Top photo credit: zomppa

Just a short walk from Central is the salty smell of Sheung Wan’s resident dried foods market. Shop after shop is laden with dried fish, roots, seafood, mushrooms and meats – a cornucopia of preserved foods and a glimpse into a longstanding Hong Kong culinary heritage. We used to follow the dazzling line of shops to start our day at Foodie HQ when we were still at Sheung Wan, just like Hansel and Gretel followed their white pebbles homebound, but as we listlessly wander past rows of pungent products, the yellowy-brown foodstuffs all blur into one. We decided it was time to put our hands up and confess that we have absolutely no idea what half of these things are – let alone how you would go about cooking and eating them.

We talk to the experts in dried goods

You’d be surprised exactly what some of these things are – sea cucumbers, abalone, scallops, fish maw, conpoy, black moss, oysters – this world definitely has its own culinary language. In the interests of deciphering it, we talked to the people who’ve been fluent for years – local mums. Recipes, tips and tricks are passed down through generations. While many local girls (and boys) today show very little interest in learning the craft of cooking with dried goods, that all tends to change as soon as they have families of their own. We decided to get a head start and talked to three mums who’ve been cooking with these weird and wonderful ingredients for years.

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Photo credit: OpallaOnTrails

One of the first mums we chatted to was Mrs Cheung who shops for dried goods in Sheung Wan regularly to prepare meals for her family. It seemed unanimous that Sheung Wan, with its huge selection of dried goods stores and great value products, is the place to go to for ingredients. 

You can divide dried foods into several main categories: plant-based (roots, herbs, mushrooms), seafood and meats. All of these foods have their own benefits, whether nutritional or celebratory, and with many regarded as delicacies reserved for holidays and special occasions, such as Chinese New Year, Mid-Autmn festival, Winter Solstice and even birthdays. Dried seafood is easily the priciest with four kinds being particularly expensive: bao (abalone), sum (sea cucumbers), chi (shark’s fin) and tou (fish maw).

Bao (abalone)

Bao, or abalone, is possibly one of the most famous of all ingredients. This dried shellfish resembles old Chinese currency and is said to herald a profitable, succcessful year. Reserved for special occasions, the bigger the abalone – the more expensive. One of the most exclusive abalones comes from Japan, ‘yoshihama’, and is highly prized. However, following the Japanese earthquake, fisheries have been severely affected and yoshihama has skyrocketed in price as all stock remaining in Hong Kong is primarily from before the quake. Preparing dried abalone at home requires a lot of work and patience, while the soaking alone can take over a week, cooking this precious eafood to perfection requires a minimum of eight hours of slow braising. Many housewives thus turn to the canned version when cooking at home, and the dried version is often enjoyed in restaurants at a premium price. 

Chi (shark’s fin)

Chi, (shark’s fin), has declined in popularity, with leading hotels and restaurants increasingly removing this costly item from menus. The practice of obtaining shark’s fin is a cruel one, with fins cut from the live sharks before they’re thrown back into the ocean to drown. It’s a wasteful process that has hugely affected the shark population globally. While the thought of fewer sharks might seem a relief to some – they are an essential part of our ocean’s ecosystem and vital for the survival of many other species. Shark’s fin doesn’t have a very distinctive flavour and as a result, many substitutes have been introduced to create the textural illusion of shark’s fin. “We don’t eat shark’s fin at home – it’s not particularly nutritious and there are many more items which are much more delicious,” says Mrs Cheung, who favours the flavoursome alternatives of sea cucumber and fish maw.

Sum (sea cucumber)

Sum, or sea cucumber, comes in a plethora of different species and sizes. It is a versatile ingredient that requires careful preparation but as many nutritional benefits. “Begin by soaking them in water for about three days or until they turn really nice and soft. By the time they’re ready for cleaning, they should have doubled in size,” describes Mrs Cheung, “after that, you will need to cut them open to remove all their internal organs and rinse thoroughly.” If the thought of gutting a sea cucumber is a step too far, many stores offer this ervice and will prepare them for you. “Size doesn’t always matter; in some species, the smaller the sea cucumber, the better. There are many different varieties, some spiky and some smooth – they all have about the same benefits,” benefits that include a healthy dose of collagen, which is excellent for skin, as well as the ability to help control cholesterol levels. These little sea dwellers are a highly sustainable food source, and even celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is working to create more sea cucumber dishes, while British fisheries are looking into how to farm them. 

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Photo credit: Po Wing

Tou (fish maw)

Even higher in collagen is fish maw (tou, or fa gao), which is actually fish bladder. While available in pieces, a whole tube is what you should look out for, the thicker the tube the better, Price can vary for certain species of sizes of shish. While it’s fantastic for skin’s elasticity, it is also excellent for maintaining healthy ligaments, joints and tendons. Similar to all other dried seafood, fish maw needs to be soaked for about 24 hours and thoroughly washed before being used to cook. 

Dried scallops and oysters

Dried scallops, or conpoy, are commonly stocked in shops, and for quality product, look out for a sharp edge as opposed to a rounded one. Although looking nothing like what you would find in a fine dining restaurant served with proscuitto and butter, all scallops are actually the adductor muscle of a bivalve shellfish – the bigger the scallop, the bigger the original shell. Similarly, dried oysters can infuse a dish with a complexity of flavour and can be prepared in much the same way. ‘Dried oyster’ in Chinese pronounced ‘ho si’ which carries a double meaning with ‘good deeds’. After a good washing, leave them to soak for a few hours and they’ll be ready to cook. Mrs Lo often shops at the dried stores to prepare hearty meals for her two hungry sons. She recommends a signature dish, ‘Dried Mushroom and Oyster with Mosses’. “Mosses in Chinese are pronounced ‘fat choi’ which also carries the meaning of ‘gaining money’. Even though mushrooms don’t really carry any special meaning, they go well with oysters and mosses, not just for flavour, but also presentation which is really important,” explains Mrs Lo, “this particular dish is usually eaten on the second day of Chinese New Year, it conveys the meaning of good business and making money which is everyone’s wish for the New Year!”

Shopping Glossary:

Abalone                   鮑魚 Bao yu

Sea cucumber        海參 Hoi sum

Fish maw                花膠 Fa gao

Dried mushroom   冬菇 Dung gu

Dried oyster           蠔豉 Ho si

Black moss             髮菜 Fat choi

Conpoy                   瑤柱 Yiu chu

Please can you soak, gut and clean the sea cucumber for me?

Ng goi bong ngo faat jor d hoi sum tong mai zing gone zeng.

Dried foods are measured using the traditional Chinese measurement system.

Tael                         両 leung (~38g)

Catty                       斤 gun    (~605g)

1 Catty = 16 Taels

When it comes to plant-based dried foods, mushrooms are a safe bet. Make sure to wash thoroughly before soaking and adding to soups, stews and other dishes. Herbs are often added to broths and stocks to add flavour and nutrition. Mrs Kwan was taught everything she knows about traditional cooking from her mother, “I recommend dong gwei, it’s similar to ginseng and really good for women’s menstrual health and hong jo which is great for those who are anemic. I often cook these with Chinese mushrooms and chicken in soup.”

“Before you even begin cooking,” says Mrs Cheung, “you need a very good pot. It has to withstand heat for a long time – sometimes up to eight hours for abalone. I recommend a clay pot.” Mrs Cheung often cooks up stews with sea cucumber and fish maw, stewing them with oyster sauce and vegetables before serving with rice.

If you’re looking to experiment and try your own hand at cooking dried foods, look out for dried mushrooms and start with somthing simple like scallops or dried oysters. If in doubt, wash, soak and let them all bubble away for a few hours with some water and stock. Add some dried meats, and some textures and combinations – just dive right in there…and if still in doubt, talk to a local mum.

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