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Eating Grey Mullet with Sidney Mintz

by Sidney C.H. Cheung

Personal Perspectives

Summer Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(2) page(s): 30

Here are stories about three meals of grey mullet shared with Professor Sidney Mintz in Hong Kong.

The first meal was at my father's favorite restaurant. It took place at Tsui Hung Lau in 1996 when Professor Mintz first came to The Chinese University of Hong Kong to teach a course on Food, Health and Culture in the Department of Anthropology. I invited him to have a Chiu Chow dinner in one of the oldest upscale Chiu Chow restaurants located in Yaumatei in Kowloon.

I knew the restaurant quite well since my family used to live and work in the neighborhood. The restaurant was also my father's favorite. He even held a banquet there celebrating my academic achievement when I graduated from primary school.

Since my father is from Chiu Chow (in the Eastern part of Guangdong Province in China), most of the food there was not unfamiliar to me. I ordered a Chiu Chow steamed fish in which grey mullet was presented inside a fish-shaped dish with a small burner underneath, keeping everything hot. The fish was flavored with preserved lemon slices, scallion, vinegar and soy sauce. I guessed that it was Professor Mintz' first experience with that style and I was happy to find him very much enjoying the combination of dried lemon and grey mullet.

I have to confess that I myself did not appreciate the dish as much because of the tiny fish bones all around the meat, even though the taste was really good. Fortunately, the bones did not detract from Dr. Mintz' enjoyment of the fish.

The second meal was one I was not at because this was a lunch hosted by people at the administrative level in Chinese University. I do not even know the name of the restaurant they went to. It is a story told by Professor Mintz to me, so my version might be slightly different from the actual situation that he experienced.

I was told that during that lunch, Professor Mintz was asked to choose a fish he liked. This is a typical Hong Kong hospitality since fish is considered the climax of a Cantonese meal in terms of price, taste, Cantonese identity, etc. Of course he remembered the delicious grey mullet (wu tau in Cantonese) that he had before.

When he suggested having grey mullet, and he pronounced it in Cantonese, people nearby could not understand why a world famous anthropologist as well as a foreign food expert suddenly wanted to eat taro instead of a delicacy such as steamed grouper, which most Hong Kong people are proud of! I think it was not related to the confusion between Cantonese pronunciation of taro yam which is wuh tau and grey mullet which is wu tau since Profesor Mintz handles his Cantonese pronunciations very well. Rather, I guess it was because most of the people attending that lunch did not have a chance to taste that local, inexpensive, delicious Chiu Chow-style grey mullet dish. That, and they could never believe that this would be requested by a foreign scholar. The third meal>: This is going to be my invitation to Professor Mintz when he and his wife Jackie come to Hong Kong on their next trip. The restaurant is called Tai Wing Wah, and located in Yuen Long in the northwestern New Territories. The key figure in this restaurant is both merchandiser as well as chef. He specializes in country cooking and the village food of South China.

This chef has a famous dish called Hard-boiled Grey Mullet dipped in a special soy sauce. In Chiu Chow restaurants, hard boiled grey mullet is usually a cold dish dipped in bean paste. This dish is not only delicious because of the ingredients but also wonderful with flavors including social-cultural perspectives of the grey mullet. The fish served in this restaurant is locally farmed.

For decades, there have been many places using locally raised grey mullet in Hong Kong. Up to the 1980's, grey mullet was roughly forty to fifty percent of the local inland fish available here. It was widely used for banquets and special ceremonies. Later, more expensive fish such as grouper became more common for such occasions. Since the mid-1940s, marshes in Yuen Long are the main sites for cultivating grey mullet (as well as gei wai shrimp, carp, and other fish). However, recently even this remote area has been targeted for development.

In December 1999, a land development company set up under the Cheung Kong Group, which is headed by Hong Kong's renowned tycoon Li Ka-Shing, proposed the development of one part of Yuen Long called Fung Lok Wai (southwest of the well known Mai Po wetlands). The development company proposed to build a complex of twenty-story apartments on five percent of the targeted land area, while 'contributing' ninety-five percent of the land for wetland conservation.

There was a recent legal contest between the fish-pond farmers and the developer, as the farmers resisted moving away from the grey mullet fish-ponds in Fung Lok Wai. The lawsuit is not yet settled and I am looking forward to experiencing all these socio-cultural flavors together with the grey mullet dish with Professor Mintz and his wife during their next visit.

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