Hong Kong began as a fishing village. While the scale and economic importance of this industry has diminished over the years, this heritage has never been more important. For a modern metropolis we are blessed to have an active fishing industry right in our midst, and we are incredibly lucky to be able to feast on live seafood that were caught nearby on the same day.
In an age where hunting and foraging is not a realistic option, consuming wild local seafood is one of the few remaining ways we can celebrate the natural order and find communion with nature. Consuming local wild seafood is also about supporting a way of life for the fishermen. Fishing is hard physical labour and the rewards are basic at best, but it is a noble profession deserving of all our support. Having said that, accessing the local markets can be a discombobulating experience because there are so many choices and if one is not observant they can all look the same.
In a typical wet market, only about 15% of the seafood are local and wild. There are no easy guidelines to tell for sure which is which—most important is time and experience at the market and interaction with trusted vendors. If one visits the market regularly the seasonality and the differences between varieties will become more obvious. The wet markets in Aberdeen, Mongkok, Tsuen Wan, Tai Po, Lau Fau Shan, and Sai Kung are good ones to visit.
Local Green Mud Crab and Velvet Shrimps
Local Green Mud Crab: At the local market there are many crabs that are olive green in colour but only a few are truly local and wild. The larger ones are usually imported from Sri Lanka for uses such as “under the bridge” crab or for (black) pepper crabs. The meat of green mud crabs is not particularly delicate but it has robust texture and flavour. The roe of female crabs is also very sweet and aromatic.
Velvet Shrimps: Throughout the year we have close to 10 varieties of small shrimps in Hong Kong. Each of them have their own character and it’s truly worth the effort to know them all despite sometimes similar appearances. Velvet shrimps are red and translucent white in colour, and grow to be about the size, and of fingers. The Cantonese name translates to “red rice.” Locally they are simply boiled and dipped in chilli-infused soy sauce. The meat is sweet and it has a pleasant “bouncy” texture.
Smelts, Four-Lined Tongue Sole, and Local Spiny Lobsters
Smelt/Japanese Whitings: Despite the Japanese reference in the name (it is called kisu in Japan and is a standard fish for tempura), it is a popular fish in Hong Kong. It has sweet white meat that is excellent for frying or grilling. In the old days it was fried and then left to be eaten cold and is said to resemble crabmeat. Nowadays it is more of a luxury in itself.
Four Lined Tongue Sole: Local fish royalty. The fish lives on sandy bottom in the estuary intersection between fresh and salt water. It can be difficult to identify because many types of sole look similar, and there are also farmed ones which are a bit inferior and can be identified by its darker colour and black blotches on the underside. The locals love this sole for its smooth gelatinous skin and the firm but delicate meat.
Local Spiny Lobsters: One usually can find a few types of spiny “rock” lobsters (the types without claws) at local wet markets but virtually all of them are imported. They usually come from Southeast Asia, Australia, America, or Europe. The ones indigenous to Hong Kong can be found once in a while. They are brown/green in colour and don’t usually grow too big.
Local Squids, Cuttlefish, Yellow-Fin Bream, and Longfinned Bullseye
Local Squids and Cuttlefish: Probably no other seafood are as sensitive to freshness as these. The flavour, texture, and appearance of these mollusks changes by the hour after they die. When they are alive the meat is transparent and iridescent; it is sweet and has a soft crunch. Gradually they turn soft and opaque white. There are a few different varieties here and occasionally they can be found alive.
Yellow Fin Bream: The yellow fin bream belongs to the sparidae family which contains more than 150 varieties across the world—in Hong Kong alone there are more than a half dozen species. Yellow fin is the most prized because of its sturdy, meat like texture and its rich flavour. This fish is a bottom dwelling carnivore and feasts on mussels, oysters, and crabs that we would often find in their stomachs. Little wonder they taste so good.
Longfinned Bullseye: This fish is commonly used in Chiu Chow cuisine, where it is usually served chilled with fermented bean sauce after simmering in seawater. The meat is fatty and robust in flavor. It lives near rocky ledges in deep water where it hunts for shrimps and crabs.
Threadfin, Grey Mullet, Bamboo Prawns, and Local Flower Crabs
Threadfin: Dollar for dollar, threadfin is one of the most outstanding local fish to eat in Hong Kong. While it is not cheap, it is neither so absurdly expensive like yellow croaker or spotted tail morwong can be. The meat is sweet and mild while the texture is delicate and soft. The fish head is especially popular because of its collagen and fat content.
Grey Mullet: Grey mullet is an important food fish species in the world. The fish is famous as much for its robust white flesh as its finely textured orange roe, which is salted, pressed and dried. Mullet roe is a delicacy produced in Taiwan, Japan, and Sicily.
Bamboo Prawns: When cooked, bamboo prawns turns vibrant orange and white. In Japan it is called kuruma ebi and is one of the most popular sushi toppings. These prawns are also native too Hong Kong but they are also farmed because they are relatively hardy and have good commercial value. They are have mild flavour but their “crunchy” texture stands out. They are suitable for a variety of preparation, from raw to poached to pan-fried in sauces.
Local Flower Crab: Flower crab is the king of local crabs. Its patterned orange/red coloured shell is easily recognizable and can easily be 3 to 4 times more expensive than other crabs at the market—at restaurants, a large 3 catty crab can cost upwards to a couple thousands of dollars. Less expensive imports from the Philippines are available but the quality are considered inferior. Flower crab’s meat is delicate, aromatic, and sweet. It is for sure one of the best crabs in the world.