Six most expensive local delicacies in Hong Kong
There’s no shortage of fine dining options in Hong Kong. But there’s also a brisk trade in exorbitantly priced delicacies – morsels that carry status by virtue of their scarcity and cost, or boast an impressive list of health benefits. Some of the most prized – and occasionally the downright weird – are put under the griller here.
Cocaine of the Sea
To find high-end fish maw, one need look no further than the many dried seafood outlets on the streets of Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district. Fish maw is actually the swim bladder, a gas-filled organ located near the gills of fish – providing the buoyancy they need to maintain their depth in water. In truth, you can get a tasty serve of fish maw with a plate of Chinese vegetables and a bowl of steamed rice for under HK$100 at any number of cha chaan tengs dotted around the city – but for fish maw at the very top of the price spectrum, the cost is a good deal higher.
The most expensive fish maw is found in the Gulf of Mexico and is sourced from totoaba – a type of drum fish. Totoaba bladder is, in fact, so valuable it has been nicknamed the ‘cocaine of the sea’. It can reportedly fetch as much as US$129,000 (HK$1.01 million) per kg on the black market. There are, however, a couple of catches. The first is that international trade in totoaba maw is banned. The second is that totoaba is becoming increasingly rare due to overfishing, with grave concerns that it is being hunted to extinction. Fortunately there are plenty of more readily available sources of fish maw on the market if that’s your fancy.
Caterpillar fungus (a species of Cordyceps), is another in-demand delicacy with an extravagant price tag. It is prized for its aphrodisiac properties – which is why it is commonly referred to as Himalayan Viagra.
The life cycle by which the caterpillar fungus comes into is like something out of a B-grade horror movie, along the lines of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Caterpillar fungus is found on the Tibetan Plateau. It is here that it invades the bodies of caterpillars of the Thitarodes moth. The caterpillars are born underground, ingest a kind of fungus, which infects takes over the host’s tissue. These unfortunate caterpillars never metamorphosize. Their bodies are taken over by the caterpillar fungus, which then shoots out hardened plant roots.
In addition to its aphrodisiac properties, the caterpillar fungus is also believed to be a cure-all valued for its power to treat back and knee pains, reduce stress and coughing and even treat anemia by boosting haemaglobin levels – but it’s worth noting that these claims do not have a basis in science.
Especially popular as a Chinese medicine, caterpillar fungus sells for as high as 880,000 RMB (HK$1.03 million) per kg and is usually served up double-boiled in soup for maximum impact. Given the price, you would certainly want to get maximum bang for your buck.
For the Birds
Another very popular dish commonly served up on special occasions in Hong Kong is bird’s nest soup. The key ingredient here is actually the saliva of the a particular species of bird – the swift – which uses its saliva to bind its nest together and is prized for its all-round medicinal benefits, especially to the skin, the lungs and the digestive system. The substance extracted from the abandoned nests are highly expensive due to their rarity and difficulty of retrieval – as the swift nests high up on cliff faces and caves in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Consuming the saliva of another creature may turn off some diners but at least no birds were killed in the process, though the extraction process can be dangerous with those hired to collect the bird’s nest from their precarious resting places. Prices for the precious substance generally starts at around HK$175,000 per kg. As the name suggests, it is usually double-boiled in a soup of gelatinous strands.
Mushrooms are a central part of much of traditional Chinese cooking – and are usually affordably prices and easily purchased in any number of wet markets around Hong Kong. But there are exceptions to this rule. With some mushrooms only available to those ready to part with a fair wad of cash.
The priciest of these exotic fungal delicacies is the Hericium Erinaceus. Also called lion’s mane and/or monkey’s head mushroom due to its characteristics shape, this rare and delicate fungus grows wild in the northeast Chinese province of Heilongjiang. It typically prospers in the trunk or hollow of a hardwood tree in the deep recesses of a forest. The fresh mushroom is more costly than the dried version and weights in at around 350 RMB per 500g, although it’s usually sold in half kilo lots. It is praised for boosting blood circulation and reducing cholesterol.
More expensive still is the matsutake mushroom. Commonly known as the ‘king of fungi’, this mushroom can only thrive in pristine forests free of human influence and grows wild in a number of provinces in northern China. It takes up to five years to grow to fruition and must be picked and consumed within 48 hours – making it a challenge to get it from forest to table.
The dried version is pricier than the fresh version and can fetch up to 2000 RMB per 500g. It usually steamed or served up in a soup but should be cooked at or below 90 degree Celsius to preserve its cancer-fighting properties.
Often gracing the tables of special occasion dining in Hong Kong and mainland China. these delicacies are often served up on special occasions. Abalone is a staple at multi-course meals in Chinese restaurants around Asia. Strict controls on the number of licences available push up the price of these tasty – if somewhat rubbery – gastropod mollusks. High in selenium, which is good to boost stamina, abalone can sell for up to HK$35,000 per kg.
Despite the name, sea cucumbers, are in fact marine animals. These slug-shaped seafloor dwellers were once popular at banquets in China but have fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years. Although they can still fetch a price as high as 20,000 RMB per kg, driven up by how long these critters take to mature. It is believed that the recovery of post-operative patients can be speeded up eating braised sea cucumber in porridge.