I'm been wanting to write this post for quite some time now. It actually has been sitting in the back-end as a draft post since July. What sparked me at first to write this post started with my up-coming trip, back home to Hong Kong, some time last summer. I was looking for a couple new books to bring with me on my 16-hour flight. I ended up buying two books, and this was one of them – The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World. This book is not just about Hakka cooking, author Linda Lau Anusasananan really dug deep and explained how the history of the Hakka people shaped the Hakka cuisine.
Let's talk about some fun facts that I learned from Linda, then I'll walk you through my heritage, and then we'll talk about food! Deal? :) The Chinese characters 客家 (Hak ka) literally translates to "guest family". The term does not originate from a certain area or a particular ethnic group. The made-up term simply describes the fact that the Hakka had left their homeland, and travelled to somewhere else as "guest" of the land they had visited and settled. According to Wikipedia, there're currently 40 millions of Hakka living in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And another 40 millions living in over 50 countries worldwide. The migration history and journey of the Hakka people came a long way...
Take a walk with me
In the beginning of the fourth century (yes, that's like 300-something A.D), Hakka people were beginning to flee from the northern central part of China to the southern region because of invasions in the North. Wars and famine due to flood and droughts forced them to move. Over a long period of time by five big movements, from the 4th to the 19th century, Hakka had migrated to and lived in the southern region of China. The Hakka were seen and treated as outsiders and minorities of wherever they wanted to reside because earlier settlers had already claimed their territories. In order to survive, they were forced to settle at remote places and mostly hillsides. As a result, Hakka had gained the reputation as pioneers – farming and living on lands that nobody wanted. Over the course of the early political development in the 19th century in China, countless Hakka people migrated out of China. Many fled to Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, and even further from their homeland to North and South America, and the Caribbean.
The Hakka spirit was there century after century, and the Hakka people flourished wherever they could. The situation that they had to face and deal with really shaped the Hakka to be highly adaptive, independent, and resilient. And that mindset and attitude really helped them as they spread and settled throughout the world.
Now, walk in my shoes
After reading just the introduction and history by Linda, I felt incredibly proud to be a Hakka. I was hooked into Linda‘s great writing which was beautifully done with her ability to story-tell. I was inspired to look closer into my heritage and my roots.
My grandparents on my dad's and my mom's sides are both Hakka. They are both from the Guangdong Province but they do not speak the same Hakka dialect. While my mom's parents were originally from the Hakka heartland of Méi zhōu (梅州), the ancestors on my dad's side were originally from Bao'an, Guangdong. Speaking to my grandparents on my mom's side was always a challenge growing up but speaking to my grandparents on my dad's side with Cantonese was never a problem. I was brought up in a Hakka village in the New Territories of Hong Kong. Hakka villages are pretty common, and are spread out mostly, in the New Territories. There're many beliefs and arguments of when the Hakka started moving to Hong Kong. Some believed that they started migrating to Hong Kong during the late Ming and Qing dynasties (which is around the 1400's), long before the British set foot on Hong Kong Island in 1841, and making the Hakka Hong Kong's true indigenous people.
While it'll still take me some research in looking into the facts, all I know from growing up in a Hakka village in Hong Kong is this... There are 130 Hakka villages in Hong Kong, and most of them are "walled villages" called Wai Tsuen (圍村) located in the New Territories. They were built as a closed community to protect villagers from pirates and invaders. Some of the well-known villages like, Kat Hing Wai Walled Village (吉慶圍), Tsang Tai Uk (曾大屋), Fanling Wai (粉嶺圍) are well-preserved. There is also a list of declared monuments by the government in which you can easily find trails of the Hakka culture.
Kat Hing Wai Walled Village (吉慶圍):
Tsang Tai Uk (曾大屋):
Fanling Wai (粉嶺圍):
Like most Hakka people, my grandparents were farmers. The village I knew when I was young was full of life as everyone knew everyone, and you can see people working hard on their fields everyday. Seeing women working is very common as this is one of the Hakka cultural characteristics. On a sunny day, my grandma still wears the same Hakka hat that she wore on the field many years ago. Long before farmlands turned into houses, and outsiders began to live in Hakka villages, living in a farming village was a whole lot of fun. My childhood consisted of running around with 10-15 other kids, whom I was related to one way or another, playing or helping on the field whenever the adults allowed us to. Most Hakka families are big because the more people can help out on the fields the better. Big families mean big sunday dinners eating, of course, Hakka meals.
Interestingly, my grandma never liked being in the kitchen. My grandfather was the one who enjoyed cooking the hearty, robust, flavorful Hakka meals. Hakka cooking is bold. On one hand, techniques like salting, drying, and curing are used to preserve their food of which needed to survive both time and travel. On the other hand, dishes can also be as simple as stir-fry vegetable to balance out the meaty dishes. Pork (specially pork belly) can be considered as the main protein of Hakka cuisine. Rice is the main starch, and soy sauce is used as their main ingredient to braise meats. Hakka cooking is soul food to farmers and their families. It is the rustic, hearty meals that the farmers needed in order to do the labor-intensive jobs on the field. Over the past 20 years, farming has decreased considerably so such filling meals were not as necessary. Hakka home cooking you find these days may be a bit modified to accommodate the modern day lives while some of the robust, meaty dishes may be seen as a guilty pleasure.
Take off those shoes, let's eat!
Some of the Hakka classic that I enjoyed very much growing up are Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens (梅菜扣肉), Braised Pork Belly with Red Bean Curd (南乳燜猪肉), Braised Stuffed Tofu (釀豆腐), Salt-Baked Chicken (鹽焗雞), Steamed Chicken with Chinese Sausages (冬菇臘腸蒸雞), etc... And my grandfather's famous dish – the Poon Choy (盆菜) – literally translates to "basin dish". The dish was originally invented some time between 1000 and 1300 AD. Legend has it that when the Mongols invaded China, a young Emperor fled to the southern region of China, and into the New Territories of Hong Kong. In order to serve the Emperor and his army, locals gathered the best ingredients they could find. They prepared, cooked, and served the meals in wooden washbasins because they could not find containers that were big enough. A Poon Choy consists of many layers of ingredients including pork, duck, chicken, fish, prawn, squid, mushroom, turnip, and other vegetable. Ingredients are arranged by appearance usually with the more expansive and delicate ingredients on the top, and it's eaten from top to bottom. It's a dish that could take a couple of days to prepare and cook, and it's made for occasions like ancestor worshiping during special festivals. Take a look at this CNN Travel piece on a Poon Choy braised pork cook-off in Hong Kong. Poon Choy is truly a unique tradition of the Walled Villages of Hong Kong. It had gained popularity over the years, and nowadays, you can see it being served in Chinese New Year by non-Hakka families.
Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens (梅菜扣肉):
My grandfather's favorite of all Hakka dishes: Braised Pork Belly with Red Bean Curd (南乳燜猪肉):
Braised Stuffed Tofu (釀豆腐):
Salt-Baked Chicken (鹽焗雞):
Poon Choy (盆菜):
Cross-pollination with heart and soul
If you look closer at both Cantonese and Hakka cuisine, you'll find that they influent each other quite a bit, and share some similarities. Cantonese dishes such as Braised Fried Tofu with Pork (炸豆腐燜猪肉), Braised Stuffed Peppers, Eggplant, and Tofu (煎釀三寶) that you see at dim sum, Steamed Fish in Black Bean Sauce (豆豉蒸魚), Steamed Savory Egg Custard (蒸水蛋), and Steamed Fish with Green Onions and Ginger (薑蔥蒸魚), Braised Pork Belly and Lotus Root (蓮藕燜五花腩) were all originated from Hakka cooking. And because the southern region is close to the water and ocean, Hakka had taken the advantage of seafood. They had adapted this new source of protein, and had came up with seafood dishes that are true to their Hakka root. In many places in the world that the Hakka had travelled and migrated to, they continued to adapt local culture and cuisine. Don't be surprised if you ever see dishes from Jamaica, Peru, Honolulu, Tahiti, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, or Taiwan that had an influence of Hakka cooking. In many Chinese communities, you might be able to find restaurants that are own by Hakka families, serving dishes that are fusion beside the traditional. For many Hakka, their lives are about adaptation while sticking to the roots.
The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World really was an eye-opener for me. I always knew that the Hakka population was big but I never knew just how big, and how much influence it had on other cultures.
Hakka is part of my identity, and I'll always carry that in my heart.