Snapshots from Asia: Hong Kong’s Outdoor Fish Markets and the Asian Reverence for Fish
Fish is a big deal in Asia. The older generations can tell, at a taste, if the fish presented to them was wild caught or farm-raised. More remarkably, they can tell if the fish had been gaily swimming just prior to being cooked, or if it had been bottom-up for hours. This super palate can be quite the annoyance, especially when everyone else around the table is starving. A highly exacting uncle of mine has a reputation for sending fish that’s not screamingly fresh back to the kitchen with a caustic “Please, have some.” I love him dearly, but I make it a point of having a pre-meal meal before dining with him. My stomach has rumbled through one too many perfectly good fish being turned away at the table—for being just shy of screamingly fresh.
Having said that, I reckon Uncle would be quite content with the offerings at Hong Kong’s outdoor seafood markets. Entire streets are lined with vendors, and tubs upon tubs of live fish, shellfish, and even frogs. From geoduck with their elephant trunks, to prickly sea urchins, and alien-looking shellfish, the dazzling array would render even the most demanding of gourmets satisfied. Plus, competition among vendors is intense, guaranteeing you the best and freshest of the day’s catch.
The markets buzz with energy. Housewives haggle with vendors while poking at crabs with tongs, only selecting the ones that latch on in anger—because it is the feisty crab that tastes the sweetest. Next to the live tubs, fish that have given up the good fight are laid out on enameled metal plates and sold at a discount. Vendors stride around in slick galoshes, seeking to make eye contact with potential buyers as they shout out their wares and “Cheap, cheap!” prices.
The streets are wet from being continually sluiced with water—once a buyer has selected a fish, the fishmonger gets to work scaling and cleaning, sending slippery entrails and shiny, rainbow-hued flecks swooshing down a central gutter. Unlike at a Western seafood counter, the fishmonger never decapitates the fish. The Chinese believe that everything in life needs to be accomplished with a beginning and an end (to have a “head” and a “tail”). Fish, therefore, need to be eaten in their entirety. Besides, if the fishmonger were to discard the head, what heartbreaking waste it would be! Who would want to miss out on the fish’s cheeks, with its tender, silken pouch of flesh, or sacrifice the sweet, unctuous fluid in the fish’s eyeball (the marine equivalent of extracting the gelatinous marrow from a roasted bone)?
This Asian reverence for fish is the reason why Chinese home cooks never batter and fry fresh fish. The Chinese view fried fish with great suspicion—the belief is that if the chef has to mask the fish in oil and flour, then it was probably enroute to the trash to begin with. Instead, fresh fish simply steamed is revered as one of the greatest expressions of culinary finesse. It’s the reason why fish in better Asian restaurants is always labeled “market price” (the good stuff is never frozen), and also why you’ll never catch an Asian person ordering fried fish!
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.