Every morning I walk past the small, family-run seafood stores of Sheung Wan jammed packed with dried delicacies from the sea. Under harsh fluorescent lights, glass jars proudly display larger than life sea cucumber and abalone whilst fish maw dangles from the ceiling. The smell that wafts onto the street is pungent and distinct. Most days, I’m intrigued and intimidated in equal measure. That is, until recently when I mustered up the courage to enter Tung Hing Tai Kee, one of the oldest dried seafood stores in Hong Kong.
Located on Des Voeux Road West near the Sai Ying Pun boarder, Tung Hing Tai Kee has been trading for 97 years and, much like the dried seafood industry itself, has survived a formidable amount of challenges. Over the past century, two world wars disrupted trade routes and demand as the country struggled with recessions. In the last couple of decades a shift to fast-food threatened to make dried seafood not only irrelevant but worse of all, uncool. And finally, since the Chinese handover, gentrification has pushed out stores to a handful of remaining neighbourhoods.
Yet unphased is Mr Leung: proud proprietor, dried seafood guru and passionate tradition-keeper. In fact, he’s optimistic. Starting at the tender age of 14 as an apprentice to his father, Mr Leung has been in the game for 60 years and has seen it all. As we chatted away with the help of a trusty translator, the store was filled with elderly ladies stocking up in preparation for their new year feasts. He told me some have been frequenting the store since before he was born; initially as toddlers accompanying their grandparents and now as seasoned customers themselves. However his optimism is driven by a new breed of customers who are flocking to this store. It seems that the young, upwardly mobile Hong Konger’s obsession with food spans far beyond the new fancy Michelin-starred restaurants and trendy hipster joints. More than ever, young Hong Konger’s are being drawn to their roots including their ancestor’s love affair with dried seafood, experimenting with traditional dishes at home.
Image: Mr Leung’s love of tradition sees him maintain his accounts in thick books written in Chinese calligraphy.
“Hong Kong is changing rapidly and traditions are being lost, many young people see this as a simple way of maintaining a link to our heritage. The elderly enjoy showing the younger generation how to incorporate the ingredients into everyday cooking. It gives them a point of connection” - Mr Leung.
I was inspired. Browsing the store, I asked Mr Leung what I’d most likely enjoy and what on earth I could make that wasn’t completely beyond my culinary limits. He shook his head empathically and selected five of his most ‘gwelio-friendly’ ingredients whilst his business partner walked into a back room and surfaced carrying a dog-eared note book filled with family recipes. My translator copied out the carefully chosen selection whilst I was invited to eat lunch out back with the staff. Mr Leung’s chef had prepared a feast of dried mushrooms, oysters and sea cucumbers stewed in thick sauces and vegetables. I sat down on a cardboard box, amongst his team and a wandering ginger cat, took a deep breath and tucked into a sea cucumber smothered in sauce. The verdict? Unexpectedly delicious.
Dried Seafood: A Very Brief History
Popular in southern coastal Chinese provinces with a strong fishing industry such as Ganghzou and Hong Kong, drying was a perfect way to preserve and extend the shelf-life of fish. For many years fish was the dominant product in stores. However, as disposable incomes grew, the focus shifted to seafood which is sold and bought in “Catty” (1 Catty is equivalent to approximately 600 grams). Free from preservatives and additives, good old-fashioned natural sunshine is the only ingredient used in the drying process. In fact, it preserves flavours so effectively and efficiently that it has gone unchanged in centuries. The drying process concentrates the flavours of the produce so expect items like dried oysters and abalones to pack quite a punch! According to Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM), many of the products are considered to have health benefits so incorporating them in everyday cooking is considered a way to maintain good health.
Top 5 Recommended Delicacies for Beginners
Giogi or Wolf Berries
- Where does it come from? China (Ning Xiang)
- Why eat it? Potent source of vitamin A and rich in antioxidants, in fact it has more beta-carotene than carrots. Used in TCM to improve eyesight and blood production as well as promote youthful-looking skin. It reinforces the liver, invigorates the kidneys and replenishes vital essence, or ‘jing'.
- How much does it cost? Approximately $70 per catty
- Palate friendliness score: High. Sprinkle some on your cereals and salads asap!
Image: Gioji or Wolf Berries
- Where does it come from? Japan, Korea and China
- Why eat it? High iron and fibre, it assists with cholesterol reduction and protects against cardiovascular diseases. It’s good source of anti-oxidants, including manganese, selenium and zinc and may help with the prevention of prostate, breast and colon cancer.
- How much does it cost? $100-400 per catty. The Japanese varieties are the most expensive.
- Palate friendliness score: High. Adds robustness to a dish.
Image: Japanese Dried Mushroom (Shitake Mushrooms)
- Where does it comes from? Fish Maw is the swim bladder which enables a fish to maintain its buoyancy. Sourced from India, Pakistan, China (South China Sea), Nigeria (Lake Chad) and the fresh water rivers of Panama in Central America.
- Why eat it? It’s high in collage making it good for the joints and the high viscosity gel protein is excellent for the skin. It’s rich in calcium and according to TCM nourishes ‘yin’, replenishes the kidneys and assists with anaemia.
- How much does it cost? $400-30,000 per catty. The age and type of fish influences price dramatically with some collectors having aged fish maw which is priceless.
- Palate friendliness score: High. Very mild taste, gelatinous consistency is great for soups.
Image: Aged Dried Fish Maw
- Where does it comes from? Japan (Hokkaido), China (Qingdao)
- Why eat it? It’s a good source of protein, calcium phosphate, potassium and magnesium. It is also high in zinc and vitamins such as A, B and D.
- How much does it cost? The price depends on the source, the size and whether the scallop is broken. Chinese scallops are usually cheaper at $200 per catty compared to $650-1350 for Japanese scallops.
- Palate friendliness score: High. Similar in taste to a fresh scallop, although much more intense.
Image: Dried Whole Japanese Scallop
- Where does it comes from? Japan (Kanto and Kanshai), Australia, USA (West Coast), China (Liaodong Peninsula), Fiji, Guam, Okinawa, Yemen and Indonesia
- Why eat it? In TCM, it is known to nourish the blood and vital essence ‘jing’ as well as tonify the kidneys. It has anti-bacterial properties, is very low in fat and has no cholesterol.
- How much? $800-10,000 per catty, depending on the source. Japanese sea cucumbers are the most expensive due to the delicate texture.
- Palate friendliness score: Medium. It’s extremely mild in flavour and absorbs the flavour of the sauce it’s cooked in. However it is somewhat creepy looking.
Image: Dried Sea Cucumber
- Where does it comes from? Japan (Province of Aomori, Iwate), Australia (Tasmania), Mexico and South Africa
- Why eat it? It’s a good source of iron, phosphorus, vitamin B12, vitamin E, thiamin, magnesium and is rich in Omega fatty acids. In TCM, it is consider to boost the detoxifying capacity of the liver and was used as an aphrodisiac to enhance sexual energy for many years.
- How much does it cost? $1,500-20,000 per catty, depending on the source, size and texture.
- Palate friendliness score: Medium. Rather strong flavour.
Image: Dried Abalone
Simple Palate Friendly Recipes To Try At Home
Black Fungi and Wolfberry Salad
- 30g of black fungi
- Half a handful of giogi or wolf berry
- 1 tablespoon of shredded ginger
- 1.5 tablespoons of sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon of Chinese vinegar
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
- Soak the black fungi for about 30-40 minutes. When it is soft, remove the hard root and tear into bite-size pieces
- Wash the wolf berries well and drain
- Bring a pan of water to boil, pour in the black fungi, wolf berries and ginger. Boil for about 1 minute and then drain well
- Add seasoning to taste (ideally made 24 hours prior and refrigerated)
- Mix with sesame oil right before serving on the table
Image: Black Fungi and Wolfberry Salad
Traditional Stewed Mushroom
- 1/4 catty of dried mushrooms
- 4-5 slices of ginger
- 3 trunks of spring onion
- 2 cups of water
- 2 tablespoons spoons of oyster sauce
- 20g of rock sugar
- Soak the mushroom overnight (minimum 6-8 hours) in water that is at room temperature. Wash and squeeze the mushrooms until the water runs clear, then drain well.
- In a pan on medium heat, heat up 2 tablespoons of oil, sauté the ginger slices, add the mushrooms and sauté for a further 30 seconds. Pour in 2 cups of water and the spring onion, bring the water boil, then simmer on low heat for 30-45 minutes (depending on the thickness of the mushrooms) until soft.
- Check the water level. The remaining water should be covering the mushrooms and have thickened slightly. Remove the ginger and spring onion from the pot, then add the oyster sauce and rock sugar.
- Mix well and continue cook in low heat until all the rock sugar is melted. Thicken the sauce by adding a little corn starch if necessary. Taste the sauce and adjust the saltiness and sweetness to preference.
Image: Traditional Stewed Mushroom
Corn in Cream Style Soup with Fish Maw
- 1/4 catty of sanded popped fish maw
- 1 can of corn in cream style
- Soup base: 1/2 cup of chicken broth + 1/2 cup of water + 1 egg beaten
- 1/2 tablespoon of sesame oil
- 1/6 cup of corn starch solution
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Bring 4 cups of water to boil in a pot with 2-3 slice of ginger. Add the fish maw and use a pair of chopsticks to immense them into the boiling water. Depending on the texture and kind of the fish maw you use, it may take 8-20 minutes to soften the fish maw. Once you find the fish maw has softened cover the lid of the pot immediately and leave it to cool for 20-30 minutess. After it has cooled, remove it from the pot and rinse under water. Cut into bite size pieces.
- In a separate pot, bring the soup base to boil, add the cut fish maw and empty a can of corn in cream style into the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Thicken it with the corn starch solution
- Mix the beaten egg into the soup quickly and thoroughly, drizzle in a little sesame oil.
Foodie Tip! If you want a slightly more affordable option substitute the fish more for Sand Popped Fish Maw. It's easier to prepare and only 180-400 HKD per catty.
Image: Corn in Cream Style Soup with Fish Maw
Sauteed Honey Peas Topped with Shredded Dry Scallop
- 300g of honey peas
- 3 pieces of dried scallop (soaked until soft)
- 2 thin slices of ginger
- 3/4 tablespoons of ginger juice
- 3/4 tablespoons of Shaoxing wine
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/3 tablespoon sesame oil
- A pinch of pepper
- 1/6 cup of corn starch solution
- In a pan, add 1/2 cup of water, 3/4 tablespoons of ginger juice and Shaoxing wine. Place the soaked scallops on a steaming rack above and steam for 30 mins. Leave it to cool and then shred into small fragments. Keep the water separately.
- Cook the honey peas in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain well.
- In a bowl, mix the shredded scallop with the water in the steaming pan and the sauce listed.
- Pour the entire mixture in a pan and bring it to boil, thickening the sauce with corn starch solution. Keep warm.
- In a separate pan, add some oil and sauté the 2 slices of ginger. Add the drained honey peas and sauté on high for 1-2 minutes. Place the honey peas on a dish and pour the warm scallop sauce over the top.
Sauteed Honey Peas Topped with Shredded Dry Scallop
The Store: Tung Hing Tai Kee 同興泰記
Address: G/F, 178-180 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan
Established 1919, Tung Hing Tai Kee is one of the oldest and most reputable dried goods shops in all of Hong Kong. Selling specialty dried seafood, mushrooms, berries and during winter dried meats, the store is renowned for the quality of their products and reliable prices. The recipes featured were kindly offered by Mr Leung and his team.