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Siu Mai – Chinese Recipe that Connects Consumers

2018.09.21

Siu Mai is a type of dumpling often seen at dim sum restaurants around the world.  The fillings are typically minced pork with mushroom or scallops, but can also be prawns, vegetables, other meat and so on.

This very versatile dumpling has a special place in Yokohama, a port town near Tokyo.

Yokohama – Port City Rattled by Modern History

Yokohama is about 40 kilometres away from central Tokyo.  Nowadays, with the efficient rail networks, these two great cities are integrated into one extended cosmopolitan area.  But they have a very different history.

Tokyo (Edo) has been the capital city of Japan since 1603.  Yokohama was merely a small fishing port with about one hundred households for most of the Edo period.  It drastically changed in 1854 when an American merchant vessel moored off the village without permission. 

The Edo government set up a negotiation office in then anonymous Yokohama village to avoid any public attention.  Subsequently, away from the already developed port of Kanagawa, Yokohama opened as the new designated international port in 1859, with a restricted living quarter for foreign diplomats, merchants, and citizens.

Quick Development to New International Port

In 1889, only 40 years later, there were 27,209 households with a population of 121,985.  During this rapid development, by the fiftieth anniversary of the port opening, merchants built the city infrastructure including water supply, electricity, silk exchange, hospitals, and a train link to the other port, Shiodome in Tokyo.  

But there was a small problem in that there was no heritage, and no local produce to provide suitable souvenirs for the ever-increasing passengers at the newly built Yokohama Railway Station.

Inventing the Local Specialty

Kiyouken opened a kiosk on the railway station platform in 1909, the year that Yokohama celebrated its 50th year with many events and the unveiling of further development plans.  It was an excellent opportunity for the city and the residing businesses to expand, but the lack of history meant that they had to be creative to introduce new products. 

Kiyouken’s owner needed to come up with appealing local produce for visitors to purchase.  They picked Siu Mai, perfect for taking away and eating on the train.  It needed some recipe changes to make sure that it remained tasty after it cooled down.  They were made smaller to be bite-size, twelve pieces packed in a compact box for customers to be able to finish in thirty minutes, the typical journey time.  The original Siu Mai was launched in 1928 and was well received from the start.

Sales shot up after 1950, leading to the employing of Siu Mai Girls on station platforms to walk along the train and sell them to passengers, over the window, with broad smiles.  It was seen as a symbol of recovery, reminding customers of the peaceful good old days but with a modern twist.  One of the characters in a movie based on a hit serialised novel on a newspaper worked as a Siu Mai Girl.  It made this Yokoyama speciality famous throughout Japan.

Due to the high demand, the Bento box version was launched in 1954.  After more than half a century, there were no significant changes in the recipe.  There have only been four changes in design, always with motifs of Yokoyama’s landmarks. Customers always wanted the product in its original form. 

On the 60th anniversary (2014), and during the Yokoyama Port Festival (2017), limited design packaging became must-have items for collectors of Station Bento (fondly known as Eki Ben) box sleeves. Whenever limited items hit the stores, they sell out very quickly, and the original boxes’ sales go up significantly at the same time.

After half a century since its launch, 23,000 packs of bento boxes are sold daily, through 150 outlets.  The effort concentrates on being true to the original, rather than keeping up with the trend.  They have never changed the box made with wood, even though the cost would be much lower if they switched it to plastic.  The material is essential for the makers to keep the warmth and fragrance of rice.  Even in the current competitive market, there is no plan to change.

Kiyouken Siu Mai is loved by many, and the company’s owner (fourth generation of the kiosk vendor) believes that it is enjoyed as part of customers’ memories, of a first family outing on a train journey, of a picnic under cherry blossoms, of parties and personal life events. 

They are not sitting on their success, however.  Kiyouken keeps its original creativity, makes it if there is no local speciality, and creates new products that will be synonymous with Yokohama, to be a part of customers’ memories, as much as Siu Mai.

 

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