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Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan
Summer Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(2) page(s): 31, 32, 33, and 34
Hakka means 'guest' in Cantonese. These so-called 'wandering people' did not earn this name in the 3rd or 4th century CE when they first moved south from Central China and more northern regions such as the Henan and Shanxi provinces.
Though many think this is an old name for this group of people, their 'guest name' first appeared in print in 1808 when Xu Xuzeng referred to himself and his people as 'Hakka.' He probably developed the name because ha means 'guest' and ka means 'a group of people.'
Many are interested in the Hakka. Flavor and Fortune did write an article about them and included four of their recipes. That was in Volume 10(4) on pages 5, 26, and 34. Readers tell us we hardly scratched the surface and need to do more about the foods of these people. What follows may answer many of the things they asked or said; if it does not, we hope they will so advise.
Nowadays, more than nine hundred years since the Hakka first moved from their homeland in hilly places in the north central part of China, more Hakka live everywhere in the south of China and elsewhere. The Chinese government does not consider these mountain people as one of the fifty-five recognized minority groups, they simply classify them as Han. This is different in Taiwan where they are that island's largest minority population.
So what are main differences between Han and Hakka? The most important is language. Theirs is the fifth largest linguistic group in China (after Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Fujianese). Another difference that sets them apart is their limited acceptance, by many Han; but more on that later.
Many have asked this magazine why are they considered 'guest' or 'wandering people.' The most common reason is that these people participated in five different migrations in China, all moving them southward. The first was during the Jin Dynasty (265 - 420 CE). They did so then because of considerable warfare, most against foreign invaders in North China.
A second large migration occurred between 874 and 884 CE during and after the Huang Chao Rebellion. Then many Hakka fled to the Anhui Province and moved still further south. Their third major migration was during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279 CE) when large numbers of them moved in and near the Guangdong and Fujian Provinces. They also moved to other countries in Southeast Asia. The fourth wave or migration came during the Qing Dynasty when many Hakka sought new lives outside of China. Lots of them went to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Around the Taiping Rebellion there was a fifth migration. At that time and shortly thereafter, thousands more moved to Hainan Island, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and beyond.
With these major moves, made because of social unrest, upheaval, and invasions, one can see why many began to call them guests, wanderers, and a mobile group. Moving from place to place, this population picked up customs, resettled in other hilly areas, and went to places others considered less desirable. In addition, as the moved, they intermarried, especially Hakka with Punti and with Han peoples. That is why identification of Hakka is difficult, often a matter of self-selection.
In China, most Hakka now live in the Guangdong Province. Others live in Fujian, Jiangxi, Huhan, Guangxi, Guizhou, and Sichuan. It is said that in Guangdong they began to worship the Gods of Three Mountains. Many there and elsewhere still do. They also worship Yi Min, the men who died defending their ethnic group during two rebellions in Taiwan (in 1786 and 1862.) Their Gods of the Mountains, legend has it, are said to be three brothers who saved an emperor during the Sung Dynasty (they are shown above). They are considered guardian angels of the Hakka.
How large is the Hakka population? It is said that sixty percent live in and near Guangdong and ninety-five percent of their overseas descendants come from this region. In Taiwan, they comprise about fifteen percent of that island's population. Hakka is spoken by forty million people in China, almost all of them consider themselves Hakka. An additional fifty million people speak their language worldwide, though not all of this group call themselves Hakka. What all of them say is that they are Kejia ren or Kejia people. Other than Hakka, the Chinese refer to them as peng min or 'shed people.'
Hakka in China and those in Taiwan are a difficult group to trace because of the five major and a few minor migrations over the past hundreds of years. This is true even though much has been researched and written about them. What is known is that many Hakka believe they are offspring of Han royalty. A few say they originated in Mongolia. Many believe they will return to North China eventually even as dispersed as they are.
Outside of China and Taiwan, many Hakka live in Hong Kong and Malaysia, also in East Timor and in Indonesia. There are also sizable Hakka populations in Great Britain, France, and Germany. In the United States, Canada, and in Australia are lesser numbers; this is true in most other countries in the world, too.
We have heard folks say they know of no Hakka people; but that is not true. For example, Deng Xiaoping is Hakka; so is the president of Myanmar (which was known as Burma), and the president of Singapore. There are many famous and ordinary people who are Hakka. The Soong sisters are Hakka, as was Li Peng, Ye Jian Ying, Lee Kuan Yew, Francis Yip, and many other politicians, musicians, writers, etc.
Our interests are primarily about Hakka food, which many inside and outside of China and Taiwan say is a food culture that travels. Others call their food simple. Many, however, do dispute that notion. Among the people who have maintained the same language, their cultural and food practices have maintained many traditional foods since the time of the Han Dynasty (2o6 BCE - 220 CE) when all Hakka lived in the north. There, they ate lots of wheat noodles, cakes made with wheat and barley, and others made with millet. As they moved south, they added rice and rice noodles, root cakes, soybean products, and other foods and incorporated them into their diets. They continued to add other foods adopted from neighbors wherever they lived.
Nowadays, certain foods, especially those eaten at festival times, identify people as Hakka. One of these are rice-balls boiled in sugar syrup. They are popular before a daughter is married. Steamed cakes is another common Hakka food. The smell of shredded round radish buns is till another food identified with the Hakka.
Many Hakka like to sun-dry their vegetables and then steep them in salt. These become the fu cai of their cuisine. Most often, fu cai are mustard greens that to the Hakka represent longevity. When vegetables are fully dried, they call them mei gan cai; the former used in their many soups, the latter in their stews, beef, and other meat dishes. They like to mix these dried or pickled vegetables with fresh vegetables. They like hot pot type foods made with these vegetables and fresh ones, as well. They prepare and share them in unique ways. One famous set of Hakka dishes are called pun-choi. These were discussed in Flavor and Fortune in Volume 13(2) on pages 18 and 24.
Hakka people also like Salt-baked Chicken, Preserved Pork with Preserved and Fresh Vegetables, a special Layer cake, Green Buns--especially for breakfast, and Stuffed Bean Curd Hakka-style. They make many foods stuffed, the buns are just one example. They and rice cakes can be filled with fresh or reconstituted radish with or without dry shrimp, and salt.
Hakka foods, also known as Dong Jiang food, have many rustic dishes reflecting their peasant origins. They prefer pork as their main meat, and many do not eat beef because to them, cows are sacred. They love lots of kinds of fermented doufu, and they use onions often and in many forms and shapes. While they do eat fish and seafood, these are not popular, probably because their origins are such that they lived in the mountains for a long time.
Poultry is also popular, and Duck Stuffed with Rice is one way they adore that bird. They debone the central portion and after stuffing it, the bird looks plump and well-fed. Fried Pork with Fermented Doufu is a popular New Year's dish, the meat marinated, then deep-fried, and stored ready to be stewed with cloud ear fungus.
Their Stuffed Doufu are cubes of bean curd cakes topped with minced pork and stewed as is or with bitter melon, yellow beans, and/or many kinds of mushrooms. A favorite beverage among Hakka is green tea. Often it is made with leaves pounded with peanuts, sesame seeds, mint leaves, and other herbal ingredients.
In the past, Hakka women wore black pajama-like clothes. Their hats had big brims and black pom-poms dangling around the entire circle of the brim. When not in the field or on a construction job where their presence is considered lucky, they may be at home boning a chicken or duck, even a goose, and stuffing it with some dried and some fresh vegetables, a few pieces of sharks fin, etc. and cooking them in a chicken broth.
The Hakka are said to be frugal and are known to not waste a thing. That may be true, but not so when they have guests. They might serve them a dish of mixed abalone, sea cucumbers, and black forest mushrooms as a special food. They might offer soups with two different meat balls, one beef and the other fish. They surely will have pickled vegetables in one or more dishes, shrimp in rice wine, perhaps salt-baked chicken, and more. In one Hakka home in Hong Kong, we had all these dishes and many more; and they were very good.
Below are a few Hakka recipes you can try. They may seem simple, but they are truly both sumptuous and scrumptious.
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