It's a surprise to learn that So Chau Yim-ping - founder of the listed company New Island Printing, a former politician, and a recipient of the Bronze Bauhinia Star - is the same Mrs So behind the sauces brand, Mrs So's XO Sauce.
Now well into her eighties, So manages the company with her daughter, Patsy Cheong So Ka-wai. They opened their Sheung Wan retail shop earlier this year after launching in department stores and supermarkets.
What got you interested in the sauce business?
So: I used to make XO sauce and give it to people. They kept coming back for more. We even had a young man who worked at the [printing] company ask if he could have a jar to give to his future mother-in-law.
Cheong: We used to host all our clients and have company events at the company canteen. The clients and our colleagues loved the sauce so much that it would even be one of the lucky draw prizes at the company banquet for Lunar New Year. We also gave it to our family and friends, who love it. It just made sense to start making it on a larger scale.
So: My father was the kind of man who would have chefs prepare dishes to go with his drinks, then sit down for a proper dinner afterwards. He loved to eat. I was raised to have this sensitivity towards food.
Is it purely a labour of love?
Cheong: We do aspire to be a brand that Hong Kong people can proudly call their own. Our sauces are all made in Hong Kong. There aren't many souvenirs or gifts that represent Hong Kong, so we want to become one of them.
When people give each other presents over Lunar New Year, they're always biscuits and sweets - you can't eat that much - and we want to be an alternative.
What do you think is different about your sauce?
Cheong: Our sauces are handmade from start to finish, and we're very stringent about the quality of ingredients. These are sauces we like to eat, and our friends and family like to eat.
If we ever see that the quality of an ingredient has slipped, we don't hesitate to stop using it immediately. Also, when the chef cooks, he might change the proportions of ingredients slightly each time, depending on things like the water content of the garlic. You can't mechanise the process, because a machine won't know what to do if an ingredient's characteristics are slightly different. We want to make sure the sauces are well balanced and have complex, developed layers of flavour.
A customer who came into the shop once told me that she loved to smell the fragrance of the sauce each time she opened the bottle. To me, the complex fragrance is testament to the quality.
So: We don't use preservatives.
Where are the recipes from?
Cheong: We take our home recipe and test it in a factory situation, and continuously taste it with our family and, of course, my mother, until we're happy with the results.
Why did you focus on XO sauce?
Cheong: That's anyone's guess. I suppose we just started with XO because so many people like it, but since then we've launched a whole range of sauces: vegetarian XO, porcini and mushroom, sour mangosteen and young ginger, black bean and chilli, and so on. We also have seasonal products such as rice dumplings for Dragon Boat Festival, and turnip cake for Lunar New Year.
What do you think is the best way to use your sauces?
Cheong: Our sauces are formulated so that you don't need to add any other seasoning to your dish - we want to make it easy for people to cook. With the XO sauce, you can really do whatever you like with it.
People from the north [of China] might prefer to toss it in noodles; the Cantonese love stir-fries, so you can add it to a stir-fry. It's great as a dipping sauce for pan-fried rice paper rolls, too.
Why did you decide to open your own retail shop?
Cheong: The unique thing about this shop is that we have a cooking demo area, so customers can come in to learn how to use the sauces.
Some people may not have even heard of some of the traditional ingredients in the sauces - such as our preserved sour mangosteen sauce - let alone how to use them, so here we can do that. It's become an interesting platform.
People have been asking us all sorts of questions about cooking in general, not just about our sauces.