ON A CHILLY WINTER'S EVENING, tucked away in a private room at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club are six food and beverage professionals. They are on bread and water - to cleanse their palates - and have only one thing on their minds: oysters. They were there at the invitation of Kathy Kingston, managing director of Master Champion Holdings, the largest importer of live oysters in Asia, for a taste test with an eye on increasing the selection of the bivalves on their menus. The dozen varieties of oyster on offer came from the east and west coasts of the United States, Canada, France and England. Although oysters are edible year-round, Kingston deliberately left out those from warm waters, explaining that they were likely to be reproducing, making their texture and flavour milky and spawny. It is just seven years since Kingston began importing live oysters - she stresses the 'live' part, insisting that frozen oysters are not on the list - but her knowledge of the bivalve is astonishing. She needs only to look at the shell to tell what species it is and she is constantly honing her knowledge through tasting new varieties. Before she moved to Hong Kong eight years ago, Kingston was a food importer in Chicago, Illinois. She recalls how she got into the business here: 'When Cafe Deco was opening seven years ago, [managing director] Martin Allies called me and gave me a tour of the site and said, 'Kathy, we trust you, we know you know seafood, help us find oysters'. The market in Hong Kong was completely open. There were a few suppliers but they were stuck on French oysters.' Today, Kingston imports up to 80,000 oysters per week from a changing selection of about 50 different growing areas. Most are from the US, although she also ships from Britain, Canada, France, Ireland and Australia. Her biggest buyers are Cafe Deco, the Peak Lookout, Sheraton's Oyster & Wine Bar, the Bostonian at the Great Eagle Hotel and ToTT's at the Excelsior. She explains what to look for in an oyster: 'One primary flavour can be metal and zinc, such as in Belons. I would say that 50 per cent of the customers yearn for that metallic taste while the other 50 per cent are repulsed by it. It could be that they are craving zinc - it's what the oysters are known for; it's the aphrodisiac element of oysters. Belons develop that characteristic taste no matter where they're grown. 'Another flavour is sea salt, which comes from the salinity in the water they're grown in. Generally those with the highest content would be from the East Coast of the United States. Then there's sugar - when tasting an oyster the first flavour you'll taste is the salt, then its sweetness. It's a fructose sweetness, not like table sugar. It comes from the water they're grown in and what the oysters happen to be eating at the time. 'A lot of people talk about oysters having flavours like 'the essence of cucumber', but I just don't buy it. I think they should be evaluated on a scale of one to five for sweetness, salinity, texture and liquor (natural liquid) content. What is a good oyster is subjective, but it should be plump and moist with no off odours. After that it's up to the individual.' In Hong Kong, Kingston says, the most popular oyster is the tiny Kumamoto, which she personally dislikes because of its musty flavour. 'I sell thousands and thousands of Kumamotos. I think people like it because of the cute name.' Her all-time favourite is one she has only recently added to her list, the Kusshi from British Columbia. Her least favourite is any variety that is frozen, which she says she can spot 'a mile away. They'll be very thin in the shell, like they're collapsed with almost no meat left'. 'The Marriott is the only hotel coffee shop in Hong Kong that uses fresh-shucked oysters on its buffets. Other hotels use them in their coffee shops only during special occasions or promotions. If they're not saying they're serving fresh-shucked oysters, you can assume they're serving frozen. They wouldn't use frozen Bologna sausage or eggs. Why would you want a frozen oyster? Just serve something else. A good frozen oyster is an oxymoron.' Back at the club, the tasters are looking at the list of oysters they will sample that night. 'When I was doing my cooking apprenticeship, there were only two kinds of oysters, Belon and Fine de Claire,' Allies recalls. Fellow German Oliver Plust, chef of JW's California Grill at the Marriott, declares it a generation gap. Although it is difficult to get a consensus on one favourite oyster from six opinionated food pros, they make positive comments on the Emerald Cove from Canada, the Nisbit Pacific from Willapa Bay and the Palala from South Puget Sound, both in Washington. Gary Arthur, chef at ToTT's, says of the Fine de Claire from Brittany, 'Now that's nice; I love that brine. There's that strong sea flavour.' Shawn Armstrong from the Oyster & Wine Bar in the Sheraton agrees: 'And it has a sweet finish.' Kingston says the creamy Long Beach from Willapa Bay in Washington would be good for oyster novices. Kingston says the final oysters of the evening, the Colchester Native from England and the Belon from Brittany in France, are the same species. The sharp, mineral taste is obvious in both, but stronger in the Colchesters. Arthur says: 'I hate Belons and Colchesters - it's that metallic taste. I don't know who would want to eat stainless steel. It tastes like they left them in aluminium foil.'