Hong Kong’s Dried Fish: Exotic & Popular Staple!

| September 12, 2011


Cheung Chau is one of Hong Kong’s amazing outlying islands and fishing villages. 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 fish, some sold fish hanging in a queue and some sold fish nicely packed! It was good that we visited this island, otherwise we would never have known what dried fish means to the people in Hong Kong and to what extent fish is a part of the local Chinese cuisine! I was astonished by the stupefying variety of dried fish there – fish of every shape and size, and truly spectacular in their own right! Surprisingly, these dried fish were of such good quality that they almost didn’t stink!

The more I learn about Hong Kong’s seafood, the more amazed I am!  I started exploring the world of dry fish markets in my own place of residence, Tsing Yi, New Territories, Hong Kong.   From what I’ve observed, dried fish, the staple of the orient, is incredibly versatile!  Preserving the fish by drying them makes this type of fish ready for use in different kinds of local cuisine and dishes.

For ages, the Chinese believed that food should not be wasted! So when fish is plenty available, the Chinese preserve them by drying the fish under the sun (mostly using salt and other minerals as well). In the time of no refrigerators, drying the fish was the only way to safely preserve fish. In this way, expensive fish, such as abalone, scallops and oysters could easily be stored too!

Since then, times have changed and these dried fish 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, will bring them good luck. Dried fish is one of the foods commonly eaten on such days. Dried oysters and mussels are thought to bring great fortune if they are eaten during the Chinese New Year celebrations. The Chinese New Year boosts the sale of such items in all the shops selling these products, particularly in Sheung Wan’s popular dried seafood street.  The heavily crowded street, with loads of different kinds of dry fish on display is worth observing during the Chinese New Year!

The Poor Man’s Food

Some dried fish are very cheap and therefore, make a good substitute to relatively expensive, fresh seafood.  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 extra flavor. This dish is eaten with rice and is quite popular in Hong Kong too.

Kinds of Dried Fish in Hong Kong

Dried Squid and Cuttlefish

Dried, shredded squid is a popular snack not only in Hong Kong, but in many parts of the world! The dried, crispy and shredded squid can be eaten grilled, too.  This squid is imported to Hong Kong from Japan and Korea, where these are commonly eaten as a snack, paired with alcohol. Chinese and Japanese mothers like feeding dried squid to their children (microwaved-high till crispy and then eaten with a mayonnaise-soy sauce-cayenne pepper dip).  In addition, this high-protein, low-fat snack is a huge hit even among the younger generation in Hong Kong. Dried cuttlefish is another favorite 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 flavor and aroma.

Dried Octopus

Dried octopus legs are very expensive and taste like dried squid. Octopus is usually added to soups, particularly in some kinds of long-boiled soups. One popular method of cooking dried octopus is in 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’s dried fish stores. For nutritional value of dried octopus, click here.

Dried Anchovies

High in nutrient content, especially calcium, dried anchovies make a frugal snack and are regularly 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 careful as anchovies can create an overwhelming fishy taste. These make great sambal.  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 or anchovies with roasted nuts and dry squids. Another way of eating these is in a broth of seaweed. Simpler still, some just prefer toasting the anchovy and eating them with steamed rice or with a green salad for a crunchy texture.

Dried Shrimp

Dried shrimp is available in many shapes, colors and sizes.  They are ubiquitous, but some carry a hefty price tag!  These are used extensively in many stir-fry dishes.

Relishing the Dry and Salted Fish

There is a long a list of soups which can be prepared with varying types of dried fish and seafood. Dried seafood, such as oysters and mussels, is soaked in water for some time before they are added to soups or stews. The process of soaking makes the seafood soft and less salty.  In addition, it minimizes the cooking process.  Dried fish is added to the traditional congee for a flavorful kick – some fish are eaten in minced pork dishes while others are stir-fried with vegetables.

Dried anchovies are prepared in a different way. They 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 caramelize them. 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. 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 long list of dried fish and the many ways they can be prepared is endless.   While it might require a little courage and time to develop a taste for dried fish, the good thing is that these foods 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 and with a taste that lingers!


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Category: Asia Pacific, Featured, Featured Articles: Travel & Culture, Travel & Culture

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  1. Belinda says:

    WOW! These photos are amazing. I have always seen this dried seafood, but never really thought about why it was eaten nor how. Love dried cuttlefish – the spicy kind. Thanks for taking us on this journey!

  2. Kat says:

    Really interesting post. Thanks so much for the education on dried seafood. I’m game for tasting the prawns and shellfish varieties!

  3. Purabi Naha says:

    Thank you, Belinda and Kat. I am learning about different kinds of dried fish preparations here and I am so amazed by how different cultures eat these dried fishes in different ways!

  4. a Nordn'Ireland dad says:

    Thank you for this intriguing post, Purabi! Would really like to try some of these. Probably could only get them at the Asian supermarket in Belfast. My only concern: the salt content.