AS ASIA’S WORLD CITY, Hong Kong is famous for its restaurants. Visitors and expats often quote the food as one of the attractions of the city.
But what is authentic Hong Kong cuisine?
Some might say yum cha (a dim sum and tea meal) or cha chaan teng food (traditional tea shop cooking) but in fact, neither of those answers is correct. There is actually no official answer, but perhaps the cuisine of the city’s early inhabitants could deserve this title. Who were they?
THE BOAT PEOPLE
Hong Kong has a long history. Archaeologists have found pottery that dates back to the stone age, 7,700 years ago. Significant settlements of people in Hong Kong, or actually the New Territories, are believed to date back to the Sung Dynasty (960–1279). And at the same time or even earlier, we have people who lived on the sea and by the sea: the boat people.
There are two main kinds of boat people, the Tankas (蜑家), and the Hoklo (鶴佬). Both groups lived on fishing junks and settled around south China. In the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the boat people were not allowed to settle ashore or take the imperial examination.
Kam Tung Tai (金東大), an authentic Tanka restaurant located in Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣) on the western side of Hong Kong Island, is one of my favourite places for seafood.
A crowded restaurant serving set lunches and everyday Cantonese dishes at slightly above average prices, Kam Tung Tai preserves some of the best Tanka cooking with fresh seafood that the owner Mr. Po collects from the fisherfolk daily. And one may not believe that these expensive dishes, often off the menu, originated from the kitchens of low-class water-dwellers 600 years ago.
The Tankas live by the sea; their usual diet will be whatever they catch but haven’t sold. If they had a good harvest, they would separate the seafood according to different levels of quality, and sell the items in the superior group. The unsold part would become delicacies for themselves.
Now you understand why those choices are usually off the menu—except these days, in addition to eating them himself, Mr. Po will sell it at a higher price to gourmets like your humble writer. And believe me, they are usually the best items of all.
Before refrigerators were invented, the Tankas had their way of preserving their hard-earned catch. They covered the fish with salt and hung them on a pole. Salted fish would be kept for longer with the help of the wind and the sunshine.
If you pay a visit to Aberdeen, you will find most roofs of Tanka boats are flat, providing more space for drying various seafood.
FISH DISH TO LOVE
One of my favourites is a mutation of salted fish bearing the sexy name “one-night love”. Actually, the Japanese have a similar cooking method they call “one-night-dry”, which is a more accurate description of the treatment. Tankas rub the whole fish with a teaspoon of salt and then hang the fish in a dry and well-ventilated environment for one night.
Before the next day’s cooking procedures, they usually wash the salt on the surface away. Then the fish would be put on a plate and covered with shredded ginger and red pepper.
The dish is ready to serve after two minutes of steaming or a light fry. Fish that have been salted for a night would be more tasty and tender than the fresh ones, due to dehydration and minor aging.
TANKA PEOPLE COME ASHORE
Come modern times, many Tankas wanted to go ashore for good. This move was not without turmoil, though. On 7 January 1979, one day after the present writer migrated to Hong Kong, 76 people were arrested by the then British Hong Kong Government when crossing the newly opened cross-harbour tunnel in coaches.
Among them, 65 were representatives of boat people in the Yaumati Shelter, Tankas included, and 11 people who helped to organise the rally to push the government to accommodate the boat people on shore. Seventy-six were found guilty later in a court, but the 65 boat people received no sentences.
At the same time, the 11 organizers, including priests, social workers, teachers and university students, were “bound over” (required to not repeat the offence) for 18 months.
Nevertheless, more and more boat people went ashore by applying for government housing or renting private flats.
Today, fishing has become more commercial, and the radius of fishing for Hong Kong fisherfolk includes the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea. And more and more members of the younger generation went to school and worked in factories and offices on land instead of following the trade of their forefathers.
Tanka cooking has become rare as younger Tankas bought fish from the market instead of catching them from the sea.
Yet Mr. Po, who came from a fishing family in Po Toi O near Clearwater Bay, insists on keeping the authentic Tanka cooking legacy. And even though a bit pricy, it reminds me of the older days of Hong Kong when I lived in a Temporary Housing Area near Aberdeen and my Tanka neighbours and schoolmates.
Life was hard but simple, and the fish tasted better.
Additional reporting by Emily Zhou. Image at the top by Annie Spratt/ Unsplash.