Quarantine In Hong Kong? Stock Up On Best Before’s Chic Emergency Food Supplies
With the fourth wave of Covid-19 raging through Hong Kong, the uptick in cases means it’s back to working from home (if you’re lucky), or even quarantining or self isolating. There's a sense of unsettling deja vu as restaurants limit their tables and hours, bars shut, and residents are encouraged to stay at home and avoid socialising—but like all difficult situations, there are moments of creativity that shine through the darkness. Back in February, we marvelled at the beauty of Apocalypse Kitchen, a unique photography project by food stylist Gloria Chung and photographer Mike Pickles, which took everyday objects and reimagined them as doomsday pantry situations. Now, another creative mind has taken it to a more practical level.
Esther Leung is a media professional living in Hong Kong who saw the rising interest in long-life foods and launched Best Before, a lightly tongue-in-cheek online company promoting well designed and taste tested shelf-stable products that would address any emergency situation where fresh food and deliveries are not an option—including long periods of isolation at home, where perishables are not a long-term solution. The platform mainly features clever products sourced from around Asia, particularly Japan—a country well known for their innovative takes on food and drink and sophisticated emergency food products that were created during times of hardship and war, from instant rice to chewy rice cakes and curry food rations.
We speak to Leung about Best Before and how she sees the appetite for canned and pre-packaged foods—from Danish bread to tinned Bafun sea urchin—take flight in a world where Covid-19 still affects us all.
How did you come up with the concept of Best Before? I imagine it must be Covid-19 related?
When the pandemic broke out in February, panic buying of all sorts of things hit Hong Kong, one of the most wanted supplies was probably toilet paper. Looking at the empty shelves in supermarkets and the fear on people’s faces, I couldn’t help but think: this is probably what the apocalypse looks like. That’s when I started to think of promoting “apocalypse”—rather than facing the fear of death unprepared, why don’t we equip ourselves? We have always asked for a better quality of life, but never prepare for the inevitable end of life. Our Chinese brand name is “Deng Goi” (釘蓋). In Cantonese, it literally refers to closing the lid of a coffin before it is buried, and is used as an alternative way to refer to dying. The English name “Best Before” perpetuates our hope that everyone finds the best of their lives before they “Deng Goi”.
Are you originally in the food business?
I am completely new in the food business! I was actually working in the media industry, so I’m more like in the “promoting apocalypse” business now. Canned food is just our first step. We expect to roll out more survival goods in the future. Why canned food first? Because their designs just look too good and they are so delicious!
Where do you source your products from? What do you look for apart from long use-by dates?
Our current lineup is mainly Japanese products. Japan is quite sophisticated in the field of emergency products, and their flavour usually suits Hong Kong people’s appetite quite well. We always try out every product and only choose those that taste good. We also take the package design into consideration, because we want to let our customers enjoy both the taste and the gorgeous looks of the products.
Canned and pre-packaged food is not normally seen as cool or desirable—how does Best Before change that perception?
Definitely, especially in Hong Kong where canned food is usually seen as food we eat when a typhoon hits. Our attempt to change that perception starts from photo shooting—we show a product and its content as close to reality as possible. If it is still attractive enough to you to buy it, then we have succeeded. We also give some background and stories to our products so the customers know these products are designed specially as an emergency solution to victims of some particular disasters.
For example, Onisi Instant Alpha Rice. Onisi Foods has been developing dehydrated food since 1935. They provided the Japanese army with field rations that just require adding hot water to eat. Post-war Japan also faced a food crisis. In order to maintain public nutrition and extend the shelf life of food, Onisi invented “a food that brought peace”—the instant alpha rice.
What is the most interesting product you’ve come across so far?
The Japanese rice cake, which was invented after the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. Simply pour water to the rice cake, wait 30 seconds, and you will have the gel-like consistency. Chopsticks are included, and flavours include soy sauce, soy flour, and red beans. Personally I am a Japanese rice cake lover, and I am amazed by the consideration of this product: sugar appears to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Therefore, the traditional taste of the rice cake was designed to soothe your heart in case of disaster.
What is the most long-lasting product you’ve come across so far?
Basically all of them can last as long as 5 years.
What kind of long-lasting food product would you dream about creating if you had the opportunity?
Hong Kong-style egg waffles maybe—it would be great if I could have a taste of traditional Hong Kong even when I face disaster.
Tell us what you’d make for breakfast with the current line-up in your shop?
Bread Of Wonder: Bo-Lo’gne, founded in 2003, is a Kyoto bakery specialising in Danish bread. The 81-fold Danish bread that they created has been hailed as the Bread of Wonder. But what’s more fascinating is their Canned Bread—a bread that can last 3.5 years. It comes in three flavours: original, maple syrup and chocolate. Each can consists of 2 pieces of bread. You can even feel the moisture that’s contained so well when you take the bread out.
Custard At Ease: Simply stir and mix the custard powder and water that comes with the package, and there you have a delicious custard. Amidst the despair and exhaustion at the end of the world, some sweet vanilla-flavoured custard can always calm your nerves.
Find out more about Best Before at their website