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I’m Sorry. I didn’t get that.

I’m Sorry. I didn’t get that.

Smell: the nose knows

South China Morning Post
  • Written by South China Morning Post

Hong Kong is full of evocative smells that imprint themselves on your mind as testament to your time here.  Below, veteran Tai O shrimp paste maker Cheng Kai-keung offers insight into one of the signature scents of Hong Kong’s ancient fishing villages, while the hiking routes that follow take you to these villages. Meander the markets and food stalls, and allow the smells to drift over you.

Veteran Tai O shrimp paste maker Cheng Kai-keung claims that he can smell when his famed condiment is ready for bottling.

Lantau Island is the green and rural counterpoint to the urban expanse of Hong Kong. With its stretches of sandy beach and kilometre-high peaks, it remains largely unspoiled.

On a clear day, you can see Macao from Tai O, a traditional village with stilt houses in western Lantau. Yet Tai O’s farming and fishing way of life has remained much the same since its first settlers made it home more than three centuries ago.

Tai O Village

Founded in 1920, Cheng Cheung Hing Shrimp Paste Factory’s proprietor Cheng Kai-keung hails from ancestors who have lived in Tai O for more than 160 years. Cheng is his family’s fourth generation of shrimp paste makers. He apprenticed in the authentic food processing trade under his father after working as a fisherman in Asia and the Middle East. “I came home to help with the family business after unrest began in the Middle East,” he explains.

Shrimp paste is Tai O’s most famous culinary export, though it is a remarkably simple product. “We only use shrimp and salt,” Cheng reveals. “For shrimp paste, in the past we used a ratio of 100 parts shrimp to 17 parts salt, but more recently we have reduced the salt to 13 parts as people are more health-conscious nowadays. For shrimp blocks, we use 100 to seven. The months between May and October are the best time for shrimp paste, and we employ several contract workers for a total of six people to take care of our 200 baskets.”

The most important aspect of making shrimp paste is exposure to sunlight and air, to transform its texture while eliminating its fishy smell. The process involves agitation of the paste every 45 minutes and spreading it thinly on wicker trays exposed to direct sunlight from early morning to early afternoon.

I can tell when the paste is ready from its smell; usually it takes three months of working it daily in the sun before it is ready to be bottled.

The stirring of the shrimp paste gives Tai O its familiar whiff of intensely briny aroma that some find delicious while others find nauseating.

“One time, a mother with her young son came by and wanted to watch me work,” Cheng recalls. “Once I began stirring, the boy immediately proclaimed that shrimp paste stinks. Though his mother reprimanded him for being naughty, I said that it was no problem for the boy to have an opinion. Shrimp paste is not for everyone. Yet shrimp paste is part of our dining culture. It is critical to many dishes in Southern China and Southeast Asia. It is part of our heritage.”

In his spare time, he enjoys walks with old friends and family north to Tung Chung or south along the many trails in Lantau South Country Park. In fair weather, he heads out in his open-air motorboat to fish. In foul weather, he joins villagers in a game of mahjong and other rural pastimes. In recent years, he has witnessed a resurgence of life in Tai O, with local tourists keen to soak in the village atmosphere on weekends and holidays. “Tai O Heritage Hotel has been a big draw, mostly for its colonial architectural design and tranquil way to spend a night viewing our beautiful sunsets,” he states.

Cheng is grateful for the livelihood that Tai O’s shrimp paste industry has provided his family over the generations and proud of what his brand has accomplished. “Our shrimp paste will prevail in the memories of anyone who appreciates traditional Cantonese cuisine.”

Recommended exploration

 Tung Chung to Tai O

Tai O is one of Hong Kong’s oldest fishing villages. This hike transports you to ground zero of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, heavy with pungent smells. Hong Kong owes its origins to villages like Tai O, and the aromas recall almost-gone eras of its history.

Information in this article is subject to change without advance notice. Please contact the relevant product or service providers for enquiries.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board disclaims any liability as to the quality or fitness for purpose of third party products and services; and makes no representation or warranty as to the accuracy, adequacy or reliability of any information contained herein.

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