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.

 

 

Garlic chives (aka Chinese chives)

Grass-like blades of Chinese chives add pungent garlic-onion essence.

I’ve been working my way through two pounds of garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives. I usually buy most of my produce at the farmers’ market, but sometimes they don’t have what I want. I needed about one cup thinly sliced garlic chives, probably four ounces would have been enough. So I went to the Asian supermarket 99 Ranch. The smallest package of garlic chives weighed in at two pounds. I was tempted to open the package and take out a small amount, but the package was taped shut and the package was already weighed and priced. Why do these big supermarkets package vegetables in such big quantities? Who wants 2 or 3 pounds of the same vegetable? If you own a restaurant or have a big family it might make sense, but I prefer to buy small quantities of several different kinds to eat throughout the week.

I bought the big package and made Noodles with Mushroom Pork Sauce (page 104), a wonderfully easy dish packed with flavor. It’s sort of like an Italian meat sauce with spaghetti, except this is Hakka style. Lots of stir-fried mushrooms, garlic chives, pork, and soy sauce make a dark savory sauce that spills over noodles and bean sprouts.

Now I have about 1 3/4 pounds of chives left. Luckily garlic chives are widely versatile. Use their pungent garlic-onion essence anywhere you use garlic and green onions which make a suitable substitute. The chives look much like grass with long green flat blades. Add them to stir-fried meats and vegetables, soups, dumpling fillings, and salads.

I have been making lots of Fried Eggs with Chives (page 80). This dish is so easy, it almost doesn’t need a recipe. It similar to an Italian fritatta, a golden fried egg pancake dense with  chives. You can make them any size, but I like to use a small pan like one used for omelets, because the eggs are easier to turn over.

Fried Eggs with Chives: Lightly beat 2 large eggs with a little salt and spoonful of water. Set a 6- inch frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add 1 tablespoon of oil, then 3/4 cup thinly sliced garlic chives. Cook just until chives are bright green and wilt, then stir the wilted chives into the beaten eggs. Return the pan to high heat, add 2 tablespoons more oil, then the egg mixture. As the egg sets up, lift up the cooked edges to let the raw egg flow underneath. When golden on bottom, turn the eggs over to brown the other side. Slide onto a plate and eat with a bowl of hot rice for a simple supper.

What are your favorite ways to use garlic chives?

 

Curious about bitter melon?

In the summer, my father used to grow one of his favorite vegetables, bitter melon (foo gwa).  You might see it in farmers’ markets now.  Their appearance prompts curious questions. They don’t look much like melons, their shape is more like a slender gourd or a plump cucumber. Their green skin is furrowed with deep wrinkles and their interior is filled with a white pithy mesh of seeds.

Like their name implies, they are bitter. Although Hakka and many Asians love their strong numbing bite, it may be an acquired taste for the uninitiated. I confess, even though I love bitter in many forms, I find this vegetable stronger than I like. Some cooks claim certain techniques mellow the bitterness. Some simmer the melon uncovered in broth, so the bitterness can dissipate. Marie Chang from Toronto adds tomato to the braising sauce to add some sweetness to balance the bitterness of the vegetable in her recipe (page 163).

Those who love this vegetable celebrate and savor its bitterness. Also many eat it for its health benefits. With all its claims, you might call it a super food.  It is often referred to as a plant insulin and can help lower blood sugar. Perhaps that’s why my father ate so much bitter melon, he had diabetes. It is also high in iron, potassium, calcium. It claims to combat cancer, viruses, colds, psoriasis, and high cholesterol.

To stuff bitter melon: cut melon in rings, remove seeds and pith, and fill cavity.

My father, like many Hakka, liked to stuff the melon. He cut the melon crosswise in rings, removed the seeds, and filled the cavity with a pork filling. He poached it in broth to make soup. See my father’s recipe in the cookbook on page 24. In Hong Kong, I ate a new version stuffed with glutinous rice, Chinese sausage or bacon, and Tianjin vegetables (page 74).

The stuffed rings are most commonly poached in broth, pan browned and braised, or steamed. You can also slice the melon and stir-fry it. Or imbed thin slices in a frittata-like omelet (page 80).

The next time you see this funny looking vegetable, be adventurous and give it a try. You might like it.