Sidney C. H. Cheung

Chinese University of Hong Kong

Eating Grey Mullet with Sidney Mintz

I have known Sidney Mintz since 1996.  Here, I want to share stories from three meals of grey mullet (wu-tau in Cantonese) with Professor Sidney Mintz in Hong Kong.

My father's favorite restaurant

The first meal took place at Tsui Hung Lau in 1996 when Prof. 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 Chiuchow dinner in one of the oldest upscale Chiuchow restaurant located in Yaumatei, Kowloon.  I knew the restaurant quite well since my family used to live and work in the neighborhood nearby; that restaurant was also my father's favorite restaurant, in which he held a banquet celebrating my academic achievement when I graduated from primary school.  Since my father is from Chiuchow (in the eastern part of Guangdong, China), most of the food there was not unfamiliar to me.  I ordered a Chiuchow steamed fish in which the 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 Prof. Mintz's first experience with that style and I was happy to find he enjoyed the combination of dried lemon and grey mullet very much; I have to confess that I myself did not appreciate the dish so 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 his enjoyment of the fish.

I was not at the second meal

I was not present at the second meal because this was a lunch hosted by people at the administrative level in Chinese University, and I do not even know the name of the restaurant.  It is a story told by Prof. Mintz to me, so my version might be slightly different from the actual situation that Prof. Mintz experienced.  As I was told, during that lunch, Prof. Mintz was asked to choose a fish he liked (a typical Hong Kong hospitality since fish is considered the climax of a Cantonese meal in terms of price, taste, Cantonese identity, etc.), and of course he remembered the delicious grey mullet (wu-tau in Cantonese) we had had before.  When he suggested having grey mullet and pronounced it in Cantonese, people nearby could not understand why a world famous anthropologist as well as food expert just 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—wuh-tau and grey mullet—wu-tau since Prof. Mintz used to handle his Cantonese pronunciation 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 and delicious Chiuchow-style grey mullet, and could never believe that this would be the request raised by a foreign scholar. 

Socio-cultural flavored grey mullet

The third meal is going to be my invitation for Prof. Mintz when he and Jackie come to Hong Kong on their next trip.  The restaurant is called Tai Wing Wah located in Yuen Long, northwestern New Territories; the key figure in this restaurant is the merchandiser as well as chef, who specializes in country cooking and village food in South China.  This chef has a famous dish called hard boiled grey mullet dipped in special soy sauce (in Chiuchow restaurants, hard boiled grey mullet is usually a cold dish that is dipped in bean paste).  The dish is not only delicious because of the ingredients but also the flavors including a social-cultural perspectives of the grey mullet, which in this restaurant, is all locally farmed.

For decades, there have been locally cultivated grey mullet in Hong Kong.  Up to the 1980's, grey mullet has composed roughly 40-50% of the local, inland fish in Hong Kong, and had been widely used for banquets and special ceremonies.  (Later, more expensive fish such as grouper have become more common for such occasions.) 

Since the mid-1940s, marshes in Yuen Long have been the main sites for cultivating grey mullet (as well as gei wai shrimp, carp, and other fishes).  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, had 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 20-storey apartments on 5% of the targeted land area, while "contributing" 95% of the land for wetland conservation.  However, recently, there has been a legal contest between the fishpond farmers and the developer, as the farmers resisted moving away from the grey mullet fishponds in Fung Lok Wai.  The lawsuit is not yet over and I am looking forward to experiencing all these socio-cultural flavors together with the grey mullet dish shared with Prof. Mintz and Jackie in their next visit.