It’s a hot Monday afternoon and the Mongkok street market is packed. Rainbow-coloured umbrellas shade the stalls as hawkers cry out to passersby, competing for attention.
“$20 for two!”
“What do you want to eat? Come take a look!”
“We’ll give you extra!”
At the corner of Nelson and Thistle streets, a seafood stall spills out onto the sidewalk. Fish bide their time in gurgling tanks, in front of which an abundance of shellfish glistens on red plates. Suddenly, two writhing shrimp jump off a plate, onto the street. A slight, grey-haired man in a blue polo shirt leans down to pick them up. The stall’s other staff call him lou5 dau2 (老豆) – ”Old Bean.” Dad.
“We’re called Pui Kee,” he says. He introduces himself as Mr. Siu. “I’ve been in the seafood business for 30 years. I used to work for a restaurant – I went down to the boats and bought straight from the fishermen. Now I’m retired, but I come here for a couple of hours every day to help out my god-sons and pass my time.”
Hong Kong began life as a fishing port and this history is still reflected in the local diet. People here eat more seafood than almost anyone else in the world, with an annual per capita consumption of 71.6 kilograms, more than four times the global average of 18.9 kilograms. That means a typical Hongkonger eats just under 200 grams of seafood per day, equivalent to a third of a small fish.
All of this leads to brisk business for Pui Kee. “We tell our customers what to do with their ingredients, like how many ingredients to cook it, what to look out for so it isn’t overcooked,” says Siu. “Our customers like us for that.”
Most of Pui Kee’s products are imported — prawns from Korea, razor clams from Scotland — but there is still plenty of locally-caught seafood. “The crabs are local,” explains Siu. “They are called wong4 jau4 haai5 (黃油蟹) – yellow oily crab. Those kinds always come from around the Lau Fau Shan estuary. If it’s caught somewhere else, it has a different name. caught there is also good.”
Siu says clams are especially popular in the summer months. “You can make clear soup,” he says. “Put a piece of winter melon in there, because clams are ‘wet’ [according to the Chinese philosophy of sik6 liu4]. Melon will balance out the dampness. The soup is sweet and it relieves the summer heat.”
Shrimp is another bestseller. “We have many, many types of shrimp,” says Siu. “There’s daai6 faa1 zuk1 (大花竹), which you can cook in tomato sauce. With gei1 wai4 haa1 (基圍蝦) you just need to boil it in water. If you get pissing shrimp, you can stir fry it with Chinese yam, or you can boil it. Those are the normal ways, but you can also steam it with Chinese wine (faa1 diu1 花雕). Line the basket with fresh yam and pour the fa diu on the side for steaming. It’s very good.”
Something catches Siu’s eye – a customer peering down at the half-dozen varieties of clams on display. He wanders over. “Jiu3 me1 aa3 (要咩啊)?” he asks. “Whaddaya want?”
The customer buys a plate of local clams to cook in wine. A staff member pours them into a plastic bag and weighs them on a scale. He then takes some from another plate and tosses in a few more. “Here, we’ll give you extra.”
Pui Kee is located at the corner of Nelson and Thistle streets in Mongkok.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.