Is eating out actually the same thing as listening to a story? Many restaurants, in addition to providing food, also offer some kind of experience, and this experience is all about words, literally and figuratively.
For instance, these restaurants advertising that 50% of their ingredients are imported, if they didn’t tell you, would you actually taste it? I don’t intend to challenge onyone’s taste sensitivity, but if even expert wine critics can give absurd answers in blind tests, and say that a bottle of New World wine is from France, how can we trust our own tongue to know the difference between Japanese tuna and Atlantic tuna?
Also, to make things clear, I have no doubt that these restaurants are honest. When the owner of an Italian restaurant claims that all his tomatoes are flown in from his home country, I have no reason not to believe him. I just believe that China can grow good Fuji apples now, and so the relationship between ingredient and origin is not as important anymore. Unless it’s a particularly rare product, most people do not need things to be completely authentic. And anyway, if you can’t taste the difference, why should you only use Greek figs to prepare a Greek dish?
Moreover, in order to be authentic, you often need to sacrifice freshness and quality. For that reason, there’s two schools of thought regarding foreign dishes in Hong Kong: one school sticks to the authentic, ensuring that all ingredients are imported from the proper place of origin; the other school insists on freshness, local production, market product and what not. Most high-end Japanese restaurants take the first approach, and as much as possible avoid fish from the South China sea. Because originally you only eat what’s in season, Japanese cuisine has different charactretistics in each place, and should also have particular features in Hong Kong. The seasonility of Japanese products is completely unrelated to the climate and geography of Hong-Kong, nothing like the strange environment of the North, and as a result, seasonality and freshness are like a fish and bear’s paw, you can’t have both at the same time. All these “seasonal” products were in cold storage on a plane before reaching the consumer’s mouth – and therefore these so-called seasonal products are only seasonal by the powers of imagination.
However, this makes the experience interesting, and the trick of advertising all ingredients as imported becomes an element in the story. Authenticity has always been about story-telling, and is enough to influence the market. If a Japanese restaurant prepares its dishes following pure Japanese cooking tradition, that is not enough, it must still put on display a few authentically Japanese chefs. And if that’s still not enough, they can just fly in a lot of products from Japan to ensure their distinctive authenticity. And as the top-end food market in Hong-Kong makes the same goods available to everyone, it takes more and more effort to present a really unique product. As competitors begin using rice from the best areas in Japan, the next remaining step is probably to fly in the cooking water. And when you reach this point, the story becomes the main element of authenticity, because if you don’t mention it, no-one will notice, but if you say it, you will impress people.
Maybe this is just bluff, because there’s no point of comparison, and without simultaneous tasting, there’s probably no-one who can distinguish the nuances between rice cooked in authentic Japanese water and the average product. However, I can understand the intention behind this stubborn insistance. Just watching the face of the Japanese diners is enough to understand that they don’t care so much whether the products are really fresh and in season, but more that they give them a point of contact with their distant homeland. And they may not actually taste the taste of home, but they will enjoy the nostalgic feeling brought about by the story that it comes from there. Then look at the owner again: he’s not just a smart businessman selling exoticism to local clients, he’s also asserting his own dignity and identity in this noisy city full of unfamiliar languages. So yes, I believe that these chefs and restaurant owners who will trust authentic ingredients from their homeland, and import them at all cost, are all actually taste patriots.