Viewed as a fresh starting point filled with endless possibilities, the Lunar New Year is a joyous occasion when kith and kin gather for family reunions where food is always at the centre. Of course, many Chinese families stock up home pantries and larders with fresh and canned food, including the traditional Chinese dried goods and seafood, in the weeks leading up the holidays.
Founded in 1973, Teck Sang is one of Singapore’s oldest importers and wholesale distributors of dried seafood and other ingredients. The third generation of Teck Sang, Sit Chee Chung, says his great-grandfather founded this business in Hong Kong and his granduncle Seit Wing Yun and father Sit Kin Ming established Teck Sang in Singapore.
Located in a two-storey shophouse in Hongkong Street, it is home to over 300 items, ranging from top-grade Japanese sea cucumber and wonderfully fragrant Sarawak white pepper to fish maw from the Amazon.
The deal with dried seafood – How to pick, prepare and enjoy these delicacies.
While rehydrated, ready-to-cook sea cucumbers from the wet market are easily available, all three chefs recommend buying the dried variety for better taste and texture. Rehydrated sea cucumbers can sometimes be soaked for too long, resulting in a too-soft, mushy texture. There are many varieties. The most premium ones are the sea cucumbers from Hokkaido that can cost up to $3,000 per kilogram. “Japanese sea cucumbers are smaller and cook faster. They also have a crunchier texture as compared to the softer Chinese ones,” says Sit.
TAKE YOUR PICK: When buying dried sea cucumbers, they must be complete and whole – and dry. Pick ones that are large and plump. If you are short on time and are going for rehydrated sea cucumbers, smell them to check that they don’t have a fishy odour.
Dried oyster, also known as “ho shi” in Cantonese, is the key ingredient for Chinese New Year dishes and is often cooked with black moss, or fatt choy. It is excellent in stews, braised dishes, soups and porridge. However, it has an intense seafood smell and should be soaked in warm water and rinsed before using to remove excess salt and grit.
TAKE YOUR PICK: Japanese dried oysters are usually brighter in colour, with the edges slightly dark. They are excellent for braising or stewing due to their intense taste and aroma. South Korean dried oysters are also known as pearl oysters. Round and not as large as Japanese ones, they are dark green and have a stronger fishy scent; perfect for soup or porridge.
Dried scallops are like gourmet stock cubes and are commonly added to congee, soups, stews and sauces to give them a sweet, rich umami flavour. Also called conpoy, most of those sold here come from Japan or China. “Japanese scallops are harvested from the sea and have sharper edges. The highest quality comes from Hokkaido. They are usually caramel in colour and have a stronger fragrance. You can also taste the sea in them. China exports the rounder river scallops. They tend to be pale yellow, smaller and milder in flavour,” explains Sit.
TAKE YOUR PICK: “Good ones should have a fragrant seafood aroma and should be dry all over when you touch them.” Go for smaller scallops if you’re using them in soup or for stir-frying with vegetables. Dishes like pen cai need medium-sized ones as they are more presentable and have a stronger umami flavour. An added benefit of using dried scallops is that you don’t need to add much salt as they contain salt and produce enough flavour.
Abalones are a symbol of wealth and good fortune to the Chinese and are often considered as banquet fare. The shellfish imparts a distinct, rich seafood flavour to soups while its succulent taste and velvety texture are highly prized. One of the most expensive ingredients used in Chinese cuisine, the dried version is more sought after than canned ones because of its intense flavour and tender texture. There are a few varieties available and the red abalone is the largest of the species and most generally available.
TAKE YOUR PICK: Middle East abalones are hard and small with a faint colour but are smooth and rich in flavour. Japanese ones are flat with a wide surface. Usually dried on a rope string, this results in a smoother and easy-to-chew texture.
Rich in collagen, this is the swim or air bladder of fish. There are two main types: dried fish maw from larger fish such as cod that is more premium and hard with a dark golden hue, and fried fish maw from smaller fish, like yellow croaker or eel that’s usually long, cylindrical and light yellow.
TAKE YOUR PICK: “Good fish maw, fried or dried, should be an even golden yellow, fairly thick for more bite and whole. Avoid those that are broken in any way as well as those with a greyish tinge, which means they have probably been displayed for too long. Our most premium fish maw is the Nile perch. It is highly sought after for its size and thickness,” shares Sit. Of course, the type to buy depends on what you want to cook it with. “Dried fish maw is good for soups, stews and braised dishes or recipes that require a longer time to cook. Its texture is soft and tender and the flesh, thick with a good springy bite,” Sit adds. Dried fish maw from male fish is usually longer, firmer and more flavourful. In contrast, those from females are round, flat and melt quickly in stews and soups. Fried fish maw, on the other hand, has a crunchier, crispier bite and is recommended for stir-frying. As it is quickly reconstituted, it is also used as a wrap for meat stuffing.
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Bigger is better – Size matters when it comes to buying dried seafood.
DRIED SCALLOPS FROM HOKKAIDO
SIZE: S, M, L
As with any other produce, the taste of scallops can differ depending on where it is from. Hokkaido, Japan is famed for its seafood, so it is unsurprising that some of the best dried scallops also comes from this area. The grades available at Teck Sang are categorised, in order of descending size, as L, M, SA, SAS, and 4S. The price per kilogram increases with the size grading of the scallops – larger scallops are valued not just for aesthetic reasons, but also because they tend to be more flavourful as it is believed that the bigger ones have absorbed more nutrients in its lifetime. At the L grade, there are roughly 100 pieces per kilogram.
DRIED SPINY SEA CUCUMBER FROM HOKKAIDO
SIZE: M, L, 3L
Of the vast variety of sea cucumbers available, the spiny or prickly sea cucumber is the most prized thanks to its toothsome texture and the belief that it has a higher nutritional value – this unassuming marine animal is valued for not just its protein content, but its high levels of fucosylated glycosaminoglycan, a chemical that’s been shown to help with joint problems. The top three grades of this available at Teck Sang are the Hokkaido sea cucumber in 3L, L, and M sizes. There are roughly 60 pieces to the kilogram at the 3L size.