Despite British influence over the territory, there was a distinctly pungent smell of Chinese ingredients. It was 1992, my first time to Hong Kong, and the memories that linger after all these years are the smells: freshly baked char siu bao (BBQ pork buns), curry meatball skewers from the hawkers and, above all, the penetrating aromas of haam yu gai lup chow fan (salted fish and minced chicken fried rice).
The first thing you’ll notice about this particular version of fried rice is the aroma. To the uninitiated, this fragrant dish usually does not smell pleasant. But if you can get past the initial pungent odor, you’re in for a real treat.
Cantonese salted fish hails from the coastal Guangdong province of Southern China. Its culinary origins can be traced back to the late 1300s during the Ming Dynasty when food scarcity was prominent, especially among the lower economic classes. Fish was plentiful in cities like Hong Kong. And, as with other plentiful commodities, it was affordable. But without modern refrigeration, storing fish was a challenge. Salt preservation thus became a way to prevent spoilage and ensure food security.
The appearance of dried fish is rather unremarkable: dry and firm with orange-brown flesh. But what this fish lacks in appearance, it makes up for in taste, flavor and odor. The pungent fish is a natural addition or condiment, flavoring steamed buns, soups and vegetable dishes. It also plays a starring role in various rice dishes.
Up until the last century, salted fish remained plentiful. It was eaten daily as a source of cheap protein. In addition, the salt fish trade was a significant element of Hong Kong’s port industry. These days, however, the decline in fish populations and lower labor costs abroad means the once vibrant fish markets of Sai Ying Pun have slowly begun to disappear, replaced with modern restaurants, shops, art galleries and craft beer.
What remains is a generation of aging salting masters pushed to the fringes of artisan food preservation and a dwindling demand for salted fish. Yet, salted fish fried rice remains an underground cult classic with Hong Kong emigrants abroad.
Salted fish fried rice gained popularity with the rise of casual tea houses, or chaan teng, after the Second World War. These restaurants had mixed menus, reflecting a rise in the influence of British culture in the territory. Western food and drink like sandwiches, macaroni soup, and milk tea were served alongside more traditional pork buns, congee, fried noodles and fried rice.
The ingredients are simple: day-old white rice, salted fish, diced chicken, scrambled eggs and scallions. The preserved fish punctuates each bite with an intensely salty umami flavor. Scrambled eggs bring a contrasting sweet and creamy element. Bits of chicken add firm-but-tender texture. Fresh scallions brighten and lighten the heavy fish element with a sharp vegetal component. And all of these ingredients are supported by plain white rice, the perfect medium to carry intense flavors.
The salted fish is what gives the dish its characteristic flavor and odor. So how is it that such a large group of people came to love a dish with an odor that most of the world would find offensive?
For starters, humans only experience five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (savory). Most other elements of flavor come from our nose. Our olfactory sense provides the dominant element of our appreciation for food. Think about the intense taste of things like roasted garlic, truffle oil, fresh ground coffee, ripe strawberries – we have our noses to thank for these nuanced flavors.
In addition to helping us appreciate foods that smell “good,” our noses are also responsible for steering us away from odors we deem to be unpleasant – sewage, rotten food, manure. Evolutionarily speaking, this capacity to avoid bad smells meant survival.
But common preservation techniques – include salting, fermenting, pickling and curing – inherently bring with them “funky” smells. The aromas so often associated with preserved and fermented foods include musky, aggressive, pungent, yeasty or sour. Yet, some of our most beloved foods are described this way: sauerkraut, kimchi, Limburger cheese and yes, salted fish, for example.
Smells are often the first thing we encounter in a new place or with a new cuisine. It allows us to make judgements before tasting. For better and for worse. So, what happens when our expectations, our perceptions, are mismatched with reality? The stench of durian paired with its sweet creamy flesh or stinky blue cheese paired with juicy fresh figs? We’re often surprised in the most pleasant of ways, with an opportunity to taste a new cuisine and discover a new favorite food.
Not only does salted fish fried rice incorporate preserved foods, it also preserves memories. The smell and taste of this dish bring me back to visiting Hong Kong throughout childhood, eating my way through the city with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
This dish is my comfort food. It is a dish that carries the story of once prosperous relatives and refugees of the Chinese Civil War. It’s global presence on menus wherever Hong Kong emigrants have settled. It connects new generations with cultural and culinary heritage. And like all good comfort foods, the taste and smell of salted fish fried rice wraps me in a big food hug with memories of family celebrations and home cooked meals.
There’s a way to describe food in Cantonese, hoeng mei, that means fragrant flavor. It’s the perfect amalgamation of taste and aroma. But I struggle with the simplicity of the English translation because the phrase in Cantonese encompasses much more. Hoeng mei is mouth-watering with more olfactory gusto. It’s aromatic in the most appetizing and delicious way.
I often find myself in search of foods with hoeng mei, unable to precisely put my finger on it, but desperately trying to locate it. When I do, as with salted fish fried rice, I’m immediately connected to my family’s rich food tradition.
Now living in California, I feel like a true Chinese American when I order salted fish fried rice at restaurants. It’s like I know the secret code. I even order it in Cantonese. The waiters always nod with approval as they scribble characters I no longer recognize.
The trouble comes, however, when my German- and Irish-American husband tries to order it for me. No matter how many times he visits the Chinese restaurant around the corner for take out, they always double check his order.
“Yes,” he says, “That’s what I want. My wife is Cantonese. She’s not feeling well, and she wants a taste of home.”