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Raised in Melbourne, Janice Leung Hayes returned to her hometown in Hong Kong over a decade ago as a food and travel writer and has built an impressive résumé. Her work has featured in the South China Morning Post and local society mags, as well as international publications like Monocle and The New York Times. She was the founder of Tong Chong Street Markets, the popular Sunday gathering of local organic farmers, culinary entrepreneurs and sustainable retailers in Taikoo Place. Passionate about food production, Janice runs farmers’ markets under her social enterprise Honestly Green, which aims to keep Hong Kong informed on food sustainability by cutting through the hype and looking at food with a more evidence-based approach.

Sounds like an intimidating lunch companion, but Janice is known for her niceness in a famously bad-tempered industry. She’s soft-spoken, usually just chooses to let her diverse portfolio of projects speak for her, and we can happily geek out on a well-thought-out menu, food history and language. We both studied linguistics in university, are a part of Little Adventures in Hong Kong, where we design and lead custom food tours, and just spent a couple of weeks eating and drinking in Italy.

Janice and Johannes indulge in some siu mai

So I started our lunch at Tien Yi with a ‘How was your Italian summer?’ We picked the spacious, circular Cantonese restaurant as we were both uncharacteristically craving dim sum after our time in Europe.

Tien Yi is known for seafood specialties like abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw, but Sunday lunch means yum cha. As Hongkongers, we don’t stop merely at dim sum, which are considered snacks – we finish with fried rice or a noodle dish, plus a plate or two of greens in this health-conscious era.

There were the usual suspects of har gau and siu mai, the latter topped with crab roe, encircled with a thin wheat wrapper.

‘Pasta was out of this world, but I do miss my Cantonese ravioli,’ muses Janice in reference to the trip. We’d both been on a wine tour, Janice starting off with Sicily, Sardinia, then Piedmont. I’d missed her by a day as I joined in Tuscany, including Janice’s team at Capsule48, then made my way down to the Aeolian islands and Sicily with part of the group.

The table is populated with favourites

When I asked about her favourite part of the trip, Janice enthused about Tenuta Regaleali, an idyllic agriturismo. But Regaleali meant staying at the farm house resort of Alberto Tasca, an actual Sicilian count whose family has made Sicilian wine for eight generations. Rough-hewn stone walls of bright blue jut out against 550 hectares of rolling fields — citrus trees, olive groves and vineyards.

‘I was just so excited about a working farm on their family property, the orchards, and that gorgeous vegetable and herbal garden, all working on organic principles,’ beams Janice.

Indeed, the immaculately manicured parts of the vegetable garden and vineyards were shockingly bucolic, with strategically placed couches, benches and swings under the shade of leaves to lounge on for your picture-perfect farm Instagram shot.

‘It was just so lovely; we woke up and milked the sheep with their shepherd. Breakfast afterwards included fresh ricotta made from the milk we just got from the sheep, still warm.’

The two reminisce about farm-to-table dining in Italy

We both raved at how we finally tasted zucchini for the first time in our lives, realising that the summer squash actually packs a lot of flavour. Absorbing all that Mediterranean sunshine in fertile Sicilian soil seemed to have granted unearthly sweetness to the zucchini grown there. Even the courgettes in France seem to pale in comparison to the ones from Sicily.

‘Did you try the pasta soup at Regaleali, with the delicate zucchini shoots?’ Janice asks. ‘It was phenomenal.’ I had to agree. My first taste of tenerumi, the tender tendrils and leaves of the native zucchini, made into a simple green soup and sprinkled with local pecorino, was after a two-hour drive from the coast to the centre of Sicily. That green pasta soup was everything – very reminiscent of comfort food to this Asian stomach.

We were told that zucchini were rinfrescanti (refreshing for the body), similarly to all the bitter gourd and winter melon that the Cantonese consume during the summer, considered leung (cooling). Although Hong Kong is not blessed with the climate and farmland of Sicily, traditional foodways still pack a lot of wisdom in eating with the seasons for optimal health.

Johannes Pong lunches at Tien Yi

Italian diversion done, it’s back to the food at hand!

For veggies, we ordered bamboo pith, recognised as a healthy delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Rich in protein and dietary fibre, the antimicrobial and antioxidant (‘heat-clearing’) properties of bamboo pith are well known. Contrary to its name, the crunchy sponge-like fungus is not the pith of the bamboo plant. It’s a mushroom with a lacy, net-like veil that grows inside or outside rotting or reasonably healthy bamboo around Southern China, although diners nowadays are getting bamboo pith that’s commercially grown on sawdust. When cooked, bamboo pith retains its earthy crunch, but because of its porous consistency it absorbs any flavour it’s cooked in. We enjoyed this version, flavoured with thick slices of umami-laden Chinese ham.

‘There are so many parallels in Italian cooking with Chinese cuisine, like pairing mushrooms with this intense Parma-like ham,’ muses Janice. Indeed, we may not have mind-blowing zucchini, but we can’t help but think that Italians would enjoy the unique texture of bamboo pith, whether it’s harvested in the pristine forests of Yunnan or sawdust-grown on a farm.