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Hakka: Southern China's Guest People

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Winter Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(4) page(s): 5, 26, and 34

Originally a central Chinese population known to live in mostly hilly areas, the Hakka wandered south in several waves, most during or just after the fall of the Song Dynasty in 1279 CE. Today, they are found in many places in Southeastern China, in Taiwan, and in several other Southeast Asian countries.

To distinguish these mountain folk from other immigrants in the area, ethnic or other, the Cantonese dubbed them 'Hakka,' a name that translates as 'guest people' or 'stranger people.' It has stayed with them even though their guest status exceeds nine hundred years. What is interesting about this guest/stranger notion is that the name was really not known before the 20th century. Earlier they were known as Peng min or ‘shed people’ in recognition of the style of their dwellings.

The Hakka, who seem to have traces of immigrant stock, perhaps those of non-Chinese ethnic groups, speak a distinctive dialect that is closer to Mandarin than any southern language. It is a tongue that sounds both northern and mountain. They have customs, culinary and other, that set them apart from their southern neighbors.

Their culinary seems simple, but only to those just familiar with their well-known salt-baked chicken dish. Their cooking may also seem simple because of their respect for frugality in the kitchen and in the rest of their lives. But it is not. What is simple is how these folk assess their own cuisine, they divide it into two parts, main dishes and rice dishes. We think it deserves at least a third division, one for their soups.

The elders of this group of people do not eat beef because they view oxen as major contributors to their ancient way of life; one that used to be restricted to farming and when the women worked in the fields. They do so effectively, and they do and did not bind their feet. These days, they are better known for the women's hats than for their agricultural expertise. The women wear large black wide-brimmed hats that dangle black pom-poms all around the edge. This is illustrated on the cover and in this article in the hard copy of this issue. In Hong Kong and southern cities, construction workers want one such lady, hat and all, on the job. They are said to bring luck to the building and its builders.

At their table, pork is what they think about, it is now their most important meat. Using it often or consuming too much of it is a luxury they do not indulge in with one exception. That is when consuming leftovers from offerings used at festivals; the offering and what they then eat are more than generous.

They actually eat very little pork, but when they butcher a pig it is a common Hakka practice to preserve much of the meat. They marinate it in wine, soybean paste, and other seasonings. This preserved meat gets used in small amounts and over a long time. They put up vegetables the same way, and in other ways, and both of these important preserved ingredients find their way into ever so many Hakka dishes. As a matter of fact, some say that the extensive use of these preserved meats and vegetables are what makes the Hakka cuisine unique.

Among animal foods, poultry is used more than pork, but both are not the mainstay of their cai or grain-accompanying meat and vegetable foods. Vegetables are a close match to their large use of different types of rice, sometimes in one or more dishes at one meal. Rices are also the main ingredients on the Hakka dinner table. They are used in and with main dishes, in sweets, everywhere and in every form. There is one exception, that is they are rarely used as a thickener. They do not like to artificially thicken their sauces, they rather that the rices in them soak up all the liquids in any and every dish.

The Hakka have an ability to combine fresh vegetables and preserved ones and keep them crisp. They do this by various methods of cutting them. When they use animal foods, every part is used be they brains, kidneys, stomach lining (tripe), muscle tissue, even the spinal cord. That latter item makes a dish people like to call 'typical Hakka food.' However, it is rare and special to slaughter an animal and families do not do that except for festivals which are celebrated a few times a year. And, as each pig has but one spinal cord, they do not consume this dish too often but many do speak of it all too often. These 'guest people' are known for their ability to cook not only the spinal cord but also all organ meats. They truly know how to make then exceptionally tasty.

There are many fine Hakka foods beside Spinal Cord and Vegetables, and Salt-baked Chicken. They make great Beef Balls filled with a fine fish paste flavored with a touch of onions and garlic. They stuff a whole fish, most often for guests,, and their favorite foods to stuff are bitter melon, doufu, eggplant, and lots of other vegetables. What makes their stuffed foods different are that they prefer to deep-fry them rather than steam or stir-fry them.

One article we read about the Hakka spoke of a greasy cake it said they make another mentioning it as a nine-layer cake. Both are made with their favorite fat, lard. What they are referring to in the first instance is a glutinous rice-stuffed dish loaded with sesame seeds that might look cake-like but is not a dessert item. As to the nine-layer cake, it is usually made with layers of bean curd sheet as both outside wrapper as well as its inside layers.

Being a guest at a Hakka meal is usually quite special as their sense of frugality leaves them when they have guests. I was once lucky enough to attend such a meal in Hong Kong and it certainly changed my perceptions of these people. They outdid themselves as hosts and urged me to eat from the dozens of dishes made for me. I was amazed that they were both speedy in getting large amounts of food on the table and proficient in all host and hostess tasks considering how rarely they eat so many dishes at a meal. It was a real treat.

There is an expression that says: He is not a Hakka who is not on a hill. Since we assume most of our readers are not Hakka, we therefore assume them on level ground and level-headed. So they should be ready to treat themselves to some of dishes that follow in order to sample some of their fine food. It is rarely written about; rarer still can recipes for their delicious dishes be found, so enjoy those below:
Preserved Pork with Preserved Vegetables
1/4 pound preserved vegetables, rinsed well, then soaked in tepid water for half an hour
1/2 pound cured salt pork
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons corn oil
dash white pepper
3 scallions, angle sliced into half inch pieces
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one-quarter cup cold water (optional)
4 Tablespoons cooked rice
1 cup lard or corn oil
1. Rinse the preserved vegetables several times after they have soaked. Slice them thinly and then cut the slices so that each piece is one-eighth-inch match-stick-size.
2. Cut the pork into similar-sized matchstick pieces and mix with wine and soy sauce and set aside for half an hour.
3. Add cornstarch to the pork mixture and let rest for ten more minutes.
4. Heat oil, add pork and the pepper and scallions, and stir-fry for half a minute, then add preserved vegetable pieces and stir-fry for one minute before adding the .cornstarch water and the rice and bring to the boil, then stir until slightly thickened, about one minute, and serve.
Hakka Layer Cake
2 cups cooked rice, two or more kinds is best
6 Tablespoons rice wine
1/4 pound lard
1 cup white sesame seeds
1 teaspoon oil or lard
1/2 pound hand-chopped pork
4 shallots, minced fine
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
10 bean curd sheets
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon baking powder
1. Soak rice in two cups warm water for an hour or two, then drain and steam it over boiling water for fifteen minutes, add wine lard and sesame seeds and continue steaming for another fifteen minutes, then remove from the steamer and cool.
2. Heat oil or lard and stir-fry the pork for one minute, it will be pink, then add shallots, soy sauce, and sugar and remove from the heat and allow to cool.
3. Put one bean curd sheet on dry counter, put a little less than one-fourth of the rice mixture on it and then cover with another bean curd sheet. Brush it with the cornstarch mixture then add a little less than one-fourth of the pork mixture on top. Repeat until all the sheets and fillings are used ending with a bean curd sheet. Cut into four sections, brush all sides with the cornstarch mixture and spread one-quarter of the cooked rice on the top.
4. Heat the cup of lard or oil, fry one set of layers at a time until lightly brown, turn over and fry the other side until it is brown, then remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all are fried on both sides.
5. Cut each in half and serve.
Green Hakka Buns
1 pound glutinous rice flour
1/2 pound regular rice flour
1/2 cup wheat starch
1/4 cup sugar
3 Tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1/4 pound pork, cubed
2 shallots, minced fine
1/4 pound preserved vegetable, sliced and rinsed, than soaked for ten minutes in two cups of warm water, and then drained and minced fine
10 black mushrooms, soaked, stem removed, mushrooms minced fine
1/4 cup white cabbage, minced fine, then blanched for half minute in boiling water, then squeezed of any excess water
1 Tablespoon thick soy
10 bamboo or lotus leaves
1. Put all flours, sugar, and one tablespoon lard or oil in a bowl and pour ½ cup water over this and stir well. Then knead into a ball until no longer sticky and quite smooth.
2. Mix pork, shallots, preserved vegetable and cabbage.
3. Heat remaining lard or oil and fry meat/vegetable mixture for two minutes. Remove from heat and add thick soy, mix well, and allow to cool.
3. Roll rice dough to less than quarter-inch thick and cut circles of it with a large glass, then roll each circle a little thinner.
Put one dough circle on a leaf, put about one-tenth of the meat mixture on it and wet the edges of the dough and cover the meat shaping it like a bun, and seal. Then fold and tie the leaf completely covering the bun. Tie the leaf securely but not too tightly around the bun.
4. Steam over boiling water for fifteen minutes, remove the string and serve.
Hakka Stuffed Bean Curd
2 firm bean cakes, cut diagonally in quarters
2 Tablespoons dry shrimp, soaked in warm water for ten minutes, then minced
1/4 pound chopped or ground pork
2 scallions, minced
2 Tablespoons cooked rice
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon thick soy
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 Tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1. Take a small spoon and scoop out a pocket on each angled side in each quarter of the bean cake.
2. Mash scooped out bean cake and mix with shrimp. Then add the pork, rice, scallions, cornstarch, pepper, thick soy, and sugar and mix well.
3. Brush the scooped out area of the bean curd with the cornstarch water, it binds the filling to it, then put in a spoonful of the shrimp mixture.
4. Heat lard or vegetable oil in a fry pan. Add the stuffed bean curd pieces, cover with half cup of water, bring to the boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove the cover and serve.

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