From shrimp paste in Tai O to chilli sauce in Aberdeen, we meet four sauce-makers responsible for the flavours of Hong Kong.
Saucy business: four of Hong Kong’s favourite sauce-makers reveal what’s inside their jars
ANTHONY YU KAI-CHIU Third-generation director and general manager Yu Kwen Yick Chilli Sauce (Yu Kwen Yick Products Manufactory Limited)
Anthony Yu remembers his father smelling of chilli sauce. “When the factory wasn’t in Aberdeen but behind the store, my father would come home and finish his dinner around 8pm, go back to the shop and continue to work late into the night, until 10pm or 11pm,” he recalls. “He’d bring that chilli sauce smell – that pungent sour, spicy smell – home and it would just permeate the entire house. The smell was especially strong when he would make a dinner of preserved sausages and rice with the sauce. It was actually very fragrant, but I was young and didn’t realise this. I just thought the smell was annoying.”
Today, Yu runs the business with his brother, Charlie, and their father acts as a consultant, or “dictionary”, as he says.
Yu’s late grandfather, a lover of chilli from Guangdong, founded the business in 1922. Yu remembers little of his grandfather – they didn’t have much time together – except that he loved chilli sauce, he took care of his staff “through thick and thin”, was incredibly sociable – even with the British, with whom he couldn’t communicate, but somehow managed to – and knew how to build strong, genuine relationships. “He was a very good PR,” Yu says. Everything he knows he has learned from his father, who took over the business in the 1950s.
Yu took the reins in 2008. He had studied in Canada and later worked as ground crew at the airport. When he was
studying, he missed home so much he would pour chilli sauce liberally over pasta and even pizza, sandwiching two slices together with the chilli sauce in the middle. For Yu, it was a natural move; it was his responsibility to inherit the business. His younger brother, who he describes as his “Robin”, is also a partner in the business, responsible for the branding and design.
The brand has always been based in Sai Ying Pun, where it has an almost cult-like neighbourhood following as well as loyal customers nostalgic for local brands. For Yu, the chilli sauce and chilli bean sauce are not just beloved condiments but products with massive potential.
“Just recently, the Lobby Lounge at the Intercontinental Hong Kong crafted a cocktail called Mr Yu – it had the Yu Kwen Yick taste and it really worked. So the potential of this sauce is actually great,” he says.
Alvy’s pizzeria in Kennedy Town also uses the chilli sauce to make fiery, crispy Buffalo wings.
“Our products are at least 90 per cent handmade and each bottle of chilli sauce takes up to six days to produce. The ingredients are fresh, with no preservatives or additives, so the shelf life is short (put it in the fridge after opening).”
This makes it difficult to mass-produce the sauce for supermarkets, Yu says. “That’s not our goal, anyway. We’re just proud to be made in Hong Kong.”