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Hakka Roots: Finding Mine In Our Food
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.
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.
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