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Hakka Roots: Finding Mine In Our Food

by Linda Lau Anusasananan

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(2) page(s): 5-8 and 32

"You should be proud to be Hakka" my Popo or grandmother said in Chinese to my brother and me. As the first and only Chinese family growing up in Paradise, a small retirement town in northern California, this was the farthest thought from our minds. We were already the odd balls at school. As youngsters, we were not interested in what made us different or unique, we just wanted to fit in.

In spite of our protests, Popo embarked on the challenging job to make us good Hakka children. Daily, after our American school, we would trudge upstairs to her kitchen for Chinese lessons. On her oilcloth-covered kitchen table we would trace Chinese characters on tissue paper with ink-drenched brushes and read from Chinese picture books. After class, she would sometimes cook dinner for us. I can not remember the Chinese lessons but the savory smells from her kitchen linger in my mind. Five decades later, her words echo there, too. What did she mean when she said, "You should be proud to be Hakka?" It was too late to ask her or my parents; they had all passed away.

Recently, I left Sunset Magazine where I had written food stories and developed recipes for more than three decades. Now I had the time to explore Popo's words. I decided to do it through what I knew best, Hakka food.

WHO ARE THE HAKKA was the first thing I needed to figure out. Growing up in a largely Western society, I rarely met many Hakka people. Most Chinese I knew were Cantonese. I vaguely recall our family came from Southern China, but details were missing or forgotten.

As I began my research, I found that the Hakka were often a subject of anthropologists who studied in their diaspora. Yes, the Hakka do have a unique history. They kept their culture intact even though widely dispersed throughout the world. Population figures varied widely but a fairly recent estimate was around seventy-five million. Simply put, you might call them China's nomads. Hakka, Kejia in Mandarin, translates to 'guest people' or 'guest families.' Some call them pioneers, migrants, or gypsies.

There are many theories about their origin. The story that most Hakka embrace is that around the third century, invaders forced the ancestors of the Hakka from their home in Henan in north-central China, once the cradle of the Han, or Chinese civilization. They fled south in a series of migrations.

During a period of relative isolation from the tenth to almost the fourteenth century in southwestern Fujian province, they solidified their culture and language. By the time they reached the southern provinces, land was already settled so when the Hakka moved there they were considered unwanted newcomers. The best, most fertile pieces of land were already taken by the punti or Cantonese. The Hakka were left with the scraps. They had no connected homeland and lived as dispersed minorities primarily throughout Guangdong province in Southern China. The Hakka made the best of what they had, worked hard, adapted, and survived in almost any environment. But other Chinese often looked down on the Hakka because they were poor migrants, and they were considered contentious, and clannish.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Hakka proudly claimed their identity. Contact and conflict with other ethnic groups, especially during the Taiping Revolution (1851 to 1864) and the West River Hakka-Cantonese wars, fostered an ethnic group with a shared identity. They saw themselves as highly independent, adaptable, tenacious, hard-working, and strong. After the wars, many Hakka left China to find a new life and escape turbulence in their homeland. They emigrated to India, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, South America, Mauritius, North America, Tahiti, the West Indies, and many other destinations. Eventually they dispersed all over the world. Like dandelions, where ever they landed, they dug in, adapted, and flourished in their new homes.

WHAT IS HAKKA FOOD? My plan was to follow the footsteps of the Hakka diaspora, eating my way around the globe. I wanted to record their stories of migration and to preserve their food and history for the upcoming generations. Therefore, everywhere I traveled I asked people, "What is Hakka food?" I received answers such as it is honest earthy comfort food of the working man. Other descriptions included strong robust flavors, fatty, salty, lots of pork and soy sauce, preserved vegetables, cured meats, rice wine and its residue. The told me that Hakka food is hearty, direct, and satisfying. People often defined the cuisine by famous classic dishes such as Stuffed Tofu, Salt-baked Chicken, or Steamed Pork Belly with Preserved Greens.

I learned that Hakka farmers lived off the land and eat the vegetables they grow along with the pigs and chickens they raise. Most lived used to live inland on hills, so for them, seafood was rare. Poverty forced them to be resourceful when finding food. Because frogs and snakes found in the country Hakka ate them eaten.

Like most Chinese, they ate every part of the animal. Frugal Hakkas waste nothing. They fill their pantries with preserved, salted and dried vegetables, cured meat, and seasonings. These are things that survive travel and time.

As I traveled, I realized that Hakka cuisine was far more diverse than my limited or anyone's common perceptions. True, many of the descriptions do apply to the roots of their cuisine, especially in the Hakka heartland around Meizhou in southern China. Through migration, creative chefs, changing life styles, and regional influences, the definition of their cuisine did expand.

When exploring their food, I tasted dark soulful stews and braised dishes, and uncomplicated ones emphasizing the natural essence of their ingredients including preserved vegetables and cured ones, all loved for their distinctive flavors as are fresh vegetables and fresh leaner meats. Hakka people are not just farmers, they are also businessmen, scholars, and politicians. Their changing lifestyle did not demand their earlier hearty foods so lighter and fresher foods did become part of today's Hakka diet. Their cuisine is much like their people. Both traveled the world and adapted to new environments, local ingredients, and prevailing tastes. Therefore, Hakka food is now a varied cuisine but one that maintains many of its roots and traditional dishes along with their adopted newer ones.

"TRADITIONAL HAKKA DISHES have a heavier flavor compared to than Cantonese,” says Yan Si Ming. Before he died, he was chef/owner of the Beijing Paddy Field Hakka Restaurant, in Chinese called Shui Tian Kejia Cai. While most Hakka people did live in rural areas, Chef Yan told me "they did like to eat top ngiuk, their Chinese bacon. Their meats keep for a long time. Many are still used in popular Hakka dishes."

Fragrant Rice seen on the cover of this issue is still traditional for the Hakka. It contains some staples of their diet including rice, sausage, and por. Sweet cured Chinese sausage, and five-spice- and soy-marinated bacon infuse fragrance into aromatic white rice as they steam together in many of their dishes. A final dressing of soy sauce and oyster sauce and a sprinkling of fried shallots tie these elements together. Chef Yan preferred to cook in a Chinese clay pot, also called a sand pot. In is he said he got a purer sweeter flavor and a toasted crust on the bottom of the dish. Yan did serve this rice directly from the clay pot or he spooned some into small bowls. My recipe for this dish and others are at the end of this article.

Wine Chicken is another classic Hakka dish. It is a stew that many consider a tonic. Why a tonic> Because this dish was and stull is traditionally served to new mothers after childbirth. The wine is said to increase breast milk supply, the ginger build qi or energy,; and the dried black fungus improve blood circulation. New mother or not, you will welcome this soupy stew on a cold winter night. It has a generous portion of warming wine and ginger; both will spread a warm glow throughout your body.

Soft Tofu in Rice Wine Sauce includes morsels of soft tofu with bits of minced shrimp and pork or with chicken prepared in a mellow rice wine sauce. I like Peter Tseng's recipe; he is the chef and part owner of Tangra Asian Fusion Cuisine in Sunnyside, in New York's borough of Queens. He also cooks this dish at home and adds fermented sweet rice wine, the wet sediment from making this wine with dried red rice yeast. It counters its sweetness with a slight astringency and earthiness, the yeast speckling the sauce with bits of red. It and other fermented rice products add alcoholic complexity to the sauce.

If you can not use these ingredients, a simple and delicious rendition using Peter's technique of blanching soft tofu in boiling water firms and plumps the silky bean curd so it retains its seductive texture without falling apart.

Pork and Pineapple, stir fried and shown on this page, is yet another loved Hakka dish. The Hakka prefer theirs made with chunks of fresh pineapple, bits of crunchy black fungus, and rings of hot chili peppers. These bring lively character to this stir-fry, said to be a dish learned from people in Taiwan. Traditionally frugal, Hakka people did use cheaper pork lung in this colorful dish. Pork shoulder is a suitable alternative. The dish reminds me of sweet and sour pork without the heaviness and syrupy sauce.

Chinese Celtuce, Garlic, and Black Beans is another loved Hakka dish. It uses a unique vegetable not often seen in the United States. The Chinese call it 'lettuce' but in America it is often labeled 'celtuce' or stem lettuce, or it is known as who sun or Chinese lettuce. The Asian market I shop in calls it a-choy. With leafy greens spouting from a llong thick stem, it resemble a little tree. The tops of this tree-like item look much like romaine lettuce. That item can be a fine substitute should celtuce be unavailable. The thick tender bottoms have the texture of broccoli stems or pieces of soft kohlrabi, and it has a lettuce-like flavor. I have seen the tops and stem sold separately, though not too often, you may, too. The fermented black beans, whole cloves, of garlic, and soy sauce add a pungent kick when stir-frying these lettuce-tasting tops and bottoms. Do try it and all my recipes below; I hope you enjoy them all.
Linda Lau Anusasananan is the author of The Hakka Cookbook, Chinese Soul Food from around the World. It was published by the University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles in 2012. Photos for this article are thanks to her and by her. The book can be found and ordered at www.ucpress.edu or at http://TheHakkaCookbook.com
Fragrant Rice, Hakka Style
2 cups jasmine rice (eight ounces)
2 ounces Chinese bacon, or one additional Chinese sausage
1 Chinese sausage (about two ounces)
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup thin evenly sliced shallots
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Place the rice in a two quart clay pot or a heavy metal saucepan. Cover the rice with two and three-quarters cups of water and swish the rice with your hands until the water is very cloudy; then carefully pour off most of the water and repeat until the water is just slightly cloudy, doing this two or three more times. Holding the rice back with your hand to drain off all the water, or pour the rice and water into a wire strainer to drain it and return the rice to pot.
2. Next, level the rice and add the two and three quarters cups of water and cook this rice over high heat, uncovered, until most of the water has evaporated and the surface of the rice is exposed, seven to ten minutes.
3. Cut the bacon crosswise and as thinly as possible, and thin slice the sausage crosswise. Sprinkle the sausage and bacon evenly over the partially cooked rice, cover, and cook over low heat until the rice is tender and the meat is hot, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Next, uncover and continue cooking until the bottom is toasted and slightly crisp, about three to five minutes more, before removing the pot from the heat.
4. Meanwhile, set an eight- to ten-inch fry pan over medium-high heat, and when hot, add oil and cook until it ripples. Then add the shallots and stir for two to three minutes until they are golden, and then remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
5. In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and salt, and just before serving, drizzle this sauce mixture evenly over the rice. Sprinkle with the fried shallots, and stir lightly scraping the pan bottom to remove and put the chunks of crisp crust on top; then spoon the rice into individual bowls, and serve.
Note: Cooking is slower and gentler in a clay pot lightly coated with vegetable oil. I use a heat diffuser on electric burners and serve six people as part of a multi-course meal.
Wine Chicken, Hakka Style
5 dried black fungi such as cloud ears
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
3/4 cup minced fresh ginger (about 4 ounces)
1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds), rinsed, and cut into about 3-inch pieces
2 cups glutinous rice wine, cream sherry, or tawny port
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Rinse the black fungus and place in a small bowl. Soak in hot water until soft, about fifteen to twenty minutes, then rinse them well and squeeze out excess water. Discard the hard knobby centers of the fungus, then cut them into thin strips.
2. Heat a 14-inch wok or a five- to six-quart pan, stir in the vegetable oil, sesame oil, and ginger over medium heat until the ginger begins to brown, about five minutes. Then add all the chicken except the breast pieces, and stir until the chicken begins to lightly brown, about eight minutes. If desired, at this point, transfer the contents to a Chinese clay pot.
3. Add one cup wine, one and a half cups of water, sugar, and the fungus to the chicken and bring to a boil over high heat. Then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer stirring occasionally for fifteen minutes.
4. Next, add the remaining cup of wine and the breast pieces, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender when pierced, about ten minutes longer. Skim off and discard any fat, add salt to taste, and spoon the chicken and the juices into a serving dish. If using a Chinese clay pot, serve directly from the pot.
Note: If preferred, do not chop the chicken through the bone, cut it into larger pieces. One can substitute small whole bone-in chicken thighs, but may need to increase the cooking time by ten to fifteen minutes. This dish serves eight to ten people as part of a multi-course meal.
Tofu in Rice wine, Hakka Style
2 teaspoons red yeast rice (optional)
1/3 cup chicken broth
1/3 cup fermented sweet wine rice, including its liquid
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine such as Shaoxing, or use a dry sherry
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
14 to 16 ounces soft tofu
4 ounces skinless and boneless chicken thighs or pork butt (see note below)
4 ounces peeled medium-size shrimp, their veins removed and discarded
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
3 Tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
1. For the sauce, place the red yeast rice in a fine strainer and rinse well. Pour into a small bowl and cover with boiling water, and let stand until soft, about five minutes. Stir in the broth, wine rice, wine, soy sauce, cornstarch, salt, and pepper.
2. Next, in a three- to four-quart pan over high heat, bring two quarts water to a boil. Then drain the tofu and invert it on to a rimless dinner plate or a wooden board. Cut the tofu into half-inch cubes and gently slide them into the boiling water. When the water begins to barely simmer, remove the pan from the heat, and let the tofu stand in this hot water until ready to stir-fry it.
3. Finely chop the chicken or pork, and shrimp; then gently drain the tofu into a colander.
4. Set a fourteen-inch wok or twelve-inch fry pan over high heat; when hot, add the oil and spread it around. Then add garlic, chicken, and shrimp and stir-fry until slightly brown and crumbly, about a minute or two. Stir the sauce mixture, add it to the pan, and stir until it boils, then add the drained tofu and cook stirring occasionally and gently, until the tofu absorbs some sauce, about a minute or two. Sprinkle scallion pieces over the tofu, put in a bowl, and serve.
Note: Fermented sweet wine rice is, in some markets, called rice pudding or rice sauce. Look for it in the refrigerated section of most Asian markets. It resembles soft white rice in a slightly cloudy liquid, its wine. Dried red yeast rice adds color and helps balance the wine’s sweetness. If you can not find these products, make a less complex sauce mixing one-third cup chicken broth, one-third cup cream sherry, three tablespoons water, two tablespoons dry sherry, one tablespoon soy sauce, two teaspoons cornstarch, half-teaspoon salt, and one-quarter teaspoon ground black pepper. This dish serves three to four people as a main dish in a multi-course meal.
Pork and Pineapple, Hakka Style
8 ounces boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of fat
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 small pieces dried black fungus such as cloud ears
3 scallions
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons thinly slivered fresh ginger
8 ounces fresh pineapple, cut into three-quarter-inch chunks
5 to 8 thin rings fresh red chile pepper
1. Slice the pork one-eighth-inch wide by two-inches long. In a small bowl, mix this with the soy sauce, oil, and cornstarch, and set aside.
2. In another small bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and salt. And set this aside.
3. Rinse the cloud-ears and soak them in hot water until soft and pliable, then drain and cut out and discard any hard knobby centers. Cut these into one-inch pieces; trim the ends off the scallions and cut them into two-inch lengths.
4. Set a fourteen-inch wok or twelve-inch fry pan over high heat. When hot, add the oil and rotate the pan to spread it around before adding the fresh ginger and pork. Stir-fry until meat is lightly browned, about two minutes, then add the pineapple, fungus pieces, sauce mixture, and the scallions and the chile pepper pieces. Stir-fry until the pineapple is hot, about a minute or two, then pour everything into a bowl or deep platter and serve.
Note: This dish can serve two to four people as part of a multi-course meal.
Celtuce, Garlic, and Black Beans, Hakka Style
8 ounces celtuce tops or romaine lettuce
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
8 cloves garlic
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon soy sauce, or to taste
1. Trim and discard the stem ends of the celtuce or lettuce, and separate the leaves cutting larger ones in half lengthwise and crosswise. Rinse and drain well.
2. Set a fourteen-inch wok or twelve-inch fry pan over high heat. When hot, add the oil and rotate the pan to spread it around. Then add the garlic and stir-fry it until it begins to brown. Next add the black beans and ginger; stir well, then add the greens and one tablespoon of water. Stir-fry just until the greens wilt slightly, about one minute. Stir in soy sauce, stir, then pour this mixture into a bowl and serve.
Note: Serves four or five as part of a multi-course meal.

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