Des Voeux Road West has been home to seafood vendors since the 19th century and is the place to go for dried abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw, as well as cordyceps fungus and other dried mushrooms.
On Des Voeux Road West, nicknamed “Dried Seafood Street”, about 200 shops have been providing Hong Kong families with their banquet staples for almost half a century.
The shops also spill over onto neighbouring Wing Lok Street and Bonham Strand West in Sheung Wan.
From 8am to 5pm, locals come to bargain with vendors they have known since childhood; stiff paper boxes full of dried seafood are carried onto minivans; and curious tourists take photos of the strange fish, molluscs and other sea life, alongside sacks full of herbs, and snakes displayed in glass jars.
The hub of commerce in the northwest corner of Hong Kong Island started to emerge soon after the city was formally declared a British colony at nearby Possession Street in the mid-19th century. Chinese businessmen established a number of nam pak hong, or south-north trading houses, to conduct trade with the mainland and Southeastern Asian countries.
Seafood and Chinese medicine were among the so-called south-north goods shipped in and out of the seaport, although few Hongkongers could afford the lavish ingredients back then, according to Sidney Cheung, an expert in food culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Most of the shops also sell dried mushrooms, preserved meats and Chinese medicine products such as gingko seeds and yellow fungus, which are used to make soups.
On Dried Seafood Street today, vendors are proud that they bring in delicacies from all over the world for Hong Kong’s tables. Households and restaurants each contribute about half of the shops’ sales, vendors say.
Leung Wing-chiu, 79, started working in the dried seafood business at the age of 14. After spending decades learning from the older generation, he took over Tung Hing Tai Kee, the store founded by his father in 1919.
The shop is packed on a recent midweek afternoon as customers choose shrimp and sea cucumbers, feeling and sniffing them to test their quality before putting them in their shopping baskets.
Leung sits behind the counter in the middle of the store, directing his employees and sometimes shouting out answers to queries from visitors above the din.
On the shelf behind him, sitting on top of accounting ledgers filled with Chinese calligraphy, are three jars of caterpillar fungi – a traditional medicinal product that is the priciest item in the store – costing about HK$267,000 a kilogram. Also known as cordyceps, they are the fruiting bodies formed after the fungi parasitise ghost moth larvae, and are found in mountainous regions of Tibet and Nepal. Cordyceps are believed to strengthen immunity and restrain development of cancer cells.
The dried seafood items sold here are also beneficial to health, Leung says.
“Seafood makes you live longer and healthier,” he says, glancing around the shop. “All Cantonese people begin to appreciate that from childhood.”
Leung says that among all the goods he stocks, the “four treasures” – abalone, sea cucumbers, shark fin and fish maw – are traditionally believed to be the most delicious and nutritious.
“They have this unique, delicate sea flavour. It is a great pleasure eating them, but you cannot describe it in words.”
Passing tourists take photos with curious looks on their faces, mystified by the products on display.
There’s abalone, which is believed to improve vision and liver function. The dried sea snails need to be soaked for a few days and are then usually boiled with chicken or pork ribs. They turn out to be chewy and meaty, like the texture of mushrooms, and are best served with oyster sauce. A dozen large abalone from Japan can sell for as much as HK$10,000 … (read more)