shark’s fin and all that jazz. They source almost everything locally and the owners are passionate foodies. The chefs are just a wealth of knowledge.

Amber: one of my favourite non-Asian restaurants in Hong Kong. Innovative without being weird; refined without the stuffiness.

Borgo C: one of the only restaurants that has been around since the Sai Wan Ho area was re-branded “SoHo East”. This place has staying power because they care about their food as much as your mom cares about yours. You can BYO too.

Butler: finally, a decent cocktail bar (not in a hotel) on Kowloon-side!

Kusuya Rakuen: I’ve always loved the bar seats of this izakaya [a Japanese bar that serves food to accompany drinks]. It’s Okinawa-style, so in my mind, the food is actually more similar to Chinese than it is to Japanese. They also serve awamori, Okinawa’s answer to sake, but it leads straight to a hangover, so I would recommend their cocktails or umeshu (plum wine) instead. I love that you can pop in at midnight and still get the full menu.

Manor: an eerily quiet mid-to-high end Chinese restaurant that does Cantonese classics really well. Their barbecued liver parcels, dubbed “cholesterol sandwiches” are brilliant, as is their crab steamed in Shaoxing wine (The Chairman does a great version too).

For Kee: my all-time favourite HK-style comfort food. Pan-fried pork chop, that’s been marinated in a simple homey marinade of soy sauce, sugar and the like, served on rice. You can have it with veggies, a fried egg, stewed tomatoes – whatever you like! Their milk tea is one of my favourites too – strong, but not too tannic and rather fragrant.

Sister Wah: two words: beef brisket.

This is not really restaurant specific, but one thing I can’t live without is char siu. I’ve had excellent versions all around town, but Dragon King in Kwun Tong and West Villa always hit the spot, and Jade Garden in Star House on a good day is just as brilliant and about half the price of everywhere else!

What are your favourite restaurants in the rest of the world? Do you think HK’s restaurants can compete on an international level?
I might be biased, but I think Melbourne has some of the most amazing food in the world. We have brilliant produce, chefs who know their stuff and great wine to go with it all. My favourites in Melbourne are Cutler & Co. for dinner and Babka for café food, especially their “shoo-fly” buns and French toast made with day-old challah (if you’re lucky). One of the recent “wow” spots from my travels was é by Jose Andres in Las Vegas. (And by the way, Noma, despite being ranked number one in the world three years in a row is not one of my favourites!)

Hong Kong is great for Cantonese, and to some extent, Chinese, food. We have food from all over the world, but relative to the total number of restaurants in HK, not many of them are worth coming to HK for. We need to learn to appreciate what we have here, both culturally and agriculturally, before we can call ourselves a world city.

What are the must-visit places and experiences you would recommend to all HKers?
The Star Ferry. Everything else depends on your preferences but the Star Ferry is just divine. It reeks of engine oil, but that’s part of the charm. I don’t want to sound like the Tourism Board, but our harbour view seriously kicks most cities’ up the backside!

What inspired you to start Island East Markets? What can we expect from the first one on 30 September?
The inspiration was simple – pure need. I wanted to buy some local organic produce and the biggest market for them was in Tai Po. That’s more than an hour from where I live! I was very surprised that there was nothing like it in a more central area (aside from the tiny stalls at Central Pier 7) so rather than whinge about it, I thought it was time to just do it!

I was also in contact with my now-partner in the market, Vincent Poon, who has been doing food events in collaboration with the HK Tourism Board. Originally, I’d pitched a one-off organic food event to him, but then as we were brainstorming, it made sense to make it a permanent part of a community.

We’ll have over 40 stalls, 20 of which will be local organic farmers, and the other 20 are a mix of excellent F&B stands  (sandwiches, coffee etc.) as well as local design and crafts, vintage, healthy snacks, wine, jams and so on. There’ll be entertainment for kids and adults alike, such as face painting and cooking demos. We’ll also have a neat seating area so you can kick back with your sarnie and watch a local band or two.

In what other ways can we support local farmers?
Order directly from farmers who provide that service, visit the farms and learn about farming in Hong Kong, give the farmers feedback about their produce, and help spread the word that we have great veg, fruits, herbs and more grown locally. It’s not hard, really!

Is it possible to make a career out of blogging in HK? How do you balance blogging with your other commitments?
If a career means earning an income directly off a blog, then no, I don’t think it’s possible in food blogging here – at least the way I do it. I’ve always stressed that I will only write what I want to write on my blog – it’s my “temple to foodie-dom”. I don’t have to worry about style guides, being completely fair, explaining things that can’t be explained so easily – basically, I can be myself. That doesn’t always bode well with brands, and thus I won’t be becoming a blogging magnate anytime soon! That said, the blog and other social media outlets have often led directly to proper paid work, be it writing for consumer publications or copywriting for private clients. These have come to me I suppose, because I’ve been able to express my love for, and focus on food on the blog.

The blogging scene here is small and heavily PR-driven. I hope there’ll be more blogs where people feel comfortable expressing their true opinions. The majority of media here is Chinese, so most bloggers are Chinese, and I think it’s in their mindset to do right by everyone.

My schedule is ridiculous but I love it. I always want to do everything at once, so I’m probably not the best person to ask about “balance”! I rely heavily on Google calendars.

What kitchen essentials should we always have stocked up in our pantries?
I suppose if you’re in HK and want to at least attempt Chinese food – light soy sauce! (A good one though, from Kowloon Soy Sauce Company, Pat Chun or Yuan’s.) I also always have plain flour and spelt flour, and a couple of blocks of butter as well as eggs. The urge for baking strikes at the most uncanny of moments.

Which are the best wet markets around town?
Graham Street in Central but also Shau Kei Wan and Yau Ma Tei around Reclamation Street. A lot of people like Kowloon City (for good reason, there are some great organic farmer’s stalls there and out-of-this-world tofu just beside the market building) but if you’re not careful, things can be overpriced.

So few archetypal HK dai pai dongs remain; where can we go to get a taste of true HK?
A note about dai pai dongs: their licenses were originally issued to civil servants who could no longer work for the government, perhaps due to a disability. It was a way for them to earn a living and raise their families, but it was expected that the second generation would go onto other jobs, and the streets would eventually be cleared of hawkers. Of course, it’s become part of Hong Kong now, and there have been petitions by individual stallholders to pass their licenses onto their heirs, though thus far, this seems to be on a case-by-case basis. The Hong Kong government is very sensitive to public opinion, but in my opinion, they never seem to do very much!

For a true taste of HK from that era, the dai pai dongs on Graham Street are great, but I also like the covered ones, like the little Reclamation Street Temporary Cooked Food Centre in Yau Ma Tei – it’s a Hong Kong you hardly ever see. Most street hawkers are now inside the cooked food centres in municipal buildings; Tung Po in North Point is perhaps the most famous, but I also like Lee Heung and Shui Kee in the Sheung Wan Municipal Building.

What do you think is the key to being happy in HK?
Having the courage to find your place in a city that seems to loves all things brilliant and shiny, but most of all brilliant shiny cookie-cutters. The great thing about Hong Kong is that if you put your mind to something and take the initiative, it can be done. The success of that endeavour relies on many things, of course, but there are very few barriers to entry. The scariest barrier is the one you’ve built yourself.

All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at [email protected].

Check out the rest of our That Girls here!

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