[This article was originally published in Zomppa: the International food magazine.]
Cheung Chau is one of Hong Kong’s amazing outlying islands and a fishing village. When we went to Cheung Chau on a casual trip one month back, it led us to an eccentric display of dried fish all over the island: some sold loose, some hanging in a queue and some nicely packed! It was good that we went there, otherwise we couldn’t have known what dried fish means to people in Hong Kong and to what extent it is a part of the local Chinese cuisine! I was astonished by the stupefying variety of dried fishes there, fishes of every shape and size, and truly spectacular in their own right! Surprisingly, these dried fishes were of such good quality that they almost didn’t stink!
The more I know about Hong Kong’s seafood, the more amazed I am! Coming back to my own place in Tsing Yi, New Territories, Hong Kong, I started exploring more about these fishes in dry markets in different parts of Hong Kong, including Tsing Yi. By what I gathered about these, my eyes opened to the versatility of the staple of the orient! Preserving the fishes by drying makes these ready to be used in different kinds of local preparations of dried fish.
Since ages, the Chinese had believed that food should not be wasted! So when fishes are available in plenty, they preserve them by drying the fishes under the sun (mostly using salt and other minerals as well!). When there were no refrigerators, this was the only way to preserve these fishes. In this way, expensive fishes such as abalone, scallops and oysters were stored too!
Now, times have changed and these dried fishes are not restricted to China and Hong Kong, but are found all over the world in Asian stores and supermarkets!
Old Chinese belief about dried fish
The Chinese believe that eating certain foods on auspicious days, such as the Chinese New Year, would bring luck to them. Dried fishes are one of them. The dried oysters and mussels are considered to bring fortune if they are eaten during the Chinese New Year celebrations. The Chinese New Year boosts up the sales manifolds in all the shops selling these products, particularly in Sheung Wan’s popular dried seafood street, having around 220 shops selling these. The heavily crowded street, with loads of different kinds of dry fishes on display on either side, is worth watching during this time of the year! During this time, there is a tradition here to gift dry fishes since these bring in good omen and a spread of delicacies is made using these!
The poor man’s food!
Some dried fishes are very cheap and hence, these make a good substitute to the fresh seafood, which are relatively expensive for those who are poor. A common dry fish preparation using the croaker fish (or other medium- or big-sized dry fishes) is hum nyee, which is usually eaten steamed, with pork hash added for the extra taste. This is eaten with rice and this dish is quite popular in Hong Kong too!
Wherever you see Chinese population (as in Hong Kong), you will surely spot dry fish in the markets: some of them even make their presence in Chinese medicine shops! The commonly seen dried fishes are shrimps (of all sizes), oysters, abalone, starfish, mussels, octopus, anchovies, cuttlefish, croaker, sea slugs, whitebait and squids.
Kinds of dried fish in Hong Kong
Dried squids and cuttlefish
Dried, shredded squids are a popular snack not only in Hong Kong, but are also exported to many parts of the world! The dried, crispy and shredded squids are eaten grilled too! These are imported to Hong Kong from Japan and Korea, where these are taken as a snack, paired with alcohol. Chinese and Japanese mothers like feeding these to their children (microwaved-high till crispy and then eaten with a mayonnaise-soy sauce-cayenne pepper dip) and these high-protein, low-fat snacks are a huge hit even among the young generation in Hong Kong. Dried cuttlefish is another favourite snack here and it has a sweet and spicy taste.
Both dried squids and cuttlefish are also cooked to make authentic dishes with an extra fishy flavour and aroma.
Dried octopus legs are very expensive and taste like dried squids. These are usually added to soups. For example, these are used as an ingredient in some kinds of long-boiled soups. One popular method of cooking these is a soup with spareribs and lotus root or vegetables such as chayote. Dried octopus tentacles, a popular Japanese snack, are also found in Hong Kong dried fish stores. For nutritional value of dried octopus, click here.
High in nutrient content, especially calcium, these make frugal snacks and are used in soups and stews. Did you know that dried anchovies add volume and aroma to the normal fish stock (the bigger ones are always better). This may sound strange to non–South-East Asians, but these really do make an array of delicacies and snacks, rich in nutrients, though one has to be easy with the fishy taste. These make great sambal and Malayasian ikan bilis nasi lemak. The tiny anchovies can also be stir-fried with white sesame seeds and sugar and make a great side-dish for rice. The small, dried ones are also marketed in Hong Kong as an ingredient in various snack blends, such as anchovies with chips, anchovies with roasted nuts and dry squids. Another way of eating these is in a broth of seaweed. The Japanese in Hong Kong use these in a kind of dashi, called niboshi dashi. Simpler still, some just prefer toasting them and having them straight with steamed rice or just adding them to their regular green salad for a crunchy taste!
According to the ancient Chinese medicine, it is believed that abalone can nourish the Yin and provide strength. People believe that eating abalones can even improve eyesight! These are also effective for the liver, kidneys and eyes. Dried abalones are one of the most sought-after dried seafood and are meaty and chewy: these are cooked in a broth. One has to soak the dry abalone in water for two or three days in refrigerator, before boiling it in water for around 30 minutes. This is then rinsed for a long time and is finally ready to go into the stews.
Fish maw (fish bladder)
As a rule of thumb, the older and more yellow fish maws are better because they have less oil content in them and the texture is retained even when these are cooked for hours. This is the beauty secret of many Chinese ladies, who use them as an anti-ageing super -food since these are rich in collagen! According to traditional Chinese medicine, fish maw improves and restores the function of lungs and kidneys and is good for arthritis since these are believed to moisten the joints.
The bottom part of the conch, used for moving about, is sold dried too and this makes a great ingredient for Chinese soups! This is thought to improve vision. Dried conch is quite cheap as compared to the fresh ones.
Large fishes are sometimes processed into something called the fish floss, which is a part of oriental breakfast, eaten with congee (Chinese rice porridge).
Often eaten along with dried moss (which in itself does not have a taste), these are auspicious to be eaten or gifted during the Chinese New Year. The preferred dry oysters are the big ones and these come to Hong Kong from Taiwan and Korea.
Dried shrimps are available in many shapes, colours and sizes and some have hefty price tags with them. These are used extensively in many stir-fry dishes.
In addition to these, dried scallops (conpoy), dried fish powder, dry fish scales, dried sea cucumbers and dried fish bone powder are also found here.
Relishing the dry and salted fishes
There is a long a list of soups which can be prepared with these unique ingredients. Each kind of dried fish is cooked differently in Chinese cooking. Mostly, dried seafood is soaked in water for some time (some, such as the oysters and mussels, are even soaked for two days!) before adding them to soups or stews. This process of soaking makes them soft and less salty and minimises the cooking process too! Dried fish is added to the traditional congee for a flavour kick, some are eaten in minced pork dishes (pieces of big, dried and salted fish), some are stir-fried with vegetables and some are used in fried rice. In a kind of miso soup, dried sardines and a seaweed called kombu are used. As mentioned earlier, some (such as dried squids) are grilled and eaten as snacks too!
The dried anchovies are prepared in a different way. These are soaked in water for 10 minutes and then drained properly. These can then be stir-fried with fresh chillies and garlic. Some add sugar in the stir-fried anchovies to caramelise them and for adding a different level to the dish. Rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sesame seeds and fermented black beans can also be added.
Dried oysters are often added into congee, stewed pork, soups and steamed glutinous rice. The bigger fishes like croaker are diced and washed properly, so that the scales, small bones and impurities are gone. These are now fried till the raw smell is gone and then are cooked in different ways. The salty fish can also be steamed over a bed of minced pork, marinated with soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch and rice wine. Salted fish and chicken are quite compatible if these are cooked together and are preferred by many Asians living in Hong Kong.
Every cuisine is unique and Hong Kong cuisine is renowned for its seafood. The list of the dried fishes and the ways to prepare them are endless. Although it requires a little courage and time to develop the taste for such known and unknown kinds of seafood, the good thing is that these are relatively cheap and very nutritious. So, if you are visiting Hong Kong, but haven’t tried dried fish yet, do introduce yourself to some of the authentic oriental dried fish preparations. Experience some “relatively unexplored” culinary seafood pleasures here. If cooked the right way, dried fish is something which is quite unique in itself and a taste that lingers!