Rubin Verebes is the managing editor of Foodie and is very opinionated. Transforming his hobby of eating and drinking into a career, he shares his account of Hong Kong’s F&B scene and the worldwide state of dining in Rubin’s Take, a monthly opinion column.
In 2009, my family and I emigrated to Hong Kong, entering a world of food. Aside from familial obligations to eat vegetarian, kosher, and pescetarian diets throughout my life, my diet has become much more exploratory since I returned home to Hong Kong in 2021.
Beyond Hong Kong’s magnetism towards strong Chinese, Italian, French, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese flavours, two regions of the world are missing from our palate: rich and multidimensional Africa and South America.
Growing up and residing in Hong Kong, I have never had the opportunity to savour Ethiopian injera, South African braai, Venezuelan arepas, Brazilian brigadeiros, Chilean cazuela, Kenyan ugali, or Cuban plátanos fritos.
Can the claim that Hong Kong is an international dining destination, competing with the likes of London and New York, be overstated when a third of all countries and a quarter of the world’s population’s food are not properly represented on our streets?
According to OpenRice and Tripadvisor, there are approximately 11 African restaurants in Hong Kong, including one Moroccan, two Egyptian, three South African, one Ghanaian, and four pan-African restaurants.
There are only 17 South American restaurants based in Hong Kong, including two Brazilian, four Peruvian, 10 Argentinean, and one pan-South American restaurant.
With the number of licenced restaurants in Hong Kong totalling 18,002 as of late November 2023, the count of African and South American restaurants is nothing more than a drop in the bucket, and that’s a big shame.
For chefs to serve authentic cuisine in Hong Kong, they must come to the city and import their local know-how and recipes. No definitive statistics exist to count the populations of Africans and South Americans in Hong Kong, however, the 2021 census estimates that approximately 3,000 Africans and 1,000 South Americans reside in the city.
Can a historical lack of African and South American trade, familial connections, and relations with Hong Kong explain the lack of restaurant offerings? It is possible.
It could be argued that African and South American cuisines are not suited to Hong Kongers who have never travelled long distances to sample these delicacies. Hong Kong only operates two non-stop flights to Addis Ababa and Johannesburg and none to the entire continent of South America.
The lack of culinary transfer between the city and these two regions makes it difficult to import recipes, source ingredients from abroad, and entice chefs to Hong Kong.
But don’t let the situation distract you. The rare presence of a few strong African and South American restaurants has had a key effect in highlighting the strengths of the regions.
Hong Kong lacks proper representation from Africa and South America – can these two chefs make the city truly international?
Chef and founder Agustin Balbi of Andō innovates at his one-Michelin-starred restaurant to promote regional and Argentinian fare using familiar Japanese techniques. Chef Ricardo Chaneton of MONO is seeking to bring the power of Latin American cuisine to the world stage.
“I took the risk to [cook] Latin American cuisine [in Hong Kong],” says Ricardo in a phone interview with Foodie. “Nobody in Asia is doing it at the same level that we are. We didn’t know if [MONO] is something that people like because [Asia] doesn’t have a reference [for South American] food.”
Ricardo laments the South American chefs who typically cook cuisines detached from their home region when based in Europe or Asia. “I want to bring the Americas to Asia and represent Latin America in a more elevated way, educating our guests about Latin American flavours, culture, and ingredients in an elegant manner and with a certain approach to local palates.”
The Venezuelan chef points to the success of Latin and South American fare in Asia with the newly opened Chilean restaurant Araya in Singapore and one-starred Argentinian fine-diner ZEA in Taipei, run by Ricardo’s former sous-chef, Joaquin Elizondo.
Opening MONO in Hong Kong in 2019, Ricardo’s mission was simple: “I want to show people how fun the mix between Latin America and Asian flavours can be.”
With the buzz of Hong Kong’s South American dining scene lighting up in the 2020s, the city’s African spotlight grows every year. Dining venues include the new Kaazi Restaurant & Bar, an elegant South African eatery, Africa Coffee & Tea in Wong Chuk Hang, monthly pop-up dinners at the Africa Center Hong Kong in Jordan, and Tsim Sha Tsui’s Ghana Locals.
African-fusion restaurant Paul’S Kitchen in Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui is one of Hong Kong’s most prominent venues, serving an East-meets-Africa menu beloved by adventurous gourmands and locals.
Selina Ip and her husband Gerlado Paul founded their humble kitchen in 2014 in a bid to promote Paul’s Ghanaian heritage. “We began serving traditional Ghana recipes out of one shop, but have since expanded and changed the direction of our restaurant,” Selina states.
“Ghana has a lot of great ingredients. From a business point of view, if we were to only serve traditional Ghanaian cuisine, we would limit ourselves in Hong Kong. The market is too narrow for African food; that’s why we include Eastern and fusion dishes to attract the local market.”
With dishes on the menu such as African beef kebab, plantain with beans, Mrs Paul braised oxtail, and jollof rice, the couple bring African herbs and ingredients to the local palate, enabling them to expand their reach and promotion of great African flavours.
“Hong Kongers always travel and seem very open, but on the other hand, they can be very conservative,” she says. The couple are persistent in promoting a missing continent in Hong Kong’s dining scene.
To compete with local giants Singapore, Tokyo, and Bangkok for a piece of the Asian tourism pie, Hong Kong needs to position itself as a hub for international dining on par with world food capitals like London and New York.
Can Hong Kong be an international dining city with a relatively small pool of African and South American restaurants, when those regions making up a third of all countries in the world? Yes and no.
The existence of the few but great African and South American restaurants and chefs in Hong Kong ensures that the topic remains in the public gastro discourse, but more needs to be done to convince me that Hong Kong beats its international competitors on the basis of how international we truly are.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author’s and do not represent or reflect the views of Foodie magazine.