Holiday gift: The Hakka Cookbook

large version of cover of The Hakka Cookbook

Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook 2012 by Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Need a holiday gift for your Hakka children or foodie friend? Consider The Hakka Cookbook. It’s a perfect and unique gift especially for Hakka who want to learn more about their history, heritage, and cuisine. The book tells the story of the migration of China’s “guest people” known as the Hakka. It follows my journey to discover my own Hakka identity as I travel and interview Hakka throughout the world. These transplanted Hakka share their stories and their food. Through the easy-to-follow recipes, cook your way to the Hakka soul.

Ask your local bookstore to order The Hakka Cookbook for you. Or buy online. Check this link for sources and details. Online retailers such as Amazon (North America, France, Germany, UK, Japan, and Canada) and Kinokuniya Online Store Bookweb (Southeast Asia) have sold the book in the past.

Dedicated to the Hakka around the world

I dedicated this book to Hakka all around the world. That’s why I was so touched to read a post on Maya in the Morning by Maya Leland, a fellow Hakka who received The Hakka Cookbook as a gift.

In Roots uncovered, she writes about our shared history and most importantly she relays her own family story of migration from China to British Guyana to Jamaica. Her daughter-in-law even cooked one of the more exotic dishes in the book, Spiced Goat Stew with Preserved Lime Sauce, a recipe from a Hakka Jamaican who now lives in Toronto.

Reading blogs and reviews like this fulfills one of my goals for writing The Hakka Cookbook. Hopefully the book makes Hakkas as well as the world to be more aware of who we are, our unique history of migration, our strong character, and our food.

Thanks Maya.

Proud to be Hakka

Popo by Alan Lau

The idea for this book was planted when I was just a child. My grandmother (we called her Popo) kept telling us, “You should be proud to be Hakka.” My brother and I resisted, refusing to speak Hakka even though we could understand most of what was being said. We were the odd balls in an all white conservative community in northern California. In fact, we were the first and only Chinese in town. In spite of our protests, Popo taught us Chinese lessons after our American classes. We learned to write Chinese calligraphy and read from picture books, but it didn’t stick.

It wasn’t until we grew up and left home did we realize what we missed. I greatly regret not being able to speak Hakka, even though I know few people who do.  My career as a food writer and my family absorbed most of my time.  It wasn’t until I left Sunset Magazine and had more time to pursue other interests that Popo’s words echoed in my ear. What did she mean? Why should I be proud to be Hakka? Now I had the time to find out.

I had more than three decades experience writing about food and developing recipes. I would explore my culture through what I knew best, food. In the digital age, I could search the web and find basic information on the Hakka. I was surprised how easy it was. Occasionally, before computers and google I would try to find information about the Hakka and found very little. I knew the Hakka were wanderers or nomads but never realized how scattered they were. They were pockets literally all over the world. Since I grew up knowing very few Chinese, let alone Hakka, I had assumed the Hakka were a small minority. Yet once I started my research I saw world population figures ranging from thirty to one hundred twenty million. A recent figure estimates 75 million Hakka live throughout the world. Also Hakka are not a minority, but Han, part of the Chinese majority.

I found reference books that enlightened me about who the Hakka were. The Hakka share a unique history and identity. The ancestors of the Hakka were displaced from their northern home around the fourth century and led a life as homeless migrants for centuries. Between the tenth to the fourteenth century, they lived in an isolated mountainous area in Fujian province where they solidified their language, culture, and identity. As they moved south they were treated as unwelcome lowly newcomers left with poor pieces of land. This forced the Hakka to grow strong in their ability to survive in any situation through hard work, adaptation, frugality, and tenacity. They gained a reputation as being pioneers, able to establish settlements where no one else could such as in Sarawak and Sabah in the Federation of Malaysian. Even in James Michener’s  historical novel Hawaii, Dr. Whipple specifically requests Hakka laborers for his sugar plantations. When asked why, he replies “…Hakka can work…” Eventually these hardy pioneers settled throughout the world.

Hakkas are no longer just peasants. Many great political leaders were Hakka—China’s political reformer Deng Xiaoping, father of modern China Sun Yat-sen, Taiwan’s first elected president Lee Teng-hui, and Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kwan Yew. Author Han Suyin ( Many-Splendoured Thing) and artist Lin Fengmian claim Hakka heritage. Famed couture shoe designer Jimmy Choo is a Hakka born in Malaysia. Actor and action film star Chow Yun-Fat who starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Hakka from Hong Kong. Successful Hakka restauranteur Alan Yau who created the original Michelin-starred Hakkasan in Britain was also born in Hong Kong.

Who are the Hakka?

Who are the Hakka? Simply put, you might call them China’s nomads.

There are many theories about their origin. The story that most Hakka embrace is that around the fourth century, invaders forced the ancestors of the Hakka from their home 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 elsewhere they were considered the unwanted newcomers. The best, most fertile pieces of land were already taken. They were left with the scraps. They had no connected homeland and lived as dispersed minorities throughout Southern China.

The Hakka made the best of what they had and soon gained a reputation of being hard workers, pioneers who could survive almost anywhere. Other Chinese often looked down on the Hakka because they were migrants, unwanted newcomers, poor, independent, and clannish. In the twentieth century, the labeled them Hakka (Kejia in Mandarin) meaning guest people or family. Some Chinese called the women “big feet” because the Hakka did not follow the prevalent practice of foot-binding. It simply wasn’t practical. Women could not work in the fields with bound feet. Hakka women were feminists –independent, stubborn, strong, and hard-working.

Hakka women often wear a straw hat with a black veil attached around the edge of the brim.

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.  After the wars, many Hakka left China to find a new life and escape the 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.