This recent online chat with Dr Alia Ahmed who is a psycho-dermatologist reminded me about the importance of understanding the underlying factors that drive what and how we eat. Over 200 different factors have been identified which affect what we ‘choose’ but only a handful of these are conscious.
Whilst a lot of these are structural environmental factors such as demographics, housing arrangements, work and commute patterns etc, cultural background is also an important aspect but far less discussed in the same extent in health sciences because it’s hardly quantitative. Broadly speaking, culture is spectrum of ideas which feed into one’s identity and belonging. But culture has so much to do with what we choose to eat.
Food and health are not simple individual choices, nor are they only based on health considerations (as I’d hoped for as a food and nutrition educator). In a city like Hong Kong where the cost for vegetables are low at ‘wet markets’, coupled with a strong local culinary culture on eating fresh foods, access to nutritious foods is also about not having access to a working kitchen for the urban poor.
But I have encountered so many families who wouldn’t visit wet markets to buy fresh foods. I speak as someone who navigates between spaces – as a ‘local’ who recently returned to the city I grew up in, but also one who lives in a mostly ‘expat’ neighbourhood.
First, it’s about the accessibility of local markets which should not be any different to farmers’ market in terms of the freshness, variety and abundance of produce. But the main difference is where these local markets are located – mostly in working-class neighbourhoods – which suggest they only serve the same demographic.
Take Tung Chung for example, the Fu Tung market that I frequent is situated at the Public Housing Estate. There is a small supermarket on the first floor too but the higher-end supermarket Taste is across the foot bridge at the bottom of the glitzy shopping mall. There is a whole issue of rent of course, but also suggests the social gradient when it comes to the patrons of local markets. The idea that it is ‘local’ and ‘wet’ might also be gruesome to those familiar with supermarkets where everything is prepackaged.
Another concern is taste and trust, which are intrinsically linked. I’ve met a family of expat parents who would only feed their children cheese and bread prepared by their nanny/helper.
Contrary to the UK, milk and cheese are all imported as there is no local production – well most of the local milk brands say they are produced in Hong Kong but really it’s reconstituted from milk solids produced on the Mainland. This is why dairy products are on average at least double the cost compared to the UK – say a pint of milk is around 80p. The hard cheeses that are commonly found say cheddar are only available at higher-end supermarkets – the other ones would only stock Kraft slices – and what I thought of cheese for the longest time growing up in Hong Kong.
I have nothing against cheese and bread, but with a food landscape that is so diverse, shouldn’t children and family food have a larger repertoire to only cheese and bread? Unsurprisingly this is not a choice by the children, but driven by their parents’ food preferences. This seems having lived in Hong Kong for so many years, the idea of feeding children becomes what is familiar to them as children.
We also knew another family would only get vegetables imported from Japan because they are considered far better quality. And this mum is not alone, when you see the a sea of ‘plastic modernity’ in one of the more higher-end supermarkets in Hong Kong. Every single vegetable is clingfilmed, and meats/fish are delivered frozen all the way from the US, UK and Europe.
This is often mind-boggling to me because fresh fruit and vegetables do not weather well in transport – and even pre-Covid times, that will be at least half a day in the air, excluding the time to/from warehouses and storage facilities. So when it comes to nutrition, of course this will be not ideal? But nowadays, imported fruit has been so popular at supermarkets, these are all marked with their country of origin as an added label (apart from those imported from China).
In my personal experience, I was gifted with a small box of five Korean peaches which looked really beautiful with their plastic fruit jackets and massive paper box. They do not come cheap – on average £3 for each peach – but unfortunately I had to discard most of them because they turned black the next day and the last one which seems salvageable was black in the middle. How is this of good quality?
We know the idea of what good food is not that straightforward – and very much constructed by whose standards we consider as more superior. This remains a dilemma for many Hong Kong customers who might still have an affection for certain traditional vegetables that are only available from the local market such the lotus root, but nervous about food standards in China, being the primary country where foods (and other goods) are imported into Hong Kong. For some, this is reconciled by delegating their helper to buy foods at the market, or made up by eating out.
The way we feed ourselves and associate ourselves with certain foods has been most interesting to me as a practitioner and researcher. I am taking the advantage of being on this side of the world where ‘wet markets’ are a huge part of the local and shape our foodways – also nutrition. This is why I have started a new series on Instagram called #wetmarketwednesdays to share my experience in buying food at local markets and rethinking how our diet has been shaped by the food retail market.