CHENG KAI-KEUNG

Fourth-gen­er­a­tion owner, Cheng Che­ung Hing Shrimp Paste Fac­tory

Crave - - PEOPLE -

You can smell the shrimp paste from far away – a pun­gent salty, stinky odour that en­velops vis­i­tors me­an­der­ing through Tai O. The sleepy fish­ing vil­lage is eerily quiet on a sum­mer’s morn­ing, empty save for the oc­ca­sional bi­cy­cle de­liv­ery­man wheez­ing through the nar­row al­leys. It took a while to find some­one to ask for di­rec­tions to Cheng Che­ung Hing Shrimp Paste Fac­tory. When I fi­nally find some­one, she says, “Turn right at the junc­tion… or fol­low the smell. Can’t you smell it?”

The word “fac­tory” turns out to be some­what mis­lead­ing.

The store is a no-frills, open space at­tached to the fam­ily home, where fourth-gen­er­a­tion owner Cheng Kai-keung is hav­ing lunch with his wife and daugh­ters. The neighbour’s chil­dren are play­ing with Lego on the floor. They’re not hav­ing any shrimp dishes. “Who can stand eat­ing it when you work with the shrimp every day?” Cheng’s wife laughs. At the back of the house, creamy grey-pur­ple shrimp paste dries in the sun on rows of round wo­ven-bam­boo trays. A gust of wind blows through. “Smell that?” he smiles. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

Cheng Che­ung Hing is best known for its shrimp paste (ha goh) and shrimp sauce (ha che­ung). Cheng’s great-grand­fa­ther started the com­pany, in 1920. Cheng re­joined the fam­ily bui­ness in Tai O af­ter work­ing as a me­chanic in Aberdeen, where he also helped out on the boats. He buys tiny sil­ver shrimp from fish­er­men, from July to Oc­to­ber. To pre­vent it spoil­ing, the shrimp meat is pul­verised with salt: 100 jin of shrimp to seven jin of salt for shrimp paste, or 12 to 13 jin of salt for shrimp sauce. In a ma­chine that re­sem­bles an enor­mous blender, the salted shrimp are ground un­til silky smooth, with a tex­ture al­most like ice cream, then poured into mas­sive plas­tic bar­rels. Cheng uses a bam­boo rod to mix the paste, al­low­ing the wind to carry off some of the fishi­ness. The paste is dried, ground and shaped into bricks by hand – his wife’s – with a sin­gle rec­tan­gu­lar mould, then dried again and bagged. The shrimp sauce is left to fer­ment for three to four days. Dur­ing the sun-dry­ing process, the shrimp sauce is mixed every 45 min­utes for five hours a day. One batch typ­i­cally takes three weeks to make.

It’s the same method Cheng has used for four decades. He’s made slight ad­just­ments, such as less­en­ing the salt lev­els and us­ing ma­chines to grind the shrimp. “It’s not only much more ef­fi­cient but the paste is also much smoother,” he says.

But not ev­ery­thing can be done with a ma­chine. “The sun is es­sen­tial,” Cheng says. “My father once con­sulted a university pro­fes­sor who per­formed an ex­per­i­ment where they de­hy­drated squid with ma­chines, and the fra­grance just wasn’t there. Turns out, the UV rays break down the pro­teins in the shrimp and re­lease the aroma. That’s why it’s so fra­grant. Think about your clothes. They are softer when you dry them in the sun than in the drier. It’s the same con­cept.”

Shrimp paste is his life, Cheng says, and he plans on work­ing un­til he can no longer do so. His daugh­ters – the youngest is eight and the el­dest 17 – have shown no in­ter­est in the busi­ness. “It’s not for them, so far as I can tell. This may leave with me but there’s noth­ing any­one can do about it,” he says.

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