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A Conversation with city'super Seafood Buyer William Chong
William Chong joined city'super nine years ago as an assistant buyer of fruit and vegetables, and later switched to buying meat. Impelled by his love of seafood in general and a taste for oysters in particular, Chong grasped the opportunity two years ago to move to the seafood department. Today, he scours the world for the freshest catch.
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What do you remember about your first experience of eating oysters?
I was at a hotel buffet and everyone was telling me: this is the best thing they have here, you must have lots of it. At first, it was a strange feeling, especially the texture – not unlike one’s first experience eating raw salmon. It wasn’t love at first sight, I admit. Oysters are a bit of an acquired taste.
Tell us about city'super’s oysters.
We sell oysters from all around the world: France, Japan, the United States, Australia, Holland, Scotland, Namibia and more. We have an oyster bar at all four city'super branches and we have at least 15 to 20 varieties at any given time. Some of our consumers are very educated, and they’ll simply choose their favorite. Some will ask what’s in season, or tell us their preferences – sweet, salty, crispy – and our managers will recommend the best for them. The oysters are all shucked to order for guests to eat at the nearby standing tables. To give guests a more unique experience, we’ve also come up with a fusion set, which is a set of oysters topped with fish roe, lumpfish caviar, uni, and more.
How relevant is the “R-in-the month” rule when it comes to oyster season?
This applies to the months without an “R”, which are the months between May and August, or summer in the northern hemisphere. The notion that oysters cannot be eaten during these months was started when oysters were shipped without adequate refrigeration, and spoiled easily. In the summer, the bacteria level is higher in warmer waters. It’s also prime breeding season, so the flesh will be mushier and60 percent of the size. The taste is also milder.
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Does that mean we can’t enjoy oysters in the summer?
It’s common now to farm oysters in such a way that they aren’t breeding at all during the course of the year. For instance, it’s common to enjoy French oysters all year round. Shipping is also not as relevant anymore, given our efficient transportation systems. It is true that the highest-quality oysters will not be found during May to August but, to be honest, there’s not much of a difference. And don’t forget there are also oysters from the southern hemisphere – oysters from Tasmania in Australia, Namibia – and some Japanese varieties such as Nagasaki rock oysters.
What would you recommend if we wanted something mild, briny and buttery?
Beginners with oysters will like Nagasaki Konagai for its creaminess and slight sweetness. It’s not high in iodine, and thus won’t have the overly metallic taste, nor is its salinity as high as that of Australian oysters. For something briny, it will have to be Australian oysters, whether it’s Smoky Bay or Peak Water. I would recommend White Pearl from France and Namibia Walvis Bay for something creamy and buttery.
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What do you find are Hong Kong people’s favorite oysters?
Again, the Nagasaki Konagai is a popular choice. Gillardeau has also been very popular, due to its great balance of salty, sweet and slight melon tones. It’s consistently meaty and creamy. My favorite is city'super’s special selection oysters from Le Parcs Saint Kerber in France. It also has a good balance, is medium-salty and the flesh meaty, crispy with a sweet after taste.
What are some misconceptions?
In general, I’ve found that Western consumers prefer smaller, bite-size oysters, and believe the smaller, younger oysters (up to two years) are ideal because the flavor is concentrated in the small amount of flesh. They’ll go for size number 3. Asian, and most Chinese consumers, prefer the bigger, creamier varieties, like the Gillardeau. For them, number 0 is best. Usually, when oysters are farmed until three years, it’s mostly for the Asian market.
What does a healthy oyster look like?
In the palm of your hand, a healthy oyster should feel heavy, due to its high water content. It’s a bit like handling fruit. Sometimes this depends on size and shell thickness. Another way to tell is to knock an oyster shell against another. If it’s empty inside, the sound will be hollow, like if you knocked on a wall. Inside, the flesh should be white and fleshy, with lots of water. If it’s not fresh, you will be able to smell it immediately. It will smell like rotten eggs.
What is the best way to eat an oyster?
Naked, so you can taste the real flavor of the oyster. There’s no rule, but I like to smell it before slurping it straight from the shell. Remember to chew, instead of swallowing it whole.
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