These days, the Mongkok Flower Market is a destination for more than just orchids and lilies. Faced with rising rents and fickle demand for flowers, many merchants have converted a portion of their flowers shops into fruit and vegetable stalls.
“Flowers are a luxury,” says Mr. Leung, whose shop, Fai Kee, has been selling flowers at the corner of Prince Edward Road and Yuen Ngai Street for more than 20 years. Four years ago, he began selling produce to take advantage of the heavy foot traffic out front.
“Everything is seasonal,” he says on a dog day afternoon, sun beating down on the vinyl awnings strung across the sidewalk. Leung watches as passersby eye the ground cherries, plump local bananas and sweet potatoes piled high in his stall. “I read reports to find out what’s good this season and I’ll pick whatever is best,” he says. “When we buy it, taste it ourselves and think it’s good, we know customers will like it too and they’ll always come back to our stall.”
Leung built up his expertise as a farmer. “In the past, the seasons were very distinct and you used to be able to predict the weather very accurately,” he says. “But now it’s all topsy turvy. The weather has changed so much, you can’t predict anything anymore.”
Many of the fruits at Fai Kee are alien-looking, but in the same beguiling way as the exotic flowers it also sells. Brilliant hues, unexpected patterns, bizarre shapes – we ask Leung to take us through some of his most intriguing specimens.
These strange, scarlet-hued fruit are alternately known as Thai or Chinese chestnuts, but their Chinese name is most evocative: Phoenix Eye Fruit (fung6 ngaan5 gwo2 鳳眼果). “They’re only available for a month in the middle of summer, when the flesh splits open and you can see the nut inside,” says Leung. “They used to come from Hong Kong, but people stopped growing them, so now they mostly come from Taiwan.” As with other chestnuts, these fruits are prized not for their flesh but for their edible nuts. Eat them plain, roast them, boil them in salt water or cook them in a stir-fry.
Originally from South America, these distinctive striped fruit, which look like tiny melons, are known in Cantonese as jan4 sam1 gwo2 (人參果) – literally “ginseng fruit.” Leung says they are sourced from a farm in Yunnan. “They have to grow at very high altitude,” he says. “They’ve only been available in Hong Kong for a few years.” Lucky us, because their delicate flavour, a cross between honeydew and cucumber, is perfect for cooling off in the summer.
Depending on your perspective, they might look like an exploding shuttlecock or the tentacular digits of an alien creature, but either way, these fruits are impossible to miss. Known in Cantonese as fat6 sau2 gam1 (佛手柑), they are green and unripe in the summer, but Leung says they taste best in the winter when they are bright yellow. “It’s very useful! You can make soup with it. Very healthy,” says Leung. They’re also auspicious, and people buy them for Chinese New Year to keep at home.
Fai Kee is located at 188 Prince Edward Road West.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.