Hong Kong Dishes Out Culinary Secrets

Every chef has culinary secrets that they hold close to their hearts. Some rave over an ingredient that imparts a unique flavour, others swear by tools which make life easier in the kitchen. And, every now and then, we uncover some of these secrets, bridging the gaps between us and the chefs we admire while giving us a chance to recreate culinary magic at home.

Hong Kong is one of the most recognisable cities in the entire world and you would think the city and its neighbourhoods are an open book. But, home to an estimated 15,000 restaurants, this city is packed with an unimaginable amount of glorious food and a shelf load of culinary secrets to spill.

Secret #1: Freshest Ingredients at Aberdeen Seafood Market

Danny spends the morning selecting fresh seafood at the Aberdeen Wholesale Fish Market

“When we explore Hong Kong’s neighborhoods on foot, we can feel the beat of the city and see what’s in between tourist spots,” explains Danny Yip, proprietor of one-Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant The Chairman. “Those in-betweens are hidden gems that are often the most memorable.”

Yip and The Chairman put a premium on freshness and locally-sourced ingredients, taking their cue from Cantonese cuisine. That’s why Yip recommends Aberdeen Seafood Market as their first stop of the day.

Hong Kong’s only wholesale fish market opens before dawn, selling freshly-caught grouper, razor clams, flathead lobster, and marine fish, all at a good price. The Chairman sends a former fisherman here at 5:30am every day to handpick live seafood for the restaurant.

This early start helps realise The Chairman’s signature dish, steamed fresh flower crab with aged Shaoxing wine and fragrant chicken oil. Steaming is a classic Cantonese cooking technique that preserves the crabs’ fresh flavour.

To further elevate the shellfish, The Chairman prepares a special steamed clam juice to impart a deeper umami flavour. The idea is to pair seafood with seafood.

Secret #2: Source of the sauce at Kwun Tong

In the industrial district of Kwun Tong in Kowloon, Yip often visits Tai Ma Sauce Co., a half-century-old sauce manufacturer now run by its third generation.

Danny Yip visiting Tai Ma, where they sell a lot of condiments and sauces.

While Tai Ma sells a wide variety of picked vegetables, condiments and sauces, Yip saves his highest praises for Tai Ma’s ten-years’ preserved lemon as according to him it has flavors that couldn’t be achieved at the hands of a chef, but only through time.

Tai Ma’s aged lemon is a key ingredient in Chairman’s other signature dish: razor clams steamed with aged lemon and mixed herbs. The lemon imparts an additional umami dimension to the razor clams’ natural flavour.

“Razor clams have a high density—it gives you a mouthfeel when you bite into it,” Yip explains. “Only [then] can it withstand the flavor of the aged lemon, which can be pungent and even overpowering.”

Secret #3: Tools of the trade at Shanghai Street

As the saying goes – a man is only as good as his tools – for chefs, their tools define them and West Kowloon’s Yau Ma Tei district is the perfect place for chefs to replenish their tools of the trade. The Shanghai Street area has generations-old shops selling all sorts of kitchen knick-knacks, from steel kitchenware to knives, to steamers, all heritage brand names of their own.

           

Man Kee Chopping Board Store                               Man Kee Chopping Board best known for

                                                                                          their sliced-up tree trunk chopping board

Man Kee Chopping Board, founded in 1955, is Hong Kong’s only specialty shop devoted to wooden chopping boards. Their massive boards are sliced-up from sturdy tree trunks and treated to provide the right heft and resilience to accommodate Chinese chefs’ heavy chopping action. “Wood is what we call a ‘hard sponge’,” third-generation owner and manager Mike Au explains. “When you chop things, they will absorb your ‘heat’, so your hand will be safer.”

                   

Chan Chi Kee, selling the best handmade knives          Their product is appreciated by chef from

and cleavers                                                                            Chinese restaurants all over the world 

For knives and cleavers, chefs gravitate to Chan Chi Kee, whose knowledgeable staff members advise longtime patrons on the best steel for the job. Four craftsmen turn out the shop’s famous handmade knives; they offer a lasting edge appreciated by chefs from Chinese restaurants all over the world.

                       

Ming Shan Steel Receptable – where some bamboo      Bamboo steamers at Ming Shan come in various 

steamers are still handmade today                                    shapes and sizes

Bamboo steamers are a familiar fixture in Cantonese cuisine — Ming Shan Steel Bamboo Receptacle offers them in different shapes and sizes. The owner of the store, Master Lui Ming — who is more than 90 years old — began handmaking bamboo steamers when he was 32 years old. He pioneered the use of steel rims and joins in bamboo steamers, which resulted in a longer-lasting product that has gained widespread popularity in Chinese restaurants all over the world. The Shanghai Street store is now run by his son, but Master Lui still spends his days making custom orders in his Tuen Mun factory, channeling his lifelong passion for his craft into dreaming up new inventions and perfecting his old ones. 

Secret #4: Yau Ma Tei’s flavourful surprises

West Kowloon’s family-run establishments have long safeguarded Hong Kong’s culinary treasures, selling spices and condiments that explode with local flavour. A few other secret shops in Yau Ma Tei offer a glimpse (and a whiff) of Hong Kong chefs’ secret weapons for taste.

               

Kwong Fat Spices, favourite places for chef to          Kwong Fat Spices specialist in Hong Kong unique flavours

search many spices for their restaurant

The century-old Kwong Fat Spices is a favourite haunt for chefs looking for spice powders, chili oil, and Hong Kong style curry (which the shop claims to have invented). The package design has remained unchanged for ages, attesting to the long heritage and trust Kwong Fat retains among its clientele.

The unique flavours of Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng dishes come from the spices that Kwong Fat specialise in—you’ve probably already experienced their work without even knowing it!

                     

Homemade fermented tofu, Liu Ma Kee open since      Liu Ma Kee Fermented Tofu Store at Yau Ma Tei

100 years ago

Liu Ma Kee Fermented Tofu Store rounds out the Yau Ma Tei chef’s circuit, a favoured source for fermented wet bean curd that’s made the same way since it first opened a hundred years ago—with a traditional stone mill, using a closely-guarded family recipe.

The intense umami flavour of fermented tofu is an acquired taste for Westerners unused to Chinese cooking styles, but Hongkongers love the kick it imparts to sauces, marinades, and even as a topping for plain white rice! To keep up with the times and stay relevant to a younger audience, the current generation running the store has even invented a fermented wet bean curd carbonara sauce.

Secret #5: Old-school umami at Tai O

There’s one last stop, far to the east on Lantau Island: the fishing village of Tai O, source of Hong Kong’s favourite shrimp paste. Local trawlers catch tiny shrimp in the waters off Tai O, then sell their catch to the village’s shrimp paste makers.

Operating out of a nondescript shophouse, Sing Lee is one of the oldest and one of the last few remaining shrimp paste manufacturers in Tai O, dating more than 80 years back. At Sing Lee, the know-hows are passed down through generations and processes still kept handmade. After a weeks-long process of salting, fermenting, grinding and drying, the shrimp paste is shaped into pliable pink bricks, ready to add a salty zing to stir-fried water spinach or the Cantonese fried chicken har cheong gai.

For many visitors to picturesque Tai O, the dried seafood and produce only tells half of Tai O’s story. They are attracted to the fishing village’s vintage charm, the surrounding nature and the laidback, idyllic island life that is uncommon in cosmopolitan Hong Kong.

           

Picturesque Tai O                                                                Sing Lee’s star product – shrimp paste

Photo by Keith Hardy on Unsplash

Exploring the flavourful side of Hong Kong will always leave you wanting more. Luckily, there’s always a full meal’s worth waiting for you! Check out other episodes of Michelin and HKTB’s series “Hong Kong Chefs’ Playbook”, featuring Chef Vicky Lau of TATE Dining Room, Chef Vicky Cheng of VEA, Chef Shane Osborn of Arcane and Danny Yip of The Chair via HKTB’s official YouTube and Facebook @discoverHongKong and @MichelinGuideWorldwide.