Hakka classic: chicken and mushrooms

Dark, savory, and sweet describes this ginger-scented stew of chicken and mushrooms. It’s a Hakka classic with many variations. My mom braised big bone-in pieces of chicken and earthy shiitake mushrooms in soy sauce and sugar until dark and glossy.

In this quick and easy version, Fah Liong, originally from Indonesia, uses a sweet soy sauce known as kecap manis and boneless chunks of chicken thigh (page 204 of The Hakka Cookbook for original recipe). Look for the Indonesian soy sauce in Southeast Asian sections of Asian supermarkets. For a quick alternative to kecap manis mix 2 tablespoons dark (aka black) soy sauce and 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar. Or make my recipe for Sweet Soy Sauce on page 269 of The Hakka Cookbook.

Soy-braised Chicken and Mushrooms

Makes 4 servings as a main dish or 6 to 8 servings as part of a multicourse meal

12 dried shiitake mushrooms

3 1/2 cups hot water, or as needed

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons thinly slivered fresh ginger

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons kecap manis (or 2 tablespoons each dark (or black) soy sauce and packed brown sugar)

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

3 greens onions, including green tops, cut in 2-inch lengths


1. Rinse the mushrooms and soak in the hot water until soft, 20 minutes to 2 hours. Squeeze excess water out of mushrooms and reserve soaking water. Remove and discard mushroom stems. Cut caps in half.

2. Trim excess fat off chicken. Cut chicken into about 1-inch chunks.

3. Set a 14-inch wok or 5- to 6-quart pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil, ginger, and garlic. Stir-fry until garlic begins to brown. Add the chicken and stir often until it begins to brown 4 to 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and 1 1/2 cups of mushroom-soaking water, pouring carefully so sediment stays behind. Add sweet soy sauce and bring to boil.

4. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender when pierced, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer meat and mushrooms with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl. Skim off and discard fat from pan juices. If pan juices measure more than 1 1/4 cups, boil, uncovered, until reduced to that amount. If juices measure less than 1 1/4 cups, add water to make that amount and bring to a boil. Stir in salt to taste, pepper, and green onions. Pour over chicken.

A feast at the Hakka Restaurant

Hakka restaurant


Last night, we enjoyed a pre-Chinese New Year’s feast at the Hakka Restaurant in San Francisco. With a group of ten we had enough people to try some of their special order specialties.

My friend Yin-Wah told me that Chef Jin Wah Li makes a soup that no one else makes in the city. The description sounded a bit unusual, but she assured me it was delicious. The chef’s wife also claimed it was her favorite soup. So I pre-ordered the “pig stomach stuffed with chicken soup”.Hakka RestaurantHakka restaurant

A huge white tureen came to the table. The server lifted out a football-shaped packet to a platter. She slit open the pork stomach wrapper to reveal a whole chicken. Then she ladled the clear golden broth into bowls. She explained that the chicken-stuffed-stomach, along with chicken feet, white peppercorns, ginger, and dried longan (aka dragon eye, a fruit similar to lychee) had steamed together for 5 to 6 hours to create this complex broth. The essence of chicken imbued the broth, with an underlying spiciness from the peppercorns, balanced by a faint fruity sweetness. Each spoonful represented the work of a masterful chef. Although the chicken and pig’s stomach were offered for eating, I felt most of their flavor had transferred to the broth.

Stuffed duck is another listed specialty. We had tasted the duck years ago with a barley stuffing and wanted to try something different. An unlisted option offered a rice stuffing. The duck arrived with rice studded with savory treasures such as Chinese sausage and dried scallops. The chef had browned the stuffed duck, wrapped it in lotus leaves, and steamed it until the duck fell apart when nudged with a fork. Delicious!

We also pre-ordered lobster noodles. A generous portion of lobster chunks were stir-fried with noodles. Fingers were needed to coax the sweet lobster meat out of the shell.

Hakka Restaurant

Steamed Sea Bass with Pickled Mustard Greens and Pork






Other dishes we ordered that are usually on the menu or wall photos:

Chinese Bacon with Preserved Greens (a must-have favorite)

Stir-fried Pea Greens

Clams with Spicy Salt and Black Bean Sauce (another favorite)

Salt-Baked Chicken

Steamed Sea Bass in Two Flavors (with pickled mustard greens and pork)


Hakka Restaurant, 4401-A Cabrillo Street (corner of 45th Avenue), San Francisco, CA 94121 Tel. 415 876 6898

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The Illustrated Wok

Last spring, the editors of The Cleaver Quarterly invited me to contribute a recipe to their new project,The Illustrated Wok, a cookbook with hand-drawn Chinese recipes from around the world. I was honored to be included in this collection of 40 celebrity chefs, authors, and food writers. Each recipe would be paired with an illustrator. I suggested my brother, Alan Lau, who painted the art for The Hakka Cookbook, illustrate my recipe for Sweet Tangy Bitter Melon Pickles.

I was amazed at the speed this book was put together. By the November, the book had been funded by kickstarter backers, produced, and printed. I received my copy in December and I am delighted with the results.

Each recipe offers a new voice, a surprise, and a different presentation. Some recipes are illustrated with spare elegant black brush painting, others exude color and humor with comic book graphics. Some introduce fantasy and whimsy to the recipes.

Recipes are categorized in headings based on ingredients, technique, type of dish, or geographic origin. Chefs bring fresh perspectives and often global flavors to traditional Chinese dishes. Recipes do not follow a set consistent style. Each is written in the voice of the contributor. Just reading the stories and savoring the art is almost as satisfying as actually cooking and eating the recipes. Buy the book here.




Thai Rooster bowls with Hakka roots

In January, photos of charming Chinese bowls with a distinctive colorful rooster pattern caught my eye in the Bangkok Post’s feature article. Little did I know, that these rooster bowls had Hakka roots.

The story was about Yupin Dhanabadeesakul, a woman who was following her Chinese immigrant father’s footsteps in their family ceramics business. Her father, Simyu Sae-chin migrated from Guangdong to Thailand during China’s civil war. He was a ceramic craftsman and when he discovered kaolin clay near Lampang, he opened a ceramic factory and crafted bowls hand painted with a colorful rooster, the same design he used in China. When I read about his Chinese roots, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was Hakka.

Yupin Dhanabadeesakul , owner with Hakka roots, still works in the family ceramics factory

Almost a year later, I found myself in Chiang Mai, not far from Lampang. I remembered the article about the rooster bowls and suggested we visit the Dhanabadee factory. There is a museum, factory outlet and workshop where you can paint ceramic objects with your own design. Our grand children painted elephants while their parents shopped. While their painted ceramic elephants were fired in the kiln, we went on a fascinating tour of the museum that highlights the family company’s history and the production of the ceramics.

I was surprised to see Yupin, the daughter of the founder featured in the article, humbly working on the production line, trimming clay bowls. After our tour we asked if we could take a photo with the owner. She gladly agreed. My husband asked her in Thai if she was Chinese Hakka ( จีนแคะ Jeen  Kae.) She answered yes, but her father wanted to make it easier for his children to assimilate in his new country so he gave his children a Thai name. Even with her Thai name, Yupin epitomizes the spirit and tenacity of the hard-working Hakka woman.

Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum Address 543 M.1, T.GLOUYPAE, A.MUANG, LAMPANG 52000 THAILAND Tel. (+66) 05435 4011-2

Gift for the cook

Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook of the World 2012 -Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Is there a cook on your holiday gift list who is interested in Chinese history and cuisine?  Do you have a Hakka relative or friend? Give them The Hakka Cookbook, Chinese Soul Food from around the World.

Through recipes and stories told by Hakka from all over the world, they can discover the unique Hakka history, culture, and cuisine. Find 140 recipes, including Hakka classics such as stuffed tofu, lui cha, and salt-baked chicken as well as easy Chinese comfort food. The beginner cook will find sections on cooking techniques, equipment, and ingredients.

Check this link for sources on where to buy The Hakka Cookbook. Generally, your local book store can order it for you. It is widely available online. Some of the major sellers are Amazon.comKinokuniya Online Store Bookweb, and University of California Press.


Braised mushrooms for the holidays

Braised mushroomsLooking for sides for your holiday dinners? Consider braised mushrooms. This versatile side will complement almost any holiday headliner such as turkey, prime rib, or roast pork.

I tasted this dish in Luodai, an easily accessible Hakka village, just outside of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in China. About 90 percent of the twenty three thousand residents are Hakka. The town is home to several large guild complexes, built with donations from Hakka from different provinces of China. These guilds serve as social halls with restaurants and meeting rooms. We dined at huge Hakka feasts at these guilds. Mushrooms appeared in all our meals. Hakka chefs briefly braised the local mountain mushrooms in a rich broth to emphasize their natural umami essence.



Braised Mountain Mushrooms

Use an assortment of mushrooms. Your farmers’ market or Asian grocery store will likely have a good selection.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of a multi-course meal

12 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms (oyster, king oyster, shiitake, button, beech, or enoki (limit enoki to 2 to 3 ounces)

1 small leek

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic

8 thin slices fresh ginger, lightly crushed

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon cornstarch


1. Trim off and discard the ends and any soft of discolored portions from mushrooms. If mushrooms are fairly clean gently brush off any debris. Otherwise lightly rinse mushrooms, drain well, and pat dry. Remove and discard stems of shiitake mushrooms. If the oyster and shiitake mushrooms are wider than 3 inches, cut in half through the caps. Slice the king oyster and button mushrooms lengthwise about 1/2-inch thick. If desired, cut the long king oyster mushrooms in half crosswise. Separate clumps of beech and enoki mushrooms into clusters about 1/2 inch wide and leave whole. Trim off and discard root end and tough dark green top from the leek. Cut leek in half lengthwise and rinse well under water, separating layers to remove any grit. Thinly sliced the leek crosswise.

2. Place a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add the oil and rotate the pan to spread. Add the garlic, ginger, and leek, stir-frying until leek is limp, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms (except enoki) and stir-fry until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the broth, wine, soy sauce, salt, and white pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring often until mushrooms are limp, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the water and cornstarch. Add cornstarch mixture to pan and stir until sauce boils, about 30 seconds. Stir in enoki mushrooms, (if using). Transfer to a serving bowl.

New Chinese cookbook

An exciting new kind of Chinese cookbook is at the press. About 6 months ago, The Cleaver Quarterly, a magazine devoted to Chinese food and its diversity, invited me to contribute a recipe to their new project, The Illustrated Wok. Forty chefs paired with forty artists would produce a picture cookbook, illustrated with hand drawn art. Each recipe would be brought to life with colorful unique illustrations.

Alan Lau, my brother and artist for The Hakka Cookbook, created the art for my recipe. At left is a sample of Alan’s art that illustrated an article in The Cleaver Quarterly in 2015. He has created a new painting (a surprise) for this new cookbook.

After a short Kickstarter campaign the cookbook, The Illustrated Wok, will soon be a reality. Pre-orders available here. I can hardly wait.


How to stir-fry cucumber

Cool as a cucumber? Not this one, it’s hot. Most Westerners eat cucumbers cold in salads, pickles, and sandwiches. But Chinese often cook cucumber. When briefly stir-fried, cucumber surprisingly retains much of its refreshing cool essence and crunch.

Stir-fry the cucumber with poultry or shrimp. Or follow the recipe on page 202 in The Hakka Cookbook, Stir-fried Chicken and Cucumbers. A mild sweet and sour sauce lightly melds the chicken and cucumber together.

Or for a simple vegetable dish, consider stir-frying the cucumber with lots of fresh ginger shreds, and a bit of sugar, vinegar, and chile.

Hot Gingered Cucumber

You don’t need thin-skinned Persian, English, or Japanese cucumbers for this dish. Thick skinned cucumbers work just fine in this stir-fry. Partially peel the cucumbers, alternating strips of green skin and white flesh down its length. Slice the cucumber in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and slice each half lengthwise. Cut each cucumber quarter diagonally into 1/2-inch thick slices.

Makes 4 side-dish servings

1 large cucumber (12 to 16 ounces)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons thinly slivered fresh ginger

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Thinly sliced red or green chile rings to taste

Chopped cilantro, optional


1. Peel down the length of the cucumber, alternating a 1/2-inch strip of green skin alongside each peeled strip for a striped effect. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop out and discard the seeds. Cut each half in half lengthwise. Cut each quarter diagonally into 1/2-inch thick slices; discard the ends.


2. Set a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil and rotate pan to spread. Stir in ginger. Add cucumber and stir-fry to coat with oil. Add water and stir-fry just until cucumber is barely tender to bite but still retains some crunch, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, sugar, salt, and chile to taste, stir-fry to mix. Pour into a serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro.

Mom’s black bean spareribs


My mom mixed bite-sized chunks of pork spareribs with a pungent mix of fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger. As the pork steamed, this combo of seasonings infused the pork with savory punch and filled the kitchen with mouth-watering aromas. In about an hour, with relatively little hands-on work, a succulent, intensely flavorful dish emerged.

Although the Cantonese also claim this dish, I prefer my mom’s more robust Hakka version. She used a generous measure of fermented black beans and often coarsely crushed them with the garlic and ginger to release their essence. She mixed the paste with soy sauce and the pork, then steamed the meat until meltingly tender.

Fermented black beans (aka preserved or salted black beans)

The fermented black beans (also called salted or preserved black beans), are small black soybeans fermented with salt and spices until soft and pungent. Add to meats, seafood, and stir-fries to contribute a distinctive funky, earthy flavor. Look for the beans in small plastic pouches or cardboard cartons in Asian markets.

Mom’s Black Bean Pork Spareribs

Ask the butcher to saw across the spareribs to make about 1 inch wide strips. Most Asian markets sell ribs precut into strips. Serve with hot rice to soak up the plentiful juices.

Makes 4 main-course servings or 6 to 8 servings as part of a multi-course meal

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry Sherry

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 1/2 pounds pork spareribs, sawed across bone into 1-inch wide strips

2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion (optional)


1. In a wide shallow heatproof rimmed dish that will fit inside a steamer such as a 9-inch Pyrex pie dish, mix soy sauce, wine, and cornstarch. (If desired, for a more intense flavor, lightly crush fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger in a mortar and to make a coarse paste. Skip this step for a chunkier texture.) Mix fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger with soy mixture.

2. Trim off and discard large pads of surface fat off pork. Cut ribs apart between bones. Add pork to soy mixture and mix to coat.

3. Set dish on a rack over boiling water in a steamer or wok. Cover and steam over high heat until pork is tender to bite, 50 to 60 minutes. If water evaporates before steaming is complete, add more boiling water as needed. Carefully remove dish from steamer. Skim fat from juices and discard. Garnish with green onions.



Foolproof rice without a rice cooker

Confession: I’ve never owned a rice cooker. For decades I have cooked rice as my grandmother taught me when I was just a little girl. I simply use a pan.

Popo filled a saucepan about one quarter full of Texas long grain rice. She filled the pan halfway full with water and swished her hand through the rice until the water became very cloudy. She carefully poured off the water, leaving the rice behind in the pan. She repeated rinsing the rice several times until the water was almost clear. After pouring off the water the last time, she added more water, just enough to cover the surface of the rice by about one inch. She used her index finger as a measure, the water should just reach the first line or joint of her index finger. She set the pan over medium-high heat. When the water came to a boil, she reduced the heat to medium-low and when most of the water evaporated and the surface of the rice was exposed, she covered the pan, and cooked the rice over very low heat for about 10 minutes. Cooked this way, the rice had tender grains that stuck slightly together. Often a golden crust would form on the bottom, a tasty treat for us kids. The drawback with this technique was that if the heat was too high or if the rice cooked too long at the last stage of cooking, it could develop a thick crust or burn.

Now, I eat far less rice than when I was young. I rarely eat the rice crust. To avoid waste and the rice crust I’ve simplified my rice cooking technique.

The first part follows Popo’s directions. Start with a pan that has thick sides and bottom, preferably with a nonstick finish. This is important. It is easy to burn the rice in thin pans. I usually use a 2-quart pan. Fill the pan with long grain rice such as Thai Jasmine to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep. Remember rice may almost triple in volume so allow room for expansion. Rinse the rice several times until the water is almost clear, then after draining the last time add more water until it measures about 1 inch deep over the top surface of the rice. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once it simmers, cover the pan and reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand covered about 5 minutes. Then you are ready to serve tender grains of rice, evenly cooked throughout the pan.