Spicy Hong Kong, Part I: Yu Kwen Yick, Sai Ying Pun’s Century-Old Chilli Sauce

Yu Kwen Yick’s shop in Sai Ying Pun

Night has descended on Kennedy Town and the scent of whisky, beer and sourdough fills the air at Alvy’s. When this pizza bar opened on Holland Street earlier this year, it offered a Hong Kong twist on classic American dishes. Char siu found its way onto pizza; the Caesar salad is made with pungent fuyu instead of vinegary mayonnaise. And when the bright-red Buffalo wings arrive with a side of blue cheese dip, those with a discerning palate will recognise something different about the taste.

“We wanted something to reflect some true Hong Kong characteristics in our hot wings,” says Alvy’s manager, Patrick Gatherer. “Growing up in Hong Kong, it’s the flavour that comes to mind when you say ‘chili sauce’ more so than something like Frank’s Red Hot.”

The secret ingredient? Yu Kwen Yick chilli sauce, which traces its origins back nearly a century, when a Guangdong migrant named Yu Siu-kee opened a hot sauce factory in Sai Ying Pun. Though it isn’t available in big supermarket chains, you may have seen its old-fashioned blue label in the wet market or on the shelves of family-run grocery stores. It’s one of many locally-produced hot sauces, which can be broadly divided into two categories: vinegar-based, paste-like laat6 ziu1 zoeng3 (辣椒醬) and oil-based laat6 ziu1 jau4 (辣椒油). Grab a table at just about any local noodle shop or cha chaan teng and you’ll find a little container of one or the other next to the chopsticks, spoons and vinegar.

It’s a bit strange if you consider the near total lack of spice in Cantonese cuisine, which takes a minimalist, ingredient-focused approach to flavour. Though spicy cuisines like Sichuan or Korean food have become popular in Hong Kong, many local eaters still turn up their noses at the idea of a dish slathered in hot peppers or chilli oil. And yet, there they are – those tempting jars of hot sauce just waiting to be spooned into fried noodles or beef tendon soup.

Yu Kwen Yick’s recipe dates back to 1922, which is when Yu Siu-kee began making sauces in Sai Ying Pun. He carried his products through the streets on a bamboo pole balanced across his shoulders. By the 1950s, the business had expanded enough for Yu to buy a delivery van emblazoned with the company’s logo. When he rented a booth in the Hong Kong Products Exhibition (the predecessor of today’s annual Brands & Product Expo), it drew then-governor Alexander Grantham and film star Law Lan.

All of this is documented in Yu Kwen Yick’s shop, which serves as both a retail outlet and a miniature museum to the brand’s long history. Although the company’s sauces are now made in a factory in Aberdeen, it still maintains its home base in Sai Ying Pun, where Yu Siu-kee’s grandson Antony Yu runs the business. He is soft spoken and self-effacing. “I don’t know why people love Yu Kwen Yick so much,” he says.

When Yu’s grandfather passed away, the business went to his father, a taciturn man who rarely spoke about his work. Although the family always had a variety of Yu Kwen Yick sauces on the dinner table, and Yu’s dad came home from work every day smelling like chilli, Yu didn’t realise how the family made its living until he was 25 years old. “I ate it day and night, night and day,” he says. “But I had no idea Yu Kwen Yick was famous.”

By then, the younger Yu was already well into a career working on the airport ground crew for a variety of airlines. When he turned 30, he was suddenly struck by a sense of aimlessness, and he decided to move to Japan, a country that had fascinated him since he was a young boy watching animé in the 1970s. He lived there for several years. Then his dad fell ill. Yu returned to Hong Kong and began helping out with the family business. He took over about 10 years ago.

“My father really was a silent guy,” says Yu. That wasn’t just true of family dinners – Yu’s father also shunned media attention, so the brand had begun to fade into obscurity. Yu took a few simple steps to revive it. He became active on Facebook and he enlisted his younger brother Charlie, a designer living in Japan, to create new custom-embossed glass bottles. When the company moved to a new location on Third Street last year, Charlie designed the retail shop, filling it with dark wood and artefacts that remind customers of Yu Kwen Yick’s long history. “We are just like Batman and Robin,” says Yu. “I’m the one running around outside, looking for trouble, and he’s the one who backs me up.”

yu kwen yick

“I wish the chilli bean sauce was the most popular” – Photo by Nicolas Petit

Even more important is what Yu didn’t change. The label is still a throwback to the 1920s, with an illustrated scene of junks on the Pearl River – an homage to the Yu’s ancestral home in Shunde, also known as Shun Tak, a region of Guangdong famous for its food. Whereas the cuisine of Guangzhou is more restrained, Shun Tak food is more liberal in its use of potent flavours like preserved tangerine peels (can4 pei4 陳皮) and red dates. Perhaps that explains Grandfather Yu’s taste for chilli.

The recipes haven’t been altered either. Yu Kwen Yick makes five products: classic chilli sauce, chilli oil, plum sauce, chilli soy sauce and chilli black bean sauce. When Yu says he doesn’t understand why people love Yu Kwen Yick’s classic sauce so much, he is only half joking, because its ingredients are about the same as any other local laat6 ziu1 zoeng3 : white vinegar, sweet potatoes, chilli, salt, sugar, peanut oil and garlic.

Yu reckons the difference comes down to the quality of the ingredients. His sauce uses fresh bird’s eye chillis and sweet potatoes “big like this,” he says, gesturing to the length of his forearm. (Sweet potato is what gives Hong Kong-style hot sauces their thick texture; it’s likely they were first used because they are one of the most affordable starches around.) Other local sauces are made with MSG and preservatives like sodium benzoate, but not Yu Kwen Yick.

The classic sauce has a sharp, assertive spiciness, and it remains the company’s most popular product. But Yu prefers the bean sauce, whose fermented black beans give the chilli an earthier, more robust stage on which to play. Yu’s grandfather came up with the sauce, but his father had discontinued it. He brought it back when he took over the company. Today, it’s more of a cult classic than a best-seller. “I wish the chilli bean sauce was the most popular, but it isn’t,” he says.

Yu says he has noticed an uptick of interest in recent years. “Not many old brands are left,” he says. “People are looking for something made in Hong Kong.” By way of example, he mentions how a Western restaurant in Kennedy Town is using his sauce on their chicken wings. Does he means Alvy’s? “Yes, Alvy’s!” he says. How does he like the wings? His eyes grow wide and he shakes his head. “It’s so spicy!” He laughs. “For me, it’s too much.”

 

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