dried goods

Photos: Unsplash (Jacqueline Brandwayn) and VEA Restaurant

For the discerning epicurean, luxury dried goods offer a tantalising glimpse into the world of Asian haute cuisine. From the prized matsutake mushroom of Japan to the rare sea cucumber of China, these ingredients are imbued with a rich history and cultural significance.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, diners are developing a growing appreciation for these culinary treasures, seeking them out for their unique flavour profiles and nutritional benefits. Chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants and exclusive private clubs are incorporating dried goods into their menus, creating dishes that honour the tradition of using dried goods through innovation and sophistication.

dried goods
Sai Ying Pun/Sai Wan, is an area with a long history in Hong Kong with lots of Chinese dried seafood shops. (Photo: Unsplash, Melvina Mak)

Beyond their culinary appeal, luxury dried goods are also seen as a symbol of status and wealth. In many Asian cultures, dried goods are traditionally associated with special occasions, celebrations, and even emblematic meanings for prosperity, health, and love. As a result, they are often gifted to loved ones or used in dishes served to distinguished guests.

Desirable dried goods

Just five years ago, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) highlighted Hong Kong’s Des Voeux Road West as its go-to dried seafood street, touting premium black fungus for up to HK$1,000 ($175) for a kilogram. Similarly, other premium dried goods can set you back by hundreds, including half a kilo of dried fish maw for $400.

Exploring the unique qualities and perceived value of these goods, the SCMP article revealed that the market value of these sought-after ingredients stems from more than just their culinary appeal.

The Japanese sea cucumber might make you think twice before reaching for your wallet, costing up to USD$3,500 ($4,702) per kilo, owing to its thick body and satisfyingly chewy texture. But more than that, according to a Business Insider video, it’s revealed that sea cucumbers contain high levels of fucosylated glycosaminoglycan in their skin, which people across Asia have been using to treat joint problems like arthritis for centuries, and more recently in Europe, it’s used to treat certain cancers and to reduce blood clots.

dried goods
Chef Vicky Cheng. (Photo: VEA Restaurant)

Chef Vicky Cheng, 38, of VEA Restaurant in Hong Kong provides examples of how luxury dried goods differ from their more affordable counterparts, “The price of aged mandarin peel can go drastically high based on years of ageing, whereas fresh mandarin peel is generally cheaper. Mandarin peel from Guangdong XinHui has a long history and is known for its high quality. The grading and value (in terms of price and medicinal purposes) of mandarin peels can be very different, depending on whether they’re obtained from specific trees and harvested in a specific season.”

Additionally, these prized mandarins carry with them detailed information that includes the completion of their skins — for example, XinHui whole mandarin peel is normally cut into a three-petal shape — the thickness of the skins as well as the colour and ripeness of them. The more aged and fragrant the mandarin peels are, the higher the price tag.

With chef Cheng’s solid culinary background in French cuisine, he melds both Chinese and French flavours into his dishes at VEA Restaurant. His signatures include roasted sea cucumber with mousseline, fish maw with caviar and quinoa, and grilled threadfin with mandarin peel and fermented black beans — all of which don’t seem to see a cessation in their popularity and appeal.

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Chef Marvas Ng. (Photo: PATH)

At Path in Singapore, 37-year-old executive chef Marvas Ng — who immersed himself in Chinese culinary culture while at Le Pan in Hong Kong with chef Edward Voon several years ago — shares, “Diners these days are well-travelled and have a mature palate. They can taste the difference in quality in its looks and taste. For example, expensive fish maw is priced accordingly because they are thick. The taste and texture are very different when compared to their cheaper counterparts.”

According to Zolima City Mag, the history of Hong Kong’s dried seafood street goes as far back as the city’s beginnings, when the defeated Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) handed Hong Kong over to the British Empire.

After the British acquired Hong Kong, the city became a bustling foreign trading hub that Chinese entrepreneurs used as a base to expand their businesses. These operations saw a multitude of goods, such as teas, spices, rice, medicine, and dried goods being shipped in and out of the port.

Behind their exclusivity, dried goods — particularly seafood — in Asian cooking lend their dehydrated, saturated savouriness to a dish, especially when left to simmer for long periods of time. But beyond taste and value, the health benefits of dried goods are undoubtedly one of their prized qualities. Take, for example, sea cucumber; it’s rich in protein, calcium, and iron, making it not only ideal for overall health but also a hit with expecting mothers. Fat choy, a type of black moss, is touted as a solution for lowering blood pressure, reducing one’s “heatiness”, and improving the respiratory system.

Shady business

Like every coveted luxury designer bag, luxury dried goods, too, have their fair share of fakes and black market challenges. One prominent issue is illegal fish maw harvested from a species of endangered giant fish called totoaba. These fish are only caught in Mexico and banned from international trade, “but commonly poached off the Gulf of California, according to a report by the Elephant Action League (EAL), a non-profit wildlife crime watchdog”, states InSight Crime.

dried goods
Example of longline fishing technique. (Photo: shopeai5.link)

The article details how, in the fishing hamlets of San Felipe and Santa Clara, this illegal activity provides financial support to local poachers. These poachers then transport the unprocessed fish bladders to bustling urban centres such as Tijuana and Mexicali. Here, Chinese merchants oversee the drying, packaging, and eventual illegal transport of these fish components to southern China, where they can fetch a price of between USD$20,000 and USD$80,000 per kg on the black market.

Overfishing is also another concern, to which chef Cheng provides some relief: “In Hong Kong, we have a fishing moratorium period, which is starting to be a common practice now all over the world. There is a 3.5-month period from May to mid-August (annually) where fishermen are banned from fishing by trawling, so all the fish that we get during this period are always caught by longlining, which allows seafood and fish to have a (sufficient) period of reproduction.”

Supply and demand

With that said, the cultural and consumer demands of dried goods certainly have affected the supply — and ultimately, its prices. In fact, due to its overwhelming demand, chef Cheng reckons that as our oceans get polluted over time, marine life isn’t getting any “cleaner”. He elaborates, “And we believe that when the water is at its cleanest, the fish are living healthier and happier, therefore producing a better product. In other words, a 30-year-old aged dried fish maw from a fish that lived in the ocean 30 years ago is arguably much ‘cleaner’ than now.”

dried goods
Roasted sea cucumber. (Photo: VEA Restaurant)

Chef Ng sees the prices of dried goods skyrocketing due to the shift in consumer wants: “Due to overfishing, abalone and fish maw are hard to come by these days. Whenever fresh and big-sized abalone and fish are available, many suppliers would rather sell them fresh instead of dehydrating and selling them at a later date. This is because there is a shift in consumers’ preferences, opting for live seafood instead.”

Moreover, the demand for dried goods isn’t unique to Asian cuisine, with chef Cheng’s Chinese-French creations at VEA a great example. At Path, chef Ng serves its signature Fish Maw, preserving the special taste of the dried seafood. The dish is made with a douxi (fermented black bean) and a beurre blanc, and topped with Russian caviar. 

Likening the appeal of dried goods to handsomely priced aged liquor, chef Cheng posits: “People nowadays like to invest in things that do not have an expiration date and dried goods are absolutely an investment (in that sense). Similar to whiskey and ageing wines, ageing dried seafood is the same.”