Header image courtesy of yumi_hklife (via Instagram)
Originally published by Sarah Moran. Last updated by Beverly Ngai.
Hongkongers love the flavours of the sea. Dried seafood (海味; hoi2 mei6), which literally means “sea flavour” in Cantonese, is an age-old Chinese tradition that plays a big role in festive banquets, everyday cooking, and even health. However, for the uninitiated, trying to shop at a seafood store may leave you feeling like Harry Potter attempting to navigate Diagon Alley in search of school supplies for the first time—clueless and confused. We shed some light on a few of the most interesting dried seafood you can find in Hong Kong, and what nutritional and health benefits they offer.
As funny as sea cucumbers look (yes, we know what you are thinking), they are, in fact, a delicious delicacy often used in Chinese dishes and soups. With dark, leather-like skin, this oddly shaped marine animal is rich in protein, calcium, and iron, making it ideal for improving the general health of expecting mothers. In addition, sea cucumbers are known to boost the immune system, prevent cardiovascular problems, and are also very low in cholesterol, so they are also quite a hit among the older generation as well.
Fat choy directly translates to “hair vegetables” in English, which is exactly what it looks like—long, thick, scraggly black hair. It’s perhaps not the most appealing thing to have on your dinner plate, but fat choy is an especially popular ingredient when Chinese New Year comes around. This is because fat choy has almost the same pronunciation as “發財,” which means “to have fortune” in Cantonese, and so it is customary for Hongkongers to eat fat choy during the festival in hopes that this will bring them good luck and fortune.
Regardless of whether or not it has any actual effect on one’s fortunes, it certainly does not hurt to try incorporating fat choy into your diet, as the black moss is loaded with other health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, clearing “heatiness” (accumulated heat and toxins), and improving the respiratory system.
A staple in Chinese medicine, the lingzhi mushroom is often hailed as the “mushroom of immortality” and “medicine of kings” for its ability to treat a wide range of health conditions. Whether you are looking to boost your immune system, improve lung condition and blood circulation, fight pathogenic infections, lingzhi is the go-to herbal treatment. Its medicinal properties are so revered that it is often consumed as a health food supplement among cancer patients and those with hepatic diseases. While this fungus has historically been prepared as teas or infusions, you can also find it in capsules, tinctures, energy drinks, and even coffee blends.
Abalone is like the caviar of Chinese culture. These dried sea snails are considered one of the four main delicacies of the sea, as well as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, making it a must-have at Chinese banquets. Dried abalone is usually soaked for a few days before it is boiled with chicken or pork ribs. It has a chewy and meaty texture—a bit like mushrooms—and is best served with oyster sauce. Apart from being tasty, the sea critter also packs quite the health punch, and is believed to be effective in relieving dry coughs and fever, and improving vision and liver function.
Fish maw, also known as “swim bladders,” is another highly coveted dried seafood. This Chinese delicacy boasts rich stores of collagen, which is beneficial for skin and tissue health. Also high in protein and nutrients like calcium and phosphor, it can further help replenish the kidney and boost stamina. Fish maws come in all shapes and sizes, usually from fish such as croaker, cod, and basa species. The ones from smaller fish are commonly used in cooking soup, while those from larger specimens are typically consumed for specific medical benefits.
Made from the abductor muscle of scallops, the dried scallop is a firm fixture in Cantonese cooking, usually put in soups, fried rice, and congee and other dishes to impart a sweet, umami flavour. While the cube-like seafood is most prized for its concentrated flavour, it is also surprisingly nutrient-dense, serving as a good source of protein, calcium phosphate, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamins A, B, and D. Adding a few of these little flavour bombs into your dishes can help nourish the kidney, invigorate the liver, and remove excess heat in the body.
Snow fungus is an edible fungus that has been called the “poor man’s bird nest” for its comparable health benefits which can be bought at a much lower price than the actual bird’s nest delicacy. Despite its name, high-quality snow fungus is actually yellowish in colour, and ones that are completely white have usually been bleached—so stay away from those! Cooked snow fungus has a jelly-like texture, and is used in both sweet and savoury soups. Considered a highly nourishing superfood, this gelatinous mushroom is good for clearing heat in the lungs, replenishing the blood and brain, strengthening the heart, and promoting overall immunity.
Oysters are eaten as a delicacy in many countries around the world, but instead of having them raw or freshly cooked, the Chinese enjoy these gourmet bivalves sun-dried and decidedly chewy. Dried oysters have a much stronger seafood flavour than their fresh counterparts, adding excellent body and complex character to a broad range of dishes. A firmer texture also means that they hold well to different methods of cooking, be it boiling, stir-frying, or braising. Equally abounding on the nutrition front, these salty-sweet molluscs are rich in protein and essential minerals and vitamins, which help to nourish the blood, invigorate the kidneys, and regenerate the skin.