21 April 2019
A dish second to none: steamed giant mottled eel with black bean sauce. Photo: HKEJ
A dish second to none: steamed giant mottled eel with black bean sauce. Photo: HKEJ

The slippery business of advertorials for giant mottled eels

I used to feel sorry for columnists whose works have been mistaken for “advertorials”, articles in a newspaper or magazine that are actually paid advertisements in the form of an editorial content.

But I found it a bit mind-boggling – and I even grew a bit envious when I learned about it recently – that a “key opinion leader” in the city charges HK$50,000 per social media post, which is absolutely short, only about a few lines long.

I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself, especially in view of the fact that I have been writing on my Facebook page every morning – for free.

Why should a post on social media carry such a hefty price tag? All along my only reward has been the pleasure of interacting with netizens, and getting a few likes.

The word “advertorial”, which originated from the United States in the 1960s, is a blend of two words, “advertisement” and “editorial”.

In Hong Kong, such articles are derisively called “eel articles” (鱔稿), which literally means promotional articles to sell edible eels.

Specifically, they refer to the giant mottled eel (花錦大鱔), which was promoted in the press as a novelty by Nan Yuan Restaurant on Wellington Street in Central back in the 1930s.

Since giant mottled eels are rare catches, people would flock to the eatery asking for the stewed eel head soup as soon as they learned that it’s available.

You might ask, why did the restaurant have to promote its specialty when it’s already highly sought-after?

The soup always sold well, but the rest of the eel’s body, which usually weighed over 10 catties, did need some marketing boost.

I was lucky enough to encounter the species this year, not just once but three times.

That’s why today I must write an “advertorial” piece in honor of this eel.

My first encounter was in Zhuhai, and it was a bitter-sweet experience.

The dish was stewed giant mottled eel with Chinese mushroom. I felt full after finishing only one slice of the 10-catty eel.

Then I met it again at a private clubhouse in Shunde, another city in Guangdong province.

The supposedly “giant” fish looked skinny, but the chef told me it was a wild catch. The dish, with braised pomelo pith, was very impressive.

Last Friday, I was invited to a newly opened eatery in Shunde. The restaurant owner handpicked a 6-catty eel from a small pool of 8-catty and even 10-catty fellows.

He explained to me that the principle of “the bigger, the better” does not apply to the giant mottled eel.

Actually, the larger the head of the eel, the better, but the body tastes the best when it is only about the width of an arm.

Don’t forget the tip!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 13.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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a veteran journalist and food critic

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