Luodai: ancient Hakka town

luodai lionJust outside of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, lies the ancient Hakka town of Luodai. More than 90% of the 23,000 residents are Hakka. Sichuan, a province in southwest China, is home to more than 3 million Hakkas.

ground red chilesAlthough, the government remodeled the town with picturesque Qing-style features to attract tourists, you can find the old village hidden in the back streets. Basins of crushed dried red chiles, mountain mushrooms, and vegetables fill the marketplace. Along the dirt pathways and lanes, small shops carry out their business. A woman delivers disks of coal for cooking.

Guangdong GuildThroughout the newer renovated section, tea houses, gardens, and small shops line stone-paved streets. Several large guild complexes built by Hakkas from different provinces serve as social halls. In my research tour in 2005, we ate at two of these Hakka guilds, the Jiangxi and Guangdong.

The Guangdong Guild was built in 1747 by the Hakkas. The host’s ancestors are from Meizhou, the same area as my own family.

Although the Hakka maintained much of their traditional cuisine, in migration they often adapted to their new homes, adding different ingredients, adjusting to local tastes, and creating new dishes.  In this province, known for it spicy chile-fired cuisine, the Sichuan influences assert themselves immediately in our meals.

steamed fish with green onionsCompare steamed fish served in two different provinces. In Meizhou, in the center of the Hakka heartland in Guangdong province, the fish is steamed with just a bit of soy sauce and green onions (recipe on page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). The natural flavor of the fish predominates.

steamed fish with chilesIn Luodai in Sichuan province, the fish is steamed under a avalanche of fresh green peppercorns and sliced green chiles. The taste is definitely hot and spicy as many dishes are in Sichuan.

Our Hakka host explains that although the traditional Hakka flavor profile is not spicy, they added the chile pepper to their cooking to match the climate. Not all the dishes on our table were fiery hot; some emphasized natural flavors and balanced the chile-laden dishes. However, the meals in Sichuan were far more spicy than those we ate in Guangdong.

Even in China, we see the effects of migration in a simple steamed fish. As I travel more, I see the effect of migration and environment on the food we eat.

 

Be Sociable, Share!

The story behind the art

Alan Lau and his wife Kazuko Nakane in China.

Alan Lau and his wife Kazuko Nakane in China.

Some people voice disappointment over the lack of color photos illustrating every dish in The Hakka Cookbook. I love food photos, too. However, color photos cost a fortune to produce. I knew as a first time author, it would be hard to find a publisher willing to front a rather obscure book with a huge photo budget attached.

Steamed fish painting by Alan Lau

Steamed fish painting by Alan Lau

I had worked with food styling and photographing for decades and knew the time, cost, and frustration involved. I also knew like fashion, food photographs look dated quickly. So I envisioned the book with art instead of photos. I felt paintings would provide a more timeless elegance to the book. Also I have an artist in the family who could provide the art at a good price.

Painting by Alan Lau

Pomelo painting by Alan Lau

My brother Alan Lau, a Seattle artist, toured China with me on my scouting trip and constantly captured scenes and inspirations along the way. The large pockets sewn onto the front of his shirt were big enough to hold notebooks and pens for a quick sketch or to record words for a poem. He has several painting styles. Some of his paintings possess a free, playful quality that I love. Often he paints with abstract abandon. For the book, he painted with a bit more control since the book’s budget limited him to one tint color. His art weaves a lovely visual trail throughout the pages. Many of his original paintings and color versions did not make it into the book but you can view some here.

 

Red chile painting by Alan Lau

Red chile painting by Alan Lau

Alan studied sumi-e  (East-Asian brush painting) with Nirakushi Toriumi (Nanga School) in  Kyoto, Japan from 1972 to 1974 and later received a B.A. in Art from the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1976. In the book, you will find many samples of his art. You will find his pea and pumpkin painting in the header of this blog.  View this slide show to see how he creates his paintings in his tiny studio.

Thanks Alan for making The Hakka Cookbook look so beautiful!

Be Sociable, Share!

Asia Society Hakka dinner

 

Martin Yan at Asia SocietyA few days ago, the Asia Society Northern California sponsored an event on Chinese Soul Food: Hakka Cuisine at M.Y. China in San Francisco featuring Chef Martin Yan, who wrote the forward for my book, and me. Robert Bullock, Assistant Director for Programs Northern California, proposed the idea almost two years ago. When we got a date from the globe-trotting celebrity Martin Yan, we were able to pull together an off-the-menu dinner program. So many people helped–Asia Society, M.Y. China, and A.F. & Co. They organized and publicized the event. Hanson Li of Saison Restaurant donated wine.

M.Y. China vegetable carvingMartin Yan and his chefs Tony Wu and Kin Fong and I collaborated on the menu. I was impressed that the chefs had studied my book and were able to convey an authentic Hakka flavor to the dinner. Even the intricate vegetable carving by Executive Chef Tony Wu reflected the mountain home of a Hakka village. With the exception of the bitter melon palate cleanser and the dessert, the menu reflected recipes from the book. Let me share the evening with you.

M.Y. China Pork BellyAfter Martin and I talked about Hakka history and cuisine, the meal opened with a Hakka classic, Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens (kiu ngiuk moi choi). This dish epitomizes traditional Hakka characteristics: robust flavors, hearty satisfaction from the rich pork, and salty savoriness from soy sauce and preserved vegetables. M.Y. China’s rendition melted in my mouth. Individual portions were presented in small clay pots. To make this dish at home, see pages 42 to 44 in The Hakka Cookbook.

Bitter Melon M.Y. ChinaFor a innovative palate refresher, M.Y. China chefs created a new dish made from bitter melon, a popular vegetable in Hakka cuisine. I was a bit surprised when Executive Sous Chef Kin Fong suggested serving the bitter melon raw. Traditionally the bitter vegetable is cooked. It is often stuffed with a meat filling, then braised or poached. Slices may also be stir-fried. The chefs shaved raw bitter melon into paper-thin slices, blanched them briefly, and served them cold in an ice bowl. A scattering of edible flower petals and a dressing of acacia flower honey and wasabi elevated a humble vegetable to royalty status. The bitterness of the vegetable was toned down by blanching and balanced with the sweetness of the honey. Although Chilled Bitter Melon is not a traditional Hakka dish, it fit the meal beautifully, refreshing the palate and cutting the richness of the preceding pork belly.

Salt-baked Chicken M.Y. ChinaOne of the most famous Hakka classics is Salt-baked Chicken. In China, the chicken is rubbed with seasonings, wrapped in paper, and cooked in a hot salt. The chicken emerges juicy and aromatic. Outside of China, most restaurants and home cooks do shortcut versions, either rubbing the chicken with salt and steaming or poaching the chicken in salted water. The results more closely resemble Cantonese white-cut chicken. M.Y. China took no shortcuts and cooked the classic version in salt, a rare treat. They showed the guests the whole chicken, partially wrapped in paper and nestled in the hot salt. Then they returned to the kitchen to cut the chicken and brought it out with a ginger and scallion sauce.  For a recipe for the home cook try my version on page 64.

M.Y. China cumin beefCumin Beef is creation of Hakka chefs from India who created a new fusion cuisine to appeal to their Indian customers. It blends Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients with Indian spices. In this dish, beef is stir-fried with cumin seeds, chile, and soy sauce for a cross-cultural fusion of enticing flavors. M.Y. China used American Kobe beef in their version. This is an easy dish to make at home, see recipe in The Hakka Cookbook on page 183.

M.Y. China gai lonThe simplicity of the Chinese broccoli (gai lan) with Sweet Rice Wine (page 230) balanced some of the stronger flavors of the meal. The same basic recipe could be used with other vegetables.

 

 

M.Y. China almond royaleM.Y. China ended the meal with Almond Royale with Ginger Syrup, a sophisticated variation of the Chinese pudding. A fresh zesty ginger syrup floated atop and seeped into an almond-scented panna cotta-like base.

The evening ended with noodle dances by the M.Y. China chefs. Imagine pulling noodles Gangnam-style.

Heartfelt thanks from a very grateful author to all who made this event so special and help me share the taste of Hakka soul food.

 

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Mushrooms for Hakka recipes

king oyster mushroom, noodlesExplore the rich variety of mushrooms in Asia’s cuisine.  In China, these umami rich fungi delighted us with their versatility. In Luodai  a Hakka village near Chengdu in Sichuan province, we ate the local wild mountain mushrooms braised in broth and fried as fritters. In Yunnan province we sampled a dozen varieties in the famed mushroom hotpot.

Assorted mushrooms in Yunnan.

Assorted mushrooms in Yunnan.

In North America, some of these mushrooms are cultivated or imported from China. You will discover a wide variety in Asian supermarkets. I have always loved the dark, meaty, shiitake mushrooms. Dried shiitake reside in my pantry as a flavor-building staple.

A new discovery for me was the king oyster mushroom that goes by many names such as xing bao gu, shing bao goo, king trumpet, royal trumpet, or Trumpet Royale. With these big fleshy mushrooms their large, thick white bulbous stems predominate over their rather small light brown caps. Both stem and cap are edible. These mushrooms have a  firm, meaty texture that keeps their shape when cooked. Their mild flavor deepens and becomes more robust when cooked.

These large mushrooms are wonderfully versatile. In the Hakka Cookbook, I deep-fried them and served them with Sichuan Pepper Salt (page 68) and braised them in broth (page 70).

noodles with pork mushroom sauce 2In one of my favorite recipes, Noodles with Pork Mushroom Sauce (page 104), I diced and stir-fried the mushrooms with pork, shiitake mushrooms, and garlic chives to make a robust sauce for noodles. Recently I made a vegetarian version of this recipe by replacing the pork with more king oyster and shiitake mushrooms and vegetable broth for the chicken broth. I used Pearl River Bridge Mushroom-Flavored Dark Soy Sauce to intensify the flavor. To see the recipe, visit the Asia Society San Francisco Newsletter. The recipe was featured to promote an upcoming Off-the-menu dinner featuring Chef Martin Yan and me, discussing Hakka Soul Food at M.Y. China in San Francisco on March 3, 2014.  Hope to see you there.

Discover the delicious world of mushrooms. You’ll find great variety at the farmers’ market and Asian supermarkets. They are often interchangeable, although each variety contributes their own distinct personality.

Be Sociable, Share!

What’s cooking for Chinese New Year

Basin Feast (Puhn Choi)Khiung Hee Fat Choy! (Hakka dialect) May you have a prosperous New Year!  Chinese New Year arrives January 31 and families will gather for a special meal over the next two weeks.

Many will eat traditional meals filled with foods that sound like fortuitous words or whose shape or color symbolizes prosperity, unity, wealth, fertility, family harmony, or good fortune. Oranges, mandarins, and kumquats resemble gold. Lettuce signifies prosperity. Whole fish symbolizes prosperity. Spring rolls, with their shape of a gold bar, represents wealth. Shiitake mushrooms, a symbol of longevity, also relate to seizing opportunities. Whole chickens with head, tail, and feet indicate completeness. Green vegetables represent close family ties. You will find many recipes that use symbolic ingredients throughout The Hakka Cookbook. However, if you want to try something new, consider these special dishes I discovered in my travels for the cookbook.

Basin Feast (puhn choi, page 82)

We gasped when the waitress set a huge metal basin filled with a mountain of food before us. We were at Chung Shing Restaurant in In Tai Po, New Territories of Hong Kong, The pan was literally a wash basin layered with a multicourse feast. This one-pan feast is popular for family gatherings such as Chinese New Years and weddings because everyone eats from one dish which symbolizes unity. Guests gather around the basin and literally eat from top to down, working their way through the courses.

Vegetable Tea  (choi cha, page 113)

During the first ten days of Chinese New Year Loy Sye Moi makes Vegetable Tea  (page 113) which is basically an artfully presented healthy vegetable soup. She arranges eight different stir-fried greens in each bowl to create a pretty kaleidoscope of greens. Eight is a lucky number and represents good fortune. Each vegetable contributes a different flavor and texture. She pours a clear broth carefully over the vegetables and garnishes with spoonful of ground peanuts and sesame seeds.

Savory Pounded Tea Rice (lui cha fan, page 119)

A heartier variation of vegetable tea is made by the Ho Po clan, a Hakka subgroup  who serve it for Chinese New Year. This version includes rice and a pounded herbaceous tea. I first tasted this healthy rice bowl in Singapore and later Amy Wong from Malaysia shared her recipe with me. A bevy of vegetables, tofu, and peanuts blanket a bowl of garlic rice. Pour a tea, made from pounding fresh green herbs, dry tea leaves, nuts, and seeds, over the rice and mix together for deliciously wholesome rice bowl. It’s a healthy and energizing way to start the new year.

 Taro Abacus Beads (wu tiuh pan jue, page 125)

In Singapore I encounter Taro Abacus Beads. Their name comes from their shape which resembles the pierced disks on a Chinese abacus, an ancient, low-tech adding machine. Hakkas often cook this dish for Chinese New Years to bring wealth in business. These chewy pasta disks resemble a springy, sticky version of Italian gnocchi. Taro replaces potato and tapioca starch replaces wheat flour typically used in Italian gnocchi. The Hakka version has a nuttier flavor and chewy texture. Stir-fry the boiled taro abacus beads with vegetables or cloak with a mushroom pork sauce.

Whatever you cook, Khiung Hee Fat Choy! May you have a delicious, prosperous, and happy new year!

Be Sociable, Share!

Sweet soy chow mein (aka red noodles)

Sweet soy chow meinWhile in Toronto, I had heard about Hakka red noodles. It was a special dish that the Hakka from India made. The name is a bit misleading, because they don’t look red, the color is closer to black-brown. The taste is sweet and savory. Although no one could explain the origin of the name, the noodles were seductively delicious.

In India, Hakka cooks stash a bottle of a special sweet soy sauce (hung mee or red sauce) in their refrigerator to make a sweet noodle dish known as hung mee chow mein. It is basically chow mein–stir-fried noodles with vegetables and meat. What distinguishes it from the common variety is a thick syrupy  sauce that is dark, aromatic, sweet, and salty. The sauce is similar to the Indonesian kecap manis which can be used as an alternative. kecap manis

To make this Sweet Soy Chow Mein (recipe on page 178 in The Hakka Cookbook), stir-fry slivers of meat and vegetables, then add cooked noodles and sweet soy sauce (recipe follows) or purchased kecap manis. The sauce will coat the noodles with a dark, glossy sheen.

Sweet Soy Sauce

This sauce is easy to make. Simply boil soy sauce with brown sugar and aromatics until thick and syrupy, almost like honey or pancake syrup. Measuring the sauce will help you attain the right consistency. The salty soy sauce balances the sweetness of the sugar so the results taste savory rather than like dessert.

1 piece dried tangerine peel (2 in. wide)

1 stalk fresh lemongrass

3 thin slices fresh ginger

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup dark soy sauce (also called black soy sauce)

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

1. Soak the tangerine peel in hot water until soft, about 15 minutes; drain. Trim off and discard leafy tops of lemon grass. Cut the stalk in about 3-inch sections. Lightly crush lemongrass and ginger with the flat side of a knife blade.

2. In a 3-quart pan over high heat, bring tangerine peel, lemongrass, ginger, water, soy sauce, sugar, cinnamon, and star anise to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil gently until the liquid is greatly reduced and slightly syrupy, about 20 minutes. Pour through a wire strainer set over a 1-quart glass measure. Discard solids. The sauce should measure about 1 1/3 cups. If greater than 1 1/3 cups, return to pan and boil, uncovered, until reduced to the amount. Or if the amount is less than 1 1/3 cups, add water to make that amount. Use or store in refrigerator up to 6 months.

 

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Happy holidays!

2013 was a wonderful year for The Hakka Cookbook. Thanks to the many people who supported the project, reviewed the book, sponsored events, and bought the book. A few highlights:

  •  Named “Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook in the World” by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris.
  • Appeared in the New York Times in a story by Mark Bittman.
  • Within a year, a second printing of The Hakka Cookbook was ordered.
  • The greatest reward of all was meeting so many Hakka all over the world (chee gah ngin).

Thank you all.  I wish you and your families Joyful Holidays!  May 2014 be filled with Good Health, Good Food, and Good Friends!

 

Be Sociable, Share!

5 gifts for the cook

gift with book and steamerLooking for the perfect gift?  If you have someone on your list who wants to learn to cook Chinese food, here are some suggestions for the novice to the more experienced cook. Of course, I would include The Hakka Cookbook that explains how to use the gift with detailed instructions on techniques, ingredients, and equipment as well as over 140 recipes for Chinese comfort food to special occasion festival dishes. Package a few items together for a Chinese cooking kit.

1. Wok. This is the ultimate all-purpose pan in the Chinese kitchen. Use the wok to stir-fry, deep-fry, braise, boil, and steam. For Western kitchens I would choose a 14-inch flat-bottom wok made from rolled steel or enamel-clad cast iron. Check with the Wok Shop. They will find the right wok for you and your stove. These hard working pans are bargain-priced compared to most high quality pans.  Also buy a wok spatula to make stir-frying easier.

2. Chinese cleaver. This is the equivalent of the French chef’s knife. It’s an all-purpose knife with the advantage of a wide blade that’s handy for crushing garlic and scooping up cut vegetables.

3. Chinese  metal steamer or bamboo steamer. These steamers can accommodate wide dishes often used to hold a whole fish, meats, and beaten eggs. Choose one about 11 to 12 inches wide for the most versatility. In a multilayer steamer you can cook several dishes at a time. Steaming is an easy and healthful way to cook. The Wok Shop as well as many Asian supermarkets sell these steamers. Also look for them online.

4. Staples of the Chinese pantry. Present an assortment of key seasonings, especially those that are not readily available in the supermarket, such as dark soy sauce, Chinese rice wine (shaoxing), fermented black beans or black bean and garlic sauce, ground bean sauce, Tianjin preserved vegetables, dried black fungus, and dried tangerine peel. Look at The Hakka Pantry starting on page 247 in The Hakka Cookbook for suggestions, descriptions, Chinese names, and shopping guidance. Or add one of my sauces, JADE Sichuan Peanut Sauce, that is ready to eat without cooking for a table sauce, salad dressing, or stir-fry sauce.

Fragrant Rice cooked in Chinese clay pot.

Fragrant Rice cooked in Chinese clay pot.

5. Chinese clay pot.  For the cook who has the basic equipment, consider giving a clay pot (also known as sand pot). Braise stews, simmer soups, and cook rice in these rustic pots that enhance the natural flavors of the ingredients. They also serve as handsome serving dishes. Best to buy these pots at an Asian cookware store such as the Wok Shop. Also available online.

Happy cooking and eating!

Be Sociable, Share!

Chinese Thanksgiving

If you live in America, you know that Thanksgiving is the greatest food holiday for Americans. Of course, if you are Chinese, you get a second chance with Chinese New Years. Since I am both Chinese and American, I celebrate both.

Chicken stuffed with Preserved Mustard Greens at the Hakka Restaurant

Chicken stuffed with Preserved Mustard Greens at the Hakka Restaurant

Ever since I ate the Chicken Stuffed with Preserved Mustard Greens (moi choy gai)  at The Hakka Restaurant in San Francisco, I always thought it would make a great Thanksgiving alternative to traditional turkey. The chicken is stuffed with a savory blend of preserved mustard greens (moi choy), pork, and mushrooms, then braised in broth. After cooking the chicken, the broth is reduced and thickened to make a luscious gravy. If you are lucky to live nearby, you can order the chicken from the restaurant. Otherwise, with a little effort, you can make it. Another alternative to a centerpiece bird would be salt-baked chicken.

If you want to celebrate Thanksgiving with a Chinese feast, consider this menu culled from recipes from The Hakka Cookbook. It is just right for a group of six adventurous diners. For a cooperative effort, ask some guests to bring the appetizer and makings for the side dishes. They can quickly finish them off in your kitchen.

Hakka Thanksgiving Ginger-Scented Squash and Peas

  • Shrimp and Chive Fritters (p. 212) or Salt-Baked Shrimp (p. 62), optional
  • Braised Chicken Stuffed with Preserved Mustard Greens (p. 233) or Salt-Baked Chicken (p. 64)
  • Ginger-Scented Squash, Peas, and Lily Bulbs  (p. 52)
  • Fresh Bamboo Shoots and Mushrooms (p. 159) and/or Chinese Broccoli in Sweet Rice Wine (p. 230)
  • Fragrant Rice (p. 59) or Steamed Rice Bowls (p. 270)
  • Ginger Soup with Sweet Rice Balls (p. 117) or Tangerines, Fuyu Persimmons, and Crystallized Ginger Slices

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be Sociable, Share!

Salt-baked shrimp

The Hakka Cookbook appears in Flavours July 2013 issue.

The Hakka Cookbook appears in Flavours July 2013 issue.

Last month a beautiful magazine arrived in the mail from Malaysia. A bookmark stuck between the pages of Flavours, a lifestyle magazine published in Kuala Lumpur, marked “The Hakka’s traveling kitchen,” a ten page story about The Hakka Cookbook. The writer, Julie Wong, interviewed me in Paris at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards where The Hakka Cookbook was recognized as the Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook in the World.

The beautifully designed and photographed story featured five recipes from the book, adapting the recipes to their Malaysian readers, many who are Hakka.

I was curious about their version of salt-baked shrimp. I had eaten the shrimp in Beijing and Hong Kong. The shrimp version is likely adapted from the Hakka classic, salt-baked chicken. With no ovens, the Hakkas buried the chicken in a pit lined with hot rocks and salt. The salt absorbed the heat from the rocks and transferred it to the chicken. A chef from Beijing, suggested  the technique was invented by a clever Hakka who sold salt. Since the recipe requires pounds of salt, he could make a lot of money.

Hakkas who lived near the sea, likely created the shrimp version. Today’s chefs have replaced the pit with a large pan, and a flame under the pan for the hot rocks. The chef inserts a long skewer down the length of large head-on, unshelled shrimp. He buries the skewered shrimp in the pan of hot salt. The skewered shrimp are dramatically served in a wood bucket of hot salt as seen in the painting on the book’s cover.The Hakka Cookbook (med)

To adapt the recipe to a western home kitchen, I tried both the stove-top and the oven. On the stove, I found it was difficult to heat the salt evenly without stirring the heavy mass often. The salt also scratched the pan. So I decided to bake the salt in the oven in two pans. It takes longer, but requires no attention. Once the salt is hot, plunge the skewered shrimp, head first, into the salt in one of the containers, then pour remaining salt around shrimp. Return to oven, and shrimp will be done in a few minutes.

In Malaysia, a western oven is not so common, so the editors adapted my recipe to a technique of baking the shrimp (without skewers) in the salt on the stove top. Since the Flavours’ story is not available online without a subscription, they agreed that I could share their recipe and photos here. This recipe is for readers who live outside of North America and prefer to use a stove top.

For my oven technique and American measurements, please see page 62 in The Hakka Cookbook.

Original photos by Yap Chee Hong & various sources. Food prepared by Debbie Teoh.

Original photos by Yap Chee Hong & various sources. Food prepared by Debbie Teoh.

Salt-baked Shrimp (from Flavours July 2013 pg. 63)

Makes 2 to 3 servings as a main dish or 6 to 8 servings as an appetizer

500 g shrimps (16 to 20), in their shells

2 tablespoons minced spring onions

2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing) or dry sherry

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced red or green chilies

 3 kg rock salt, or as needed

With scissors or a small sharp knife, cut through the shell of the shrimp along the centre of the back and make a slit about 1 cm deep into the flesh. Remove the vein, if present, Rinse shrimp and drain.

In a bowl, mix shrimps, spring onions, wine, garlic, ginger, and chilies. Rub some of the marinade into the slit of the shrimp. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.

To bake on stove top: Place the salt in an old wok or claypot, cover with lid, and heat until the salt is very hot, about 10 to 15 minutes. The prawn should turn pink immediately when it is buried in the salt.

Open lid and bury the shrimps in the hot salt. Put the lid back on and cook for about 1 minute, or to desired doneness. Remove shrimps from the hot salt.

Be Sociable, Share!