Shrimp paste is used in Asian cooking to add a seafood kick to dishes. In the 1950s and ’60s, Hong Kong’s shrimp paste was held in high regard, but now, there are only a handful of independent producers left.
If a smell can represent a culture, then the salty fragrance of shrimp paste is undoubtedly the signature aroma of old Tai O.
It has permeated the Hong Kong fishing village for over a century, but today, that scent is fading, along with the inhabitants’ traditional way of life,
"In the 1960s, there were about 10 shrimp paste factories in Tai O,” says Cheng Kai-keung, 59, who started working in his family’s factory as a child. “Now, only two remain.”
Locally-made shrimp paste has become all but history. Scenes of residents making shrimp paste began to disappear around the 1970s.
Before, Hong Kong shrimp paste was held in high regard, owing to the city’s privileged trade position during the 1950s and ’60s.
The condiment is used across Asia to add an umami kick to dishes such as fried rice, water spinach, and even fried chicken.
In their heyday, Hong Kong shrimp paste makers exported their products to London and San Francisco. Now, Tai O is one of the last places in the city where shrimp paste is still made.
The last holdouts have been able to survive despite a law passed in 2012 to ban trawling in Hong Kong waters, which cut off most producers’ supply of shrimp.
"Between June and October, we would buy enough silver shrimp from local fishermen to provide stock for the whole year," says Cheng, who runs the Cheng Cheung Hing Shrimp Paste Factory founded by his great-grandfather in 1920.
(Read more: Inside the largest caviar factory in the world)
To survive under the new law, Cheng moved his production line to the Guangdong cities of Yangjiang and Taishan, leaving only the final processing steps for himself and his wife at the family’s Tai O factory.
An art of precision
Shrimp meat and salt are the only two ingredients of shrimp paste, and the process of making the mixture fine and smooth and drying it under the sun is crucial to the quality.
“An experienced shrimp paste maker can immediately tell from the smell.”
“If anything goes wrong, it will make the taste a bit different,” Cheng says. “An experienced shrimp paste maker can immediately tell from the smell. It takes many years to completely master the skills.”
Watching the humidity and sunlight is key to the drying process. Producers adjust the salt level according to the weather. “The wrong amount of salt will ruin the quality of the paste,” Cheng says.
For example, if the forecast calls for rain, Cheng will add two to three pounds of salt to keep the shrimp meat from going bad.
“Then this lot of saltier mixture will be blended with another lot made in good weather so that the taste will be balanced.”
‘No one is willing to join’
Although the industry is a traditional one, Cheng says his family business has relied on continuous improvement to suit changing market needs. For example, today’s paste is less salty than the products of his grandfather’s generation because of modern health concerns.
“In the mid- to late 1990s, people were alarmed by medical reports that consuming too much salt could cause health problems,” he says, “so we adjusted our recipe.”
Before the 1960s, there was no electricity in Tai O, so the family had to grind shrimp meat manually. “But once the power supply reached us, my father bought machines for that process,” Cheng says. “This halved the grinding time and made the mixture smoother.”
Traditional skills and constant adaptation to changes in society have sustained the business until now. But Cheng is pessimistic about its future.
“I can’t see the next generation carrying on with this production process.”
“I can’t see the next generation carrying on with this production process,” he says. “Our industry has all along been run on an apprenticeship basis. If no one in the family is willing to take up the trade, then it will just stop there.”
(Read more: Inside the vivid and vanishing world of fire fishing)
Cheng says he would not ask his three daughters—aged 9, 15, and 18—to take over the business. He does not mind passing on the skills to outsiders, but it will be hard to find someone who wants to learn.
“No one is willing to join the trade,” he says. “It’s a tough job.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.