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A History of Hong Kong Sauce

A drizzle here, a splash there—sauces are the backbone of Hong Kong cuisine.  We love ours thick and we love it runny. We dip in sauce, we stir-fry with sauce, we marinate with sauce, we steam, we broil, and we braise with sauce. Sauces are one of the last truly Hong Kong industries—not outsourced to the mainland but proudly, lastingly, Made in Hong Kong.

By Adele Wong, Andrea Lo, Kiki Elijandy, Victoria Wong | May 02, 2013

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  • A History of Hong Kong Sauce

The Joy of Soy

Hong Kong food doesn’t get more basic than soy sauce. The savory condiment has a long and colorful history: invented more than 2,000 years ago in China, over the centuries Asian countries have developed their own versions of the black gold. Japan and Korea like theirs milder; Indonesia tends toward sweet, and Chinese-style soy sauce is sharp, strong and savory. According to one local producer, the best soy sauce is still made using traditional brewing methods.

Established in 1917, Kowloon Soy—or Mei Chun, as the brand is known overseas—is one of the few remaining Hong Kong sauce companies to brew soy sauce with the traditional, age-old method of allowing the the sun to do most of the work. Walk in to their Yuen Long factory, and you’ll find rows and rows of earthen vats sitting out in the open air, with gallons of soybeans—the key ingredient in soy sauce—at various stages of aging.

“Making soy sauce is like cooking soup, but the heat comes from the top instead of from the bottom,” says Ken Wong, the third-generation owner of Kowloon Soy. “The best months for making soy sauce are July and August—that’s when the UV rays are the strongest, and they help break down the amino acids in the soy beans.”

“We source the non-GMO soybeans from Canada, then ferment them indoors for a week,” says Wong. The company used to do this stage in Hong Kong using primitive non-air-conditioned cement units with ventilation slats in the ceiling, but now the whole process is done in high-tech cells in China. “This stage is crucial—and lots of factors need to be controlled, including temperature and humidity inside the room,” he explains. This is also the stage where Kowloon Soy works its magic to ensure the fermented soy paste turns out the way we expect—it’s a stage that is a well-kept company secret. All we know is that salt and wheat flour also gets involved. After a week, the beans are fermented and transported back to Hong Kong for the final stage: drying and further fermentation under the sun. The soybean paste sits and “brews,” separating into a layer of liquid (the soy sauce) and solid mass (the by-product). After about 100 days, the process is complete. The liquid is then bottled and packaged for retail, while the by-product is reused as a base for other sauces.  

The earthenware vats Kowloon Soy uses for the drying stage are no longer made—each time one breaks, there’s no replacing it. Wong and his team have been building and using large cement containers that go right into the ground in preparation for the day that the vats all disappear.

These days, most soy sauce companies do everything indoors in temperature-controlled rooms—it’s a more efficient process, by far. As a result of sticking to stubborn, non-economical processes, Wong’s soy sauces are also an arm and leg above market price—but he’s proud that the company has been able to maintain their family tradition, and boasts about Kowloon Soy’s superior flavors and character. “Our soy sauce’s fragrance is so sharp compared to other companies who do everything indoors,” he says. “You just can’t replicate the sun’s natural rays and its effect on the soybeans. Our soy sauce is like clay pot rice, while other modern soy sauces are more like rice-cooker rice. That’s the difference.”

By Adele Wong

Kowloon Soy, 9/F, Graham St., Central, 2544-3697.

 

Sweet Secrets

Whether you’re dipping your cheung fun or your Peking duck rolls, hoisin sauce, commonly known as sweet sauce, is the most versatile of condiments. It literally means “seafood sauce,” but despite the name hoisin doesn’t contain any seafood and is rarely associated with seafood dishes. The term might come from locals eating conches with the sauce back in the day, but nobody knows for sure—in fact, hoisin is actually made with a soy bean paste base, then flavored with sugar, distilled rice vinegar, salted garlic, sesame oil, salted chili and spices.

Koon Chun Hing Kee Soy & Sauce Factory Limited, founded in 1928, prides itself on its locally made products. The factory used to be on Kowloon City’s main street, but was forced to move during the Japanese occupation. These days they sit on 300,000 square feet of land in Yuen Long. The company has pledged to uphold their “Made in Hong Kong” motto and to keep standards high,
while sticking to the traditions inherited over generations of fine-tuning.

Koon Chun’s hoisin sauce is made using Canadian non-genetically modified soy beans; the soy beans are first cooked, then mixed with flour and yeast and sun-dried, before being turned into sauce. Enter the factory and the first thing you’ll see is a huge area dotted with never-ending rows of sauce vats. These vats preserve the unique flavors of the Cantonese-style sauce, and help maintain its quality before the packaging process begins. The entire process can take up to half a year.

Available across the globe, from North America to the Middle East to Europe, Koon Chun had never attempted to cater to the local market. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the company decided to make their products available in Hong Kong. We’re glad they did.

By Kiki Elijandy

Koon Chun’s sauces are available at select specialty stores including Loi Kee, Shop S27, 1/F, Sai Kung Market, 67 Yee Chun St., Sai Kung, 6292-8178.


 

Pearl Jam

No one knows a good oyster sauce quite like a Hongkonger. From fish balls to steamed fish and everywhere in between, Cantonese cuisine finds inspiration from the salty goodness of the sea. Since the 50s, hungry diners have named oyster sauce a household favorite, drizzling the thick, dark condiment over everything.

Some well-established local brands have perfected the art of making oyster sauce over the years, and one of them is the near-150-year-old Tung Chun Soy Sauce & Canned Food Company. Keeping to the same traditions that the company followed more than a century ago, Tung Chun begins the oyster-sauce-making process by boiling fresh oysters until they form an opaque white broth. Further simmering under slow and gradual heat reduces this broth down to a thick, dark brown sludge. Water, salt and light soy sauce are then added to the mixture, forming the oyster sauce we use as a staple for family meals or to topping our veggies.

“Oyster sauce has became so popular due to its versatility,” says Tung Chun spokeswoman Mia Li. “Whether you have a cheap family dish like sautéed vegetables, or expensive ingredients such as braised abalone, oyster sauce will enhance the flavor.”

Tung Chun prides itself on its three types of locally made oyster sauces, each for different dishes. The “Fat Choy” oyster sauce—made with a trace amount of oyster—is used for basic stir-fry or braised dishes. The richer flavored “King’s” oyster sauce—made with marginally more oyster—is recommended for marinating food. However, Tung Chun’s best-seller is their Premium oyster sauce, made with a whopping 8 percent oyster meat.  

While the brand has kept its saucemaking methods intact, Tung Chun has abandoned, for economic reasons, the local raft-style oyster farming that’s still practiced on Lantau and Lau Fau Shan—in which long, wooden logs are planted vertically into shallow waters for oysters to stick and grow onto. They now purchase their oysters from neighboring Asian countries such as Japan and China.

By Kiki Elijandy

Tung Chun’s products are available at most major supermarkets.
 


Extra Special XO

XO sauce is a quintessentially Hong Kong condiment. It was invented right here in the city in the 80s and named after the XO Cognac so beloved by local businessmen. A spicy sauce similar to chili oil, it is most commonly made with dried fish, scallops, shrimp and Jinhua ham, although there’s no definite guide to what exactly should be used.

It can be used in every step of the cooking process, from marinating to deep-frying, and it’s a common condiment for rice and noodles. While there are plenty of options on the market, Mrs. So’s—a sauce maker with a factory in Tuen Mun—is one of the last remaining companies to make their product by hand.

“My family used to own a publishing business. Our factory was in Yuen Long. The area wasn’t as convenient as it is today, and it was hard for our clients who came into the factory and our staff to go anywhere for lunch,” says Patsy Cheong, the director of Mrs. So’s. “A lot of our clients liked spicy food, and at the time we thought, why not create our own XO sauces for our clients and staff?”

And that’s how Mrs. So’s XO Sauce was born. “Mrs. So is my mother. She loves food—the XO sauce was jointly created by her and our chef at the factory canteen. The chef cooked while my mom told him what combination of ingredients would be best.”

“We don’t mass produce our sauces using machines. You could call them ‘designer sauces’,” Cheong explains.  “The quantities are not huge, and we make everything in Hong Kong. We are also quite strict in choosing our ingredients. For example, we insist on using kumquat, and it wouldn’t do to use calamondin [a similar fruit] instead, because we think the taste just isn’t the same. So we never compromise.”

As it turns out, the details do matter. “Cooking by hand means it is a lot more flexible and we can observe the ingredient’s condition while making the sauce. The consistency is a lot better in the final product,” claims Cheong.

Meanwhile, the company has since been experimenting with different versions of XO sauce, including a unique kumquat and black olive variety. “We experiment a lot. Our staff do taste tests of the sauces after we first cook them; then we discuss how to make it better with different portions of ingredients,” says Cheong. “Sometimes we have to cook them several different ways until we’re pleased with it.”

By Andrea Lo

Mrs. So’s XO Sauce, G/F, 220 Queen’s Rd. West, Sheung Wan, www.xo-sauce.com.hk.

 

It’s All Sour Grapes

The Chinese equivalent of balsamic vinegar, sweet vinegar is used to perk up dishes and cure the body’s blues. This multi-function condiment is gaining more and more popularity in an increasingly health-conscious world.

Pat Chun, a family business that makes one of the more popular sweet vinegars in the city, is a brand known for making healthy, additive-free sauces. Pat Chun originally began as a grocery store in Hong Kong that specialized only in rice vinegar. Back then, it was made at the back of a small shop in Mong Kok. Since then, and after 80 years of sauce-making experience, Pat Chun has turned into one of the biggest food processing factories in Hong Kong, boasting more than 50 varieties of condiments and sauces that also include soy sauce, pickled ginger, and bean sauces.

“Rice vinegar is just a step beyond rice wine,” says Dr. Ted Ng, the second-generation director of Pat Chun. Wine, essentially, is fermented sugar water, and with time it turns into acid, producing vinegar. Pat Chun’s sweet vinegar is made with rice vinegar that’s been fermented with sugar and fresh herbs such as Sichuan pepper, orange peel and cloves.

“Essentially, the whole process [of making Pat Chun’s sweet vinegar] is still intact, even after 80 years.” Says Ng. Although Pat Chun’s factory in Tseung Kwan O only opened last year, the brand prides itself on its quality. “[Errors in the process] could be various things: it come in the mechanical side of things—like if the stove isn’t lighting up—or it could come in quality of raw ingredients, where the taste of ingredients may vary from season to season. If you look at the history of other brands, many of them just collapsed due to these errors.” The rice is first fermented, then water is added and the solution is funneled into one-gallon tanks. Sugar and herbs are added to the mix, and the whole thing gets poured into six-gallon tanks for further fermentation. The entire process takes three to four days.

As for cooking suggestions: “Sweet vinegar is rice vinegar flavored with herbs, and the taste is quite akin to balsamic vinegar. You can use sweet vinegar for barbecues and for salmon. It will take away the fishy smell,” says Ng. “Some people even enjoy rice vinegar with ice-cream.” It’s also good in a variety of Chinese-style dishes such as cold tofu, stir-fried veggies, boiled garlic crab and thousand-year-old eggs.

Pat Chun’s sweet vinegar is an essential ingredient in pork knuckle and ginger stew, a classic Chinese dish that’s eaten as a health supplement for post-natal mothers. Old ginger, eggs and pork knuckles are stewed in the vinegar, and it’s believed to be highly beneficial to the mother’s recuperation.

Further down the road, Ng sees the potential of Pat Chun’s sweet vinegar as part of fusion cooking, and he hopes to one day see sweet vinegar replacing balsamic vinegar altogether. “It is a challenge,” says Ng. “Rice vinegar is hardly known outside Asia. Hopefully, people are adventurous enough to consider it.”

By Victoria Wong

Pat Chun’s factory is at Pat Chun Building, Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate, 18 Chun Wang St., Tseung Kwan O, 2392-6862. Pat Chun products are available in major supermarkets. 

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