Every morning, I walk past the small, family-run seafood shops of Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun that are jammed-packed with dried delicacies from under 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 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 border, Tung Hing Tai Kee has been trading for a century and, much like the dried seafood industry itself, has survived a formidable amount of challenges. Over the past 100 years, two World Wars disrupted trade routes and demand as the country struggled with recessions. In the past several decades, a shift to fast food threatened to make dried seafood not only irrelevant but, even worse, uncool. And, finally, since the Chinese handover, gentrification has pushed out shops to a handful of remaining neighbourhoods.
Yet unphased is Mr Leung: proud proprietor of Tung Hing Tai Kee, 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 more than 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 shop. 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 Kongers are being drawn to their roots, including their ancestors’ love affair with dried seafood, experimenting with traditional dishes at home.
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 empathically shook his head and selected five of his most “gwelio-friendly” ingredients whilst his business partner walked into a back room and surfaced carrying a dog-eared notebook 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.
Popular in southern coastal Chinese provinces with a strong fishing industry such as Guangzhou 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 at shops. However, as disposable incomes grew, the focus shifted to seafood, which is sold and bought in “catty” sizes (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 for centuries. The drying process concentrates the flavours of the produce, so expect items like dried oysters and abalone to pack quite a punch! According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), many of the products are considered to have health benefits, so incorporating them into everyday cooking is considered a way to maintain good health.
Top 5 recommended delicacies for beginners
Goji berry (wolfberry)
- Where does it come from? China (Ningxiang )
- 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 to promote youthful-looking skin. It reinforces the liver, invigorates the kidneys and replenishes vital essence (“jing”).
- How much does it cost? Approximately $70/catty
- Palate friendliness: High. Sprinkle some on your cereals and salads!
- 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 a good source of antioxidants, including manganese, selenium and zinc, and may help with the prevention of prostate, breast and colon cancer.
- How much does it cost? $100–400/catty (the Japanese varieties are the most expensive)
- Palate friendliness: High. Adds robustness to a dish.
Fish maw (swim bladder, enabling a fish to maintain its buoyancy)
- Where does it comes from? India, Pakistan, China (South China Sea), Nigeria (Lake Chad) and the freshwater rivers of Panama in Central America.
- Why eat it? It’s high in collagen, 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 “ying”, replenishes the kidneys and assists with anaemia.
- How much does it cost? $400–30,000/catty (the age and type of fish dramatically influence the price, with some collectors having aged fish maw that is priceless)
- Palate friendliness High. Very mild taste and the gelatinous consistency is great for soups.
- Where does it comes from? Japan (Hokkaido) and 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, size and whether the scallop is broken. Chinese scallops are usually cheaper at $200/catty, compared to $650–1,350/catty for Japanese scallops.
- Palate friendliness: High. Similar in taste to a fresh scallop, although much more intense.
- Where does it comes from? Japan (Kanto, Kansai and Okinawa), Australia, USA (West Coast), China (Liaodong Peninsula), Fiji, Guam, 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 antibacterial properties, is very low in fat and has no cholesterol.
- How much does it cost? $800–10,000/catty, depending on the source. Japanese sea cucumbers are the most expensive owing to their delicate texture.
- Palate friendliness: Medium. It’s extremely mild in taste and absorbs the flavour of the sauce in which it’s cooked. However, it is somewhat creepy looking.
- Where does it comes from? Japan (Aomori and Iwate), Australia (Tasmania), Mexico and South Africa
- Why eat it? It’s a good source of iron, phosphorus, vitamin B12, vitamin E, thiamine and magnesium and is rich in omega fatty acids. In TCM, it boosts the detoxifying capacity of the liver and was once used as an aphrodisiac to enhance sexual energy.
- How much does it cost? $1,500–20,000/catty, depending on the source, size and texture
- Palate friendliness: Medium. Rather strong flavour.
Simple, palate-friendly recipes to try at home
Black fungi & wolfberry salad
- 30g black fungi
- ½ a handful of wolfberries
- 1 tbsp shredded ginger
- 1½ tbsp sugar
- ½ tbsp Chinese vinegar
- pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- Soak the black fungi for about 30–40 minutes. When soft, remove the hard root and tear into bite-sized pieces.
- Wash the wolfberries well and drain.
- Bring a pan of water to the boil, then pour in the black fungi, wolfberries and ginger. Boil for about 1 minute and then drain well.
- Add the seasoning ingredients to taste. Mix with the sesame oil right before serving (ideally made 24 hours prior and refrigerated).
Traditional stewed mushrooms
- ¼ catty dried shiitake mushrooms
- 4–5 slices ginger
- 3 stalks spring onion
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- 2 cups water
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 20g rock sugar
- cornflour, as needed
- Soak the mushroom overnight (minimum 6–8 hours) in room-temperature water. Wash and squeeze the mushrooms until the water runs clear, then drain well.
- In a pot on medium heat, heat the oil, sauté the ginger slices, add the mushrooms and sauté for a further 30 seconds. Pour in 2 cups water and the spring onion, bring the water to the boil, then simmer on low heat for 30–45 minutess until soft (depending on the thickness of the mushrooms).
- Check the water level. The remaining water should be covering the mushrooms and thickened slightly. Remove the ginger and spring onion from the pot, then add the oyster sauce and rock sugar.
- Mix well and continue to cook on low heat until all the rock sugar has melted. Thicken the sauce by adding a little cornflour if necessary. Taste the sauce and adjust the saltiness and sweetness to your preference.
Corn in cream-style soup with fish maw
- ¼ catty sanded popped fish maw
- 1 can corn in cream style
- 2–3 slices ginger
- soup base: ½ cup chicken broth + ½ cup water + 1 egg, beaten
- 2 tbsp cornflour solution
- ½ tbsp sesame oil
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring 4 cups water to the boil in a pot with 2–3 slices ginger. Add the fish maw and use a pair of chopsticks to immerse them in the boiling water. Depending on the texture and type of fish maw you use, it may take 8–20 minutes to soften it. Once the fish maw has softened, immediately cover the pot with a lid and leave to cool for 20–30 minutess. After it has cooled, remove from the pot and rinse under water. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
- In a separate pot, bring the soup base (except for the egg) to the 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 the soup with the cornflour solution.
- Quickly mix the beaten egg into the soup and drizzle in the sesame oil.
Sautéed honey peas topped with shredded dried scallop
- 300g honey peas (sugar snap peas)
- 3 pieces dried scallop (soaked until soft)
- 2 thin slices ginger
- ¾ tbsp ginger juice
- ¾ tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sugar
- ⅓ tbsp sesame oil
- pinch of white pepper
- 2 tbsp cornflour solution
- In a pot, add ½ cup water and the ginger juice and Shaoxing wine. Place the soaked scallops on a steaming rack above and steam for 30 minutes. Leave to cool, then shred into small pieces. Save the water.
- Cook the honey peas in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain well.
- In a bowl, mix the shredded scallops with the water in the steaming pan along with the sauce ingredients (except the cornflour).
- Pour the entire mixture into another pan and bring to the boil, thickening the sauce with the cornflour solution. Keep warm.
- In a separate pan, add some oil and sauté the slices of ginger. Add the drained honey peas and sauté on high for 1–2 minutes. Place the honey peas in a dish and pour the warm scallop sauce over the top.
Tung Hing Tai Kee 同興泰記
178–180 Des Voeux Road West, Sai Ying Pun, 2547 2522
Established in 1919, Tung Hing Tai Kee is one of the oldest and most reputable dried goods shops in all of Hong Kong. Selling speciality dried seafood, mushrooms, berries and, during winter, dried meats, the shop is renowned for the quality of its products and the reliable prices. The recipes featured were kindly offered by Mr Leung and his team.
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