The briny aroma of the Cheng Cheung Hing shrimp paste factory has lingered on the shores of Tai O for nearly a century. Shrimp paste is one of Hong Kong’s iconic sauces, an integral part of Cantonese cuisine and a popular export. And here in Tai O, it’s Cheng Kai-keung who makes some of the most coveted sauce.
The factory was founded in 1920 by Cheng’s great-grandfather. He has been making shrimp paste for as long as he can remember. When he was just six years old, he helped add salt in buckets after school. For the most part, the Chengs handled all the business themselves, with just a few casual workers to chip in during peak seasons. Between the six of them, they could produce about 36,000 kilograms of shrimp paste every year. They worked when the weather was hottest: only when the summer sun is blazing and the thermometer soars above 30 degrees is it possible to dry out the shrimps needed for the paste.
Tai O is a particularly good place to make shrimp paste, because the waters right outside the town are home to krill — a type of tiny shrimp — that make an appearance from June to October every year. In Cantonese, they are known as ngan4 haa1(銀蝦), which can be directly translated as “silver shrimp.” Each krill takes around three weeks to grow from a fertilised egg into a full-grown creature about two centimetres long.
Krill find themselves on the bottom of the food chain. They usually travel in groups and the seabed is their haven from the predators. It is only at night, when other fish are asleep, that krill come to the surface. If fishermen want to catch them during the day, they must hold the nets as close to the seabed with their hands as they can, but both the nets and krills will be covered with mud and all sort of sediment. It’s easier when night falls and the krill swim closer to the surface. Because they are so much cleaner, krill caught at night have sell for 40 percent more than krill caught during the day.
Many fishermen trawl for krill, which has been illegal in Hong Kong waters since 2013, so they now travel outside the city’s boundaries. The fishermen return every morning at five o’clock and berth at the shrimp paste factory, where they weigh the krills and sell them directly to Cheng. He recalls that the heaviest load he had ever bought in one day is 200 piculs – about 12,000 kilograms. The next step is to dump the krill into barrels, cover them in sea salt and leave them to ferment.
Compared to shrimp sauce, which can be processed and sold on the same day, shrimp paste takes much longer to make. Krill are fermented for three to four days and ground with a stone mill, then dried under the sun for a month. All of this gives the paste a smooth, silky texture and an unforgettably potent aroma. Shrimp sauce (haa1 zoeng3 蝦醬) is kept in a jar, ready to use like marmalade. Shrimp paste (haa1 gou1 蝦膏) is cut into a small pink brick, you take a teaspoonful for cooking, similar to a cube of chicken bouillon.
The Chengs spend all their time processing shrimp, so to sell their product, they work with a sauce wholesaler who supplies high-end restaurants and hotels. But they also work with a smaller distributor who sells to wet markets and dai pai dongs, so whether you are eating in a fancy restaurant or on the street, it’s the same Tai O flavours you will be consuming. This uniquely salty, shrimpy flavour seizes all of your tastebuds.
Shrimp paste isn’t only sold in Hong Kong. In the past, Taishanese immigrants to the United States and Canada were a big market, especially since they love steaming minced meat cakes with salted shrimps. Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnamese all have their own varieties of shrimp paste too. When Vietnamese refugees began pouring into Hong Kong in the late 1970s, Cheng remembers the demand for shrimp paste went up exponentially.
But it hasn’t always been an easy industry. In the 1960s, the Cheng family had to buy salted shrimp from Singapore because local fishermen did not find a single krill in the sea. These Singaporean salted shrimps were dried without any fermentation, so the quality was nowhere near as good as Tai O’s native product. Luckily, the krill returned and the shrimp paste industry has survived ever since.
Cheng says the market has neither shrunk nor grown much over the last few decades, but he has grown accustomed to seasonal variations in demand. Whenever water spinach (ung3 coi3 蕹菜) comes into season around March and April, shrimp paste sales nearly double. That’s because many people love cooking water spinach with shrimp paste.
As far as his own favourite dish is concerned, Cheng loves fried chard – a leafy green vegetable with a long white stalk. These are especially popular in winter, when they are fried with garlic, fermented soybeans and — of course — shrimp paste. Add a bit of water and simmer them for a few minutes and you will soon have a saucy, crunchy dish that tastes of the sea.