15 February 2019
Two trays of sea snails from a seafood stall in Sam Shing Estate in Tuen Mun. Which tastes better, the light-colored shells or the dark ones? Photo: HKEJ
Two trays of sea snails from a seafood stall in Sam Shing Estate in Tuen Mun. Which tastes better, the light-colored shells or the dark ones? Photo: HKEJ

The Temple Street of my youth

My generation is probably the last to have seen the prime of dai daat dei or poor man’s nightclub.

The 1950s could be considered the golden age of the night market, where stalls sold all sorts of merchandise and various interesting shows and performances were staged.

As someone who spent his youth in the gritty parts of the city, I could say I have gobbled up all kinds of cooked food available in the streets.

Today, the Temple Street night market showcases mostly cheap knockoffs, pirated DVDs, as well as inferior clothes and souvenir items.

But it used to be a gourmet paradise. There was a time when both sides of the street, which cuts across Jordan and Yau Ma Tei, were lined with steamy and clamorous food stalls.

On Man Ming Lane, there were two rival Cantonese congee stalls that faced each other. On top of traditional congee and noodle dishes, they also offered turnip cakes, taro cakes and stir-fried seasonal vegetables.

Not far from there was an eatery that specialized in claypot rice.

Between Kansu Street and Jordan Road, customers ordered freshly boiled mantis shrimps, red-spotted swimming crabs, Babylon shells and stir-fried clams.

In my case, I had pork bone porridge and turnip cake because they were cheap. I would order seafood dishes only when I had saved up enough coins.

The mantis shrimps were about four to five inches long and no more than two fingers wide, while the crabs were tinier than the size of an adult’s palm. Still, they were not cheap.

In my opinion, Babylon shells and sea snails were better choices.

They could fill my stomach easily as they were more difficult to digest. I felt they were a real bargain because I could have as much chili or seafood sauce I wanted to go with them.

But every time I had to scoop out the shells from the water tank, the shop owner would yell at me to hurry up because he thought I was lingering at the storefront for too long.

After I had picked my shells, a shop assistant would pour them into a pot of boiling water, and in a few minutes, the tiny shells would open, which meant it was time to dig in.

My mind wandered back to memories of those good old days after staff at a seafood stall in Sam Shing Estate in Tuen Mun presented me with two trays of sea snails. I was then having a dinner with Darren Lim, the host of a television food program in Singapore.

The stall owner explained to us that the light-colored shells were farmed somewhere along a coast in the South China Sea while the dark ones were wild shells caught in the deep sea.

So the color of the shells could tell you which ones are better. But if you can’t decide, just look at the price tags.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 8

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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a veteran journalist and food critic

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