When it comes to quintessential street foods in Hong Kong, one of the best-loved has to be zin1 joeng6 saam1 bou2 (煎釀三寶). Literally “fried fermented three treasures,” it is also known affectionately as “three treasures” or “three of a kind” in English.
At the Causeway Bay snack bar Zaa Go 1996, which opened five years ago in an unassuming corner of Jardine’s Bazaar, ingredients for three of a kind are on display for customers to pick from. The aromas of the fried foods are particularly inviting on a street full of tourist-friendly pharmacies and convenience stores.
The shop receives “all kinds of customers,” says manager Joe Yip. “Neighbourhood dwellers, college students, tourists.” He attributes the popularity of the stall, which now has multiple branches, to its ingredients. “Everything here is the freshest it can possibly be. We make all of our ingredients from scratch,” he says. The three treasures are made by hand, including the stuffing.
Three of a kind is typically sold at street stalls or hole-in-the-wall eateries. A selection of ingredients is up for grabs; eggplant, bell peppers, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, bitter melons and sausages are some of the most common. The ingredients are fried, but they are by no means run-of-the-mill fried snacks. Prior to cooking, the ingredients are all stuffed with mud carp fish. Contrary to what its Cantonese name suggests – and perhaps to the relief of those who are not fond of stinky tofu (cau3 dau6 fu6 臭豆腐), there is no actual fermentation involved.
This humble street snack might seem basic, but the work that goes into making and cooking it should not be underestimated. Fry too many in bulk, and they go cold and lose their crispiness. If the fish stuffing is not done properly, it runs the risk of falling out of the vegetable. The greens could easily burn during the cooking process, too.
But when three of a kind is done right, taking a bite into a piece of it is a delight. Each piece is filled with layers of rich savouriness and an unusual mouthfeel. Served fresh and piping hot, it is drizzled in soy sauce and chilli oil. The soft stuffing balances the harder textures of the grilled vegetables, while the condiments help to offset the slightly fishy, iodine flavours of the mud carp. Some sellers offer larger amounts of three of a kind inside styrofoam boxes, while others serve them on a stick, much like other street food favourites such as fishballs (jyu4 daan2 魚蛋) and siu1 maai6 (燒賣) dumplings.
The most popular mix of three of a kind is eggplant, bell peppers and tofu, though the “three” label is perhaps slightly misleading, because customers are not limited to picking only three ingredients from the lot. Having said that, three or four choices is a decent amount of grub that would easily satisfy anyone’s cravings for fried, greasy foods.
Though there is not much documentation surrounding the history and origins of this unique fast food, three of a kind is said to have originated from Sanyi in southern China. This area refers to the former counties of Nanhai, Panyu and Shunde, which surrounds modern-day Guangzhou and Foshan. In previous times, much like many other street foods, three of a kind was sold by mobile hawkers on the streets, providing a filling snack for those looking for something more substantial than a couple of fishballs.
Today it is found not only in Hong Kong, but on the streets of Macau and various cities in Guangdong province. And despite mounting health concerns over the consumption of fried foods, three of a kind remains as popular as ever.
For those who are worried about the high sodium and oil content in three of a kind, the dish is easy to recreate at home. Chop mud carp until mushy, then embed the fish into the insides of eggplant, bell peppers and tofu with a knife. Fry or grill, then season with soy sauce or chilli oil to taste.
As for others who want to sample the dish in the most authentic manner, check out these eateries around town offering three of a kind.
Zaa Go 1996 渣哥一九九六
Shop B, G/F, 30 Jardine’s Bazaar, Causeway Bay, no phone
Don Xing 東興小食
Shop A4, 43-59 Tai Tsun Street, Tai Kok Tsui, no phone
Man Kee 文記傳統車仔麵茶餐廳
G/F, 55 Ngau Tau Kok Road, Kowloon Bay, Tel: +852 2707 0082
Wing Tai 榮泰小食上海麵
Shop 125D, G/F, Chu Po Building, Wo Tong Tsui Street, Kwai Chung, Tel: +852 2410 8849
Tam Gung Dou 譚公道小食初記
Shop 3, G/F, Tak Shing Mansion, 50 Tam Kung Road, To Kwa Wan, no phone
Photo courtesy Ivor Ngo