Foraging Hong Kong: Finding wild ingredients in an Asian metropolis

Story highlights

  • Hidden in the urban sprawl of Hong Kong are pockets of plant-rich greenery
  • Foraging enthusiasts can find scores of edible flowers and fruits here
  • Their finds are used to create elaborate dishes in expensive restaurants

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Hong Kong (CNN)We douse ourselves in eco-friendly insect repellant as we stand waiting to cross the busy road in Hong Kong's Kwun Tong district.

We're headed for what Sunny Chan calls the Triangular Oasis, an overgrown clump of green within the concrete, skyscraper-strewn district that's one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
    Sunny Chan in what he calls the "Triangular Oasis."
    At first, it just looks like a few trees and some weeds.
    But as I look closer, guided by Chan's far more experienced gaze, we spot pennywort, Chinese spinach and even, buried in the branches of one tree, pomelo.
    Chan -- who has recorded almost 5,000 entries on, an online project dedicated to mapping biodiversity around the world -- says many Hong Kongers are disconnected from the natural world.
    "A lot of people in Hong Kong, they see nature as an annoyance," Chan says. "They see plants as weeds or complain that insects are a nuisance and ask the government to use pesticides to kill them off."

    Wild Hong Kong

    Plants and fruits foraged in Hong Kong.
    The first thing that comes to most people's mind when they think of Hong Kong is probably skyscrapers, or tiny apartments.
    Yet away from the sprawl, the city has splendid beaches, amazing hikes and more than 150 square miles of protected countryside, about 40% of Hong Kong's total area.
    Because of this, says Wanda Huang of sustainability campaigners GrowingSmart.HK, the city can be a surprisingly bountiful place for wild plants and fruits.
    "There are so many, such a huge range," she says.
    Huang, who grew up in China and Canada before relocating to Hong Kong, is one of the city's leading experts on foraging.
    She provides ingredients such as artillery clearweed, wild pepper leaves, baby garlic, hog plums and elderflower berries to restaurants across the city.
    "She's like an encyclopedia," says Robin Zavou, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.
    Believe it or not, Hong Kong isn't all apartment buildings.

    'An abundance'

    Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong executive chef Robin Zavou.
    Zavou relies heavily on Huang to bring in unique and exciting ingredients for the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurants.
    "We used to get some foraged ingredients coming in from the UK," he says, before they realized how much could be sourced locally.
    "You need to put your shoes on, get out there, and have a look yourself. To actually see that there are so many different things, even on the outlying islands ... there's an abundance."
    Zavou says the current craze for foraged ingredients is largely down to Danish chef Rene Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma was named the best in the world for four of the last six years.
    "Farmer's Hands," a dish created almost entirely using ingredients foraged in Hong Kong.
    "It's about looking at what is around the area and what grows next to each other: pine trees growing next to asparagus, it sort of matches itself together," says Zavou.
    This was the genesis of one of his favorite dishes at the Mandarin -- the "Farmer's Hands" -- which the team makes using foraged ingredients from Cheung Chau, a tiny one square mile island south of Hong Kong, and other outlying areas.
    He says guests are almost always amazed to discover they're eating locally sourced food.
    "I think that more and more now, people are starting to open their eyes a little bit more to Hong Kong produce, instead of what can be shipped across the border or flown in."
    A beef dish at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, topped with foraged flowers.
    Often this can just be reconnecting with practices that go back centuries, says Huang.
    "The older generation, they foraged all the time, it was something that was considered very common," she says.
    "They don't know it's something that's avant garde."
    Often however, this knowledge is not passed on.
    Many younger Hong Kongers are far more familiar with supermarkets and takeout than farming or foraging.
    "There's just a lack of awareness that this is possible," Huang says.