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Where’s the beef? Exploring Hong Kong supermarkets.

It’s my third week in Hong Kong, and I’m obsessed with finding out where a girl can get a steak in this town. Now I’m not talking about steaks that come with a hefty price tag at a high end, hotel restaurant. I already know those options exist, and I’m pretty sure those restaurants can provide an experience equal to one in New York or London or Paris. Probably so equal, in fact, that you might forget that you are still in Hong Kong. No, the kind of steak I’m looking for is loved. It is fattened up in a pasture and caressed on a butcher block before being seasoned and seared on a hot grill by yours truly. So why the obsession with steak all of a sudden? I’m in a city full of noodles and dim sum. What’s exactly happening here?

After spending two and a half months in a professional kitchen, I came to Hong Kong with a bag of new tricks. I had the tools, but then when it came time to find the materials, I was left completely out of sorts. The second day I arrived, I went down to the corner shop and grabbed a few breakfast essentials that I was used to having in London -milk, butter, bread, and honey. Being adventurous I went for the Chinese brands. After I tucked into my first plate of toast with tea I noticed something. I felt like I was eating the sponge that sat in our kitchen sink. And the honey was so sickly sweet it actually stung the back of my throat. Not only did all these things not quite gel together as they usually did back home, but I also paid nearly $100 HKD/£8/$12 USD for the lot. The toast debacle showed me that my habits and everything I think I know about food don’t necessarily apply here.

I grew up in the US, a country that provides such abundant sustenance and choice that it’s tough to keep waist lines from expanding to epic proportions. From Costco and Walmart to Whole Foods every kind of food product is available, any time of year. Quality is important, but convenience and abundance are at the consumer core. Then I moved to England. In the UK, every effort is made to support local producers. As you peruse the aisles there are stickers that proudly inform you that the products you’re buying are “British strawberries” and “Welsh lamb”. Heston and Delia and Jamie smile in ads that encourage you to “make the most of the season” and very politely tell you their favourite way to prepare a roast.

Now, I’m in Hong Kong. So far, my impression of this city is one of chaos. If you want to enjoy living here, you have to find the beauty in the madness. Rather deep thinking for a blog post I know, but funny enough shopping for food here is a great example. When I walk into a supermarket, I am instantly slapped in the face with choices. I’ve seen more variety in brands than I have anywhere else in the world. But when I take a closer look, I’m wondering -what exactly are my choices? Hmmm, do I want Jalapeno Cheetos, Cool Ranch Doritos, or Tyrell’s crisps? And over here we have seven kinds of Japanese mayonnaise with MSG! Oh and look, all those American sugar cereals like Lucky Charms, Fruit Loops, and Count Chocula are once again smiling at me in the aisle. Notice a theme here? This is not exactly the way I’ve been eating for the past few years. In fact, when it comes to finding fresh ingredients, I might have to visit three stores before I can find something as simple as a red onion. Sure we have wet markets which have incredibly fresh as well as cheap fruit and veg, but you cannot bank on finding everything you need and you may very well be walking right back into the supermarket anyway.
Which brings me to the second point of supermarket shopping in Hong Kong -there is no rhyme or reason to price or quality. Of course you expect a very high end grocery store to have expensive products. I winced a bit when Tom spent $50 HKD/£4/$6 USD on one bulb of garlic at 360 (Whole Foods). But then what did I find when I went to International, a more modest chain? They were still selling bulbs at $10HDK/£1/$1.30USD a pop. So I think to myself, surely it must be a simple matter of availability? But then a trip to City Super, one of the most expensive stores in the city, and I found four different varieties, one of which was local (a rarity), going for $4HDK/.33p/.50c per bulb. Why this happens, I’m not sure, but I will say it makes it difficult to do “one-stop” shopping.
Which finally brings me to the biggest challenge in this town -finding good quality meat, at reasonable prices. I have not been to the wet markets for meat or poultry yet, and the stores I’ve managed to visit were less than encouraging. I had a rather difficult episode with some chicken I purchased from a supermarket chain called Wellcome. Wellcome looks like a Tesco’s, feels like a Tesco’s, but let me tell you, it’s no Tesco’s. That’s a mega shout out from me, considering I don’t even really like Tesco’s, but I would have given anything to have had a bit of their chicken on that particular evening. I should have just said “no” when I noticed the chicken breasts had a sort of radioactive glow to them. But I thought it better to keep an open mind. Upon opening the package however, the smell was more than just funky. It smelled like a market, and not in a happy, “that’s the smell of fresh blood” way, but instead a more fetid, “it’s been sitting around outside in the sun for a while” way. I won’t bore you with the details of what followed, but basically I found it completely inedible. The taste was similar to that of moth balls and formaldehyde. I am generally not a picky eater, but I could not even start my meal, let alone finish it. When looking at other options, City Super offered one, shrink wrapped chicken breast for $90 HDK/£7/$12 USD. One breast. Finding a non radioactive, not too expensive variety of chicken was quickly turning into a headache.
Along with checking different supermarkets, I was Googling like a maniac. My first criteria was to find something near our neighbourhood. Cost and quality were an equal second. Somehow, we stumbled upon a website called www.meat.com.hk. I don’t know who found it first, but I’ll give Tom credit because I am a loving girlfriend. Rather intrigued, we decided to pay a visit one weekend.
Two blocks from our flat we found an unassuming entrance to an office building that was sandwiched between others just like it. Feeling like we were on a very geeky scavenger hunt, we took the lift up to the second floor and there was the glass door. Giddy from the entire oddity of the situation, we stepped straight through the portal to our possible meat wonderland. I’d like to put this place in the category of the friendly local butcher, but I can’t because nothing is actually “butchered”.
Instead we saw freezer cases that held sealed packs of meat and poultry. Most of the meat was actually imported from Brazil or the US with the only local option being mince pork. I had had enough of chicken and decided to change up the beast entirely. We opted for two, Angus beef, ribeyes at $90 HDK/£7/$12 USD each.
It was fun to pay through a bank-teller like window that looked in on another office. The employees sat at their computers eyeing us curiously, wondering how the hell we had found our way to this. Tom was even so confident as to fill out a membership card which will give us discounts on future visits.
I grilled the steaks the next evening and served them with mash and roasted radicchio (from City Super, of course). I doctored the steaks with some seasoning as I always think frozen meat needs a bit of life added back into it once it reaches room temp. In the end, they were surprisingly good both in flavour and texture. Plus the portions were huge for the price. I did feel a bit odd eating meat from the US in Hong Kong. But I don’t think sustainability is a word that’s really hit this part of the world on a grand scale yet. The other drawback is the thawing time which means it’s not really an option for a last minute meal. But overall, I’d give www.meat.com.hk a thumbs up. The quality is reasonable, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, the location is decent, and if nothing else, it’s a fun experience.

Steak Seasoning

3 cloves grated garlic
a generous amount of olive oil
celery salt
smoked paprika
a pinch of sea salt
fresh black pepper
a pinch of cayenne pepper

Place the steak in a bowl. Don’t go crazy with the spices as you don’t want to overwhelm the steaks. Add about a teaspoon of each unless otherwise indicated. Mix and marinate for at least 30 minutes.

Get the pan smoking hot and sear for 3-5 minutes depending on how thick the meat is plus how bloody you like it. Resist the temptation to flip right away or futz. When finally flipped, the second side will need much less cooking time, 2-4 minutes.

19 Comments

  1. Dan H

    Imported meet from the US, Australia and NZ are usually the better value to taste options in Asia… In the mainland, there are even restaurants that pride themselves on only selling USDA-exported meat. Go figure.
    In Korea, domestic meat is ridiculous price-wise (though absolutely magnificent, almost to the level of Wagyu).

  2. Corinna

    Sounds like you have dropped in on (another) grand adventure. I like your style!

  3. Mr Noodles

    Having always stayed in hotels or with relatives, I've never given much thought about shopping for food in HK. But your experience with HK brands reminds me of my parents – who are very Chinese – as they always take with them breakfast cereal, instant coffee and such like when they go to China and HK. When I ask them why don't they just buy stuff in HK, they say it's not the same as the British stuff even when it's the same brand!

    PS: It's so funny how you guys have signed up to http://www.meat.com.hk! I bet that they're SO bemused that Tom found them and you've signed up as members!

  4. London Chow

    Shopping at HK is always bewildering so much so that we ended buying really little during our previous trip to HK. The saving grace is that we spent our cash eating instead. :)

    Have you tried their dessert stalls? I bet you can't miss their Xu Liu Xiang chain. They're practically everywhere.

  5. Tess

    This is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read, and exactly the type of thing I want to know about other countries. Grocery shopping around the world- you learn soooo much!

  6. hk

    360, citysuper, sogo, oliver's etc are widely known as being pricey and more upmarket. locals usually go to the wet market for fresh produce. personally, my family goes to the wet market in aberdeen which is one of the biggest, which also has a very large park'n shop nearby. it always has great fresh seafood, fruit, veg, and meat. i can see why to foreigners, the wet markets may seem daunting, but the quality of the goods is usually gd, and hygiene standards are very strict. additionally, people end up building up relationships with the sellers as they keep going back to them.
    almost all food in hk is imported. there just isnt enough land to grow the volume of food that is needed. (food from mainland china also falls into this category)
    hope this helps!

  7. sarah

    Hi Jen, thanks for the interesting post. I've recently written about shopping for milk in Hong Kong, because I find it very frustrating to balance environmental impact and health/taste. The nearest grocery store to me is an International (which is owned by Park'NShop). The Aberdeen wet market is a short minibus ride, so I buy my fresh veg there. The Aberdeen Park'NShop is on the same street, and has more selection (and is cheaper) than the International, so I pick up the dry things there.

    Aberdeen wet market has a big meat section upstairs, but I can't rbing myself to buy anything there yet. The meat is on counters with no covering and I find the smell overwhelming. I found that buying frozen chicken (imported) at the International has been good so far. The chilled ones are not that great, as you discovered.

  8. Charmaine

    It's so interesting reading about your experiences, because even though I've lived in HK for nine years of my life (before coming to London), I feel like I don't really know the ins and outs of it when it comes to practicalities anymore, like day to day food shopping. My family relies on wet markets for fresh meat and veg, but for most days when it's too tiring to trek out there, it's our local Park n Shop – it's not bad, and has a pretty good fresh fish counter (as in FRESH – fish swimming in tanks). We hardly ever shop at CitySuper/360 et al as everything is incredibly overpriced, but Jusco and Uny (I think?) are two large supermarket-slash-department stores that we love for quality meats and fruit. Anyways it's all about discovery! :)

  9. G

    "Great" in Pacific Place (Admiralty) is another good choice to shop for groceries for more "western-style" meals. It's on the pricey side, but quality is good, and the selection is better than wellcome/international/parknshop etc.

  10. Jen

    Dan H -although I have the comfort in knowing I can always fall back on the western imports, I am determined to find a really good local option. Wet markets, here I come.

    Corinna -so far, exploring HK is fascinating. You would love it. Perhaps you can talk Will into an "Eastside" family vacation? Or girl trip to HK?

    Mr. Noodles -I think Tom and I both miss the quality and choice of dairy that's available in London. We have been trying to figure out a way to smuggle as much clotted cream back to HK next time we visit the UK.

    London Chow -haven't tried that dessert stall yet, but will definitely keep my eye out for it now. I am in love with egg tarts. Reminds me of childhood.

    Tess -wish you were here so we could tackle the flea market/garage sale type shopping. It must exist, but not sure where. Need help!

    HK and Sarah -I have been wanting to try Aberdeen. I am not very good at planning ahead when it comes to shopping at the moment. We are eating out a fair bit so feel like a big weekend shop might result in a waste of food by the end of the week. I think my main goal right now is to find a decent local (we are in Sheung Wan) for those last minute items. As far a milk, I have stuck to the full fat variety. From your blog post, it sounds like that is the way to go.

    Charmaine -from what people are saying it sounds like we may have to venture further a field for good quality/cheaper products. Will have to try Jusco and Uny too, thanks!

    G -definitely will put Great on the list. Thanks so much!

  11. hk

    Jusco and UNY are REALLY far away from sheung wan as they are in taikoo. Although bigger, and therefore probably have more vareity than Sogo, they sell basically the same things as all three mainly focus on japanese goods. By all means, do go and have a look, but seeing as you are searching for a decent local, they probably won't apply. They are nice for a day out though. If you do go to UNY, try MOS Burgers. Although not the comparable to Goodman's or Byron's in London, I find they are pretty decent for HK.

    I'm not too sure where there is a wet market in sheung wan, but i know for definite that there is one in kennedy town, right next to the public swimming pool which isn't too far away. On Gage St in central there is a park'n shop, which is surrounded by a semi-wet market type shops. If you haven't been yet, go take a look and you will see what I mean. There is a large Park'n shop on bonham rd, and you really do need to find a large supermarket as those are usually the ones with a lot more variety and fresh fish and meat (as charmaine said, swimming in tanks). Hope this helps!

  12. Mochachocolata Rita

    A spot on post…below my flat, there's only a small vanguard and a rather expensive local wet market. Every time I planned a dinner party, I really had to buy my ingredients from everywhere (City Super/Great/PnS/Indonesian specialty stores in CWB/etc etc etc)…arrrghhh. We might as well just go for another hot pot session somewhere in TST eh? ;)

  13. Zoe

    It might seem ridiculous but a lot of people actually have meat and veggies shipped in. We get our meat and seafood from http://www.porterhouse.com.hk/ or http://horizonplazahk.com/ and keep it in a chest freezer. It really comes down to the quality you want from your food. We ate only organic & free range back home and you cannot get that same level of quality in the wet markets. Its the same with eggs. Good quality free range antibiotic free eggs cost a small fortune but we cannot live without them!

    Also, not sure if anyone has mentioned it yet, but a great source for eating out suggestions is http://www.womguide.com/

  14. Jen

    hk -Tom and I have been to the larger supermarkets with the fish tanks, and they are brilliant. The key is finding one that's close. The list is quickly filling up with many destinations to explore.

    Mocha -I definitely need to trade tips with you. Especially want to know if you have a good source for fresh cream (not the UHT version). Love your website. So inspiring.

    Zoe -thanks for the great links! I have a carton of eggs sitting in my fridge from Wellcome that I have yet to open. Might need to get a bit creative. :)

  15. Lizzie

    My grandmother used to take me to the market in Aberdeen – when we'd buy chicken you could select the live one you wanted from the cages and it would be despatched. I suspect that's changed now…

  16. Cynthia

    I'm also a recent transplant in Hong Kong, and I've also found grocery shopping to be a bit exasperating! I've had alright luck with my local large Park n' Shop and Taste (also owned by the Park n' Shop company, something of a cross between a Park n' Shop and a City Super).

  17. Tom

    Lizzie – we haven't been able to face the Aberdeen market yet as it is so hot and humid (and we are so lazy at getting up in time) that we haven't done it. I am still amazed at the fact that they can fillet a fish with the heart still beating and I haven't seen it.

    Cynthia – we have started to get seriously lazy and use City Super wayyyy to much. The Yo Mama froyo shop right buy it helps as well.

  18. Brian

    I found this post while searching for good meats in Hong Kong. Visiting often as someone I’m seeing has been posted here for work. Sounds like a perfect resource for me as I live on the corner of the Wellcome and International supermarkets photographed above. Popped over to meats.com.hk and unfortunately they are under renovation. Had to settle for some steaks from International to pop into the sous vide supreme I picked up here. Fun times.

  19. Hello!
    I am glad that I found this post and your blog! I have just moved to Hong Kong slightly more than a month… as you could imagine, I am still have a lot to learn/find out where to get stuff like meat/poultry.. etc.. I will give this place a try!

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