Inspiration can come from anywhere. Some chefs find inspiration from their travels, while others may get inspired by everyday encounters. For Vicky Cheng, chef-owner of one-MICHELIN-starred VEA, the inspiration behind one of his signature dishes, salted fish and bak choy, came from a Cantonese song from his childhood.
“I remember when I was little, I was really touched by the lyrics「鹹魚白菜也好好味」(“even salted fish and white cabbage taste good when I’m with you”). It was so simple, but it just goes straight into your heart,” says Cheng. “When I came back to Hong Kong and met my wife, this is the first and only song I ever sang for her.”
“When I opened VEA, I decided to take the lyrics of this song and put it on the menu. This salty fish and white cabbage dish has been on our menu for almost six years, but we’ve always had different versions of the same ingredients.”
“Tai O is such a special place, so I try to keep it for special people. I usually come here with my wife just to really enjoy the moment.”
The star ingredient of this special dish, salted fish, is aptly sourced from Tai O, one of Hong Kong’s oldest fishing villages known for its dried seafood. “Hong Kong is such a special city that you can find almost anything you want in the world here,” says Cheng.
One of his go-tos is Yik Cheong Ho, a dried seafood shop that’s been around since 1938. Founded by a family who has lived in Tai O for generations, Yik Cheong Ho has all sorts of dried seafood, including a rare shrimp variety called velvet rice shrimp, which Cheng uses at his new modern Chinese restaurant Wing.
“We’re always searching for interesting products and Yik Cheong Ho has many. I recently bought some fresh fish maw, sea cucumber and different types of dried seafood, like extra large dried tiger prawn shrimps, dried scallops and dried mussels.”
A trip to Tai O is not complete without trying the shrimp paste, a famous specialty of the fishing village. Introduced to Cheng by a friend, Sing Lee Shrimp Sauce & Paste Manufacturer stays true to the traditional methods of making shrimp paste, which involves fermentation of local silver shrimps, sun drying in bamboo sieves, and grounding the shrimp paste by hand.
“There's something about actually seeing the process and knowing that it is being done right here in Hong Kong in the area and free of chemicals,” says Cheng.
The shrimp paste is not only a popular souvenir of Tai O, but also a condiment commonly used in Cantonese cuisine. For a taste of Tai O’s best produce, Cheng recommends the Crossing Boat Restaurant, a Cantonese restaurant built on stilts—a distinctive architectural feature of Tai O.
In addition to Cantonese-style dishes with a Tai O spin, customers are welcome to bring fresh seafood and request the fish to be cooked in a certain way. This time, Cheng brings some fresh shrimps and asks for them to be steamed. “The beauty of steaming, a common Cantonese cooking method, is to preserve the original taste of the seafood and highlight what’s meant to be”, he explains.