In Cantonese, fishballs are known as jyu4 daan2 (魚蛋), literally “fish egg.” fishballs are commonly found in the cuisines of Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia, though not all fishballs were born equal.
Hong Kong’s own version of the humble fishball has become one of its most emblamatic foods. There is the kind that you enjoy as a quick-and-dirty snack on the sidewalk, right by the street food stall where you’ve bought them. They are drenched in curry satay sauce and a squirt of soy sauce or chilli sauce, and either served on a bamboo skewer or in a styrofoam bowl. Bought, eaten and discarded in under five minutes – there is no better way to enjoy them.
And then there are the ones that go in a hearty bowl of noodles, in a hot pot, or even just as a snack on their own if you are so inclined. The fishballs found at street food stalls all over Hong Kong are usually yellow in colour because they have been deep-fried, whereas others haven’t and remain white in appearance. You might wonder what actually goes in these tiny morsels. Typically, they are made of fish paste, which come from cheap varieties of fish such as grey mullet. The paste is boiled in a broth.
Fishballs were said to have been invented by Chiu Chow folks, who resourcefully took parts of fish that are rarely used in cooking and made them into a paste, then boiled, creating a ball-shaped snack. Cheap, convenient and delicious, this grassroots snack gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when hawkers sold them on the streets to hungry Hongkongers on the go.
In the past, fishballs were commonly made by hand, whereas today, many sellers buy these in bulk from suppliers, who produce them with machines. Whether they’re made by hand or machine, what defines a good fishball? While everyone has their own preference as to the ideal size, or how spicy the accompanying sauce should be, we can all agree that the perfect fishball should have a firm texture that is also “bouncy” on the first bite.
While it’s not a stretch to say that fish balls reign supreme, there are also plenty of ball-shaped snacks made of other ingredients. There are varieties made with beef, pork, or a mix of pork and mushrooms.
Fans of these (and Hong Kong cinema) might remember film legend Stephen Chow’s 1996 classic God of Cookery. The movie chronicles an arrogant, corrupt celebrity chef, played by Chow, and his fall from grace – and his eventual rebuilding of a culinary empire. Chow’s character, along with street stall owner Turkey (Karen Mok), plot to create the ultimate beef ball from mantis shrimp, also known as pissing shrimp, which they dubbed the “explosive pissing beef ball.” In one iconic scene, their fishball creation blows their business rival out of the water.
Although you won’t find any shops selling that cinematic creation, here are some of our favourite places to eat fishballs in Hong Kong.
Tung Tat Food Shop 通達食店
172 Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok, Tel: +852 2392 3043
This hole-in-the-wall in Mong Kok serves up a variety of Hong Kong classic street snacks, and is known for amping up the spice levels in its curry fishballs. Be ready to do battle with hordes of students and hungry office workers.
Fai Kee 輝記小食
9-17 Tin Lok Lane, Wan Chai
The fishballs at Fai Kee are bouncy and not too soft to the bite. Pair with ultra-spicy curry sauce, or with chili oil if you can’t take the heat. The stall is also particularly famous for its tasty offal, and we like to order both together for a combo of flavours.
Hong Kee 洪記
Unit CFS4, 2/F, Tai Po Hui Market, 8 Heung Sze Wui Street, Tai Po
This noodle shop has been around for more than five decades and is famous for its cheap and cheerful fishball noodles. Expect the fishballs to be a little bit softer in bite with a satisfying, smooth texture. Fair warning: there is always a wait.
On Lee Noodles 安利魚蛋粉麵
22 Shau Kei Wan Main Street East, Shau Kei Wan, Tel: +852 2513 8398
Family-run On Lee started out as a dai pai dong in 1966 and later moved into a shop. They do fishballs the authentic Chiu Chow way: soft and aromatic, yet without too much of a fishy flavour.
Welcome Food Court 時來食坊
150 San Hing Back Street, Cheung Chau, Tel: +852 2986 9969
Giant fishballs – we’re talking the size of golf balls – are considered a specialty of Cheung Chau. At this food stall, you can order them with curry sauce or barbecue sauce, or even deep-fried.