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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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.

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.



Easy Chinese steamed fish dinner

Chinese steamed fish and riceNeed a quick, no-fuss, healthy dinner? Steamed fish, rice, and green vegetables is my go-to meal that cooks in one versatile pan—a Chinese multi-layer steamer. With relatively little effort, I am rewarded with a complete meal highlighted by moist succulent fish.

The origin is Chinese. In a Hakka restaurant in Meizhou, China, we ate a steamed whole fish, very simply seasoned with a bit of ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, and green onions (page 39 in The Hakka Cookbook). Throughout China, we ate different variations of steamed fish, sometimes with fermented black beans, chiles, red peppers, and pickled mustard greens. In Meizhou, we also ate rice steamed in small clay bowls (page 270 in The Hakka Cookbook). I merge these two in this easy, quick meal. Chinese stacked steamer

With a big Chinese steamer this meal cooks efficiently in about 30 minutes.  I use a  self-contained multi-layer metal steamer. You could also use two stacked bamboo steamer racks over a 14-inch wok. Cook bowls of rice on one layer and fish on the top layer. When both are done, plunge vegetables into the boiling water in the base pan and cook briefly, then drain. Look for the steamers at the Wok Shop, Asian cookware stores and Asian supermarkets, and online. Choose steamers or bamboo steamer racks at least 11- to 12-inches wide to accommodate wide plates.

Steamed Fish and Rice for 2

In this easy version, I often use a piece of fish fillet. You can also use a small whole fish and increase the seasonings. Season fish as you like: choose from shiitake mushrooms slivers, sliced chiles, dried hot chile flakes, pickled mustard green slivers, lemon slices, fresh herbs. If desired, lightly mix the cooked green vegetables with Chinese oyster sauce and sesame oil to taste.

2/3 cup white long grain rice

12 to 16 ounces fish fillet such as rock fish, salmon, or halibut

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon thinly slivered fresh ginger

1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed (optional)

Salt to taste

1 green onion, thinly sliced or slivered, included tops

6 to 8 ounces Chinese green vegetable such as Chinese broccoli (gai lan) or yau choy (ends, trimmed and cut in 3-inch lengths), or baby bok choy (cut in halves or quarters lengthwise)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil or sesame oil

Cilantro leaves (optional)


1.  Fill the base of a Chinese metal steamer half to two-thirds full of water or a 14-inch wok (if using bamboo steamer racks). Set wok over a ring if it has a round bottom to stablize.  Bring water to a boil over high heat.

2.  Rinse 1/3 cup rice in fine wire strainer; drain. Place rice in a small Chinese rice bowl (about 1 cup size). Fill bowl with 1/3 cup water. Repeat for second bowl. Repeat if you want additional bowls of rice. Place rice bowls in one steamer rack. When water boils, set filled steamer rack over water, cover and steam about 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile rinse fish and pat dry. Place fish (skin-side down, if attached) on shallow heatproof dish (such as a 9-inch Pyrex pie pan) that will fit inside a steamer. Drizzle fish evenly with wine and soy sauce. Sprinkle evenly with ginger, black beans, and salt. Sprinkle white part of onion over fish. Set fish in second steamer rack.

4. After rice has steamed 15 minutes, set steamer rack with fish on top of rack with rice. Cover fish. (In a wok, you may need to add more boiling water as it evaporates.) Continue steaming until fish looks almost opaque in thickest part, 8 to 10 minutes for about 1 inch thick piece and rice is tender. In a wok, you may need to add more boiling water as it evaporates. When fish is done, lift off both steamer racks and set the stacked racks on a towel-covered counter. (Be careful, steam is very hot.) Keep steamer racks covered and allow fish to rest.

5.  Add more water to pan if pan is less than half full and return to boil over high heat. Add vegetable and cook until bright green and barely tender, about 2 minutes. Drain, place vegetable in a serving bowl.

6.  Sprinkle remaining green onions over fish. In a small pan over high heat, cook the vegetable oil until very hot and pour over green onions and fish. If using sesame oil, do not heat. Sprinkle fish with cilantro. Serve fish with rice and vegetables.

Searching for Hakka restaurants in Bangkok

On past trips to Thailand, I had never found any Hakka restaurants. I knew Hakka lived in Thailand, but most Chinese I had met previously were Teochow. Through my book, I had met a Hakka who grew up in Bangkok. Luckily when visiting Thailand a few months ago, my new Hakka friend offered to give me a tour of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Piang Ki Pochana
Tel: 02 221 6024

As we explored the streets bustling with Chinese New Year shoppers, we decided to try a hidden, old time Hakka restaurant in the area. Piang Ki Pochana is tucked into an alley on the way to Wat Kusolsamankarn and The Hakkas Association of Thailand. This tiny hole-in-the wall restaurant specializes in Hakka dishes. We ordered the tofu skin stuffed with minced pork, steamed stuffed tofu, pork belly with picked vegetables, and red-hued stir-fried rice noodles. Our favorite was the paper-thin tofu skin wrapped around a bit of minced pork and fried until extra-crisp. We dipped the crispy morsels into a sweet sauce infused with bits of pickled garlic.

Library at the Hakka Association of Thailand

Afterwards we visited the Hakka Association that includes an event hall and a small library. The library contains Hakka books and publications, most are written in Chinese. If you’re ever in Bangkok, check it out.

A few days later, we tried another Hakka restaurant Aiew Hin Pochana, a short BTS ride outside of city central.

Aiew Hin Pochana
Tel: 086 9456261

At this small homey restaurant we dipped small fried spring rolls filled with pork and water chestnuts into a sweet garlic-infused syrup (photo below).

Pork-filled spring rolls at Aiew Hin Pochana

Their version of pork belly moi choy was dark and succulent. Pork-stuffed tofu chunks, pan-browned on one side and braised in a clear sauce, flecked with red yeast had a mild flavor (photo below).

In our limited tasting of Hakka food in Bangkok, I was surprised to find the dishes rather mild in flavor, especially in the local environment of very spicy Thai cuisine. I need to try more dishes to get a bigger picture of the Hakka restaurants in Thailand. The red yeast rice (kuk 紅 米 麴 ) was present at both meals. These tiny dark red particles are a fermentation by-product of the red yeast growing on cooked non glutinous rice. It adds a deep red color and faint mineral flavor to rice wine, soups, sauces, and fermented bean curd.

Anyone have recommendations for Hakka restaurants in Thailand? Perhaps Hakka cooking only remains in home kitchens. Love to hear from you.

Hakka sweets in Hong Kong

Chuen Cheung Kui Restaurant

Have you tasted these Hakka sweets–deep-fried milk or steamed Hakka buns?

Days before Chinese New Year, anthropology professor Sidney Cheung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, took us to a local Hakka restaurant, Chuen Cheung Kui Restaurant in Hong Kong. We ate traditional Hakka dishes such as salt-baked chicken and stuffed tofu, but for me, who loves sweets, what I remember the most were the desserts. Like most Chinese desserts, they had intriguing textures but were not very sweet compared to Western versions.

Deep-fried Milk

I had read the deep-fried milk was a must-try at this restaurant. Big lumps of mildly sweet milk pudding were coated in a thin light batter and deep-fried until crisp and golden. Served hot with sugar to dip into, they were irresistible. Unlike other versions of fried custards or puddings I have eaten, these were softer and more voluptuous in size. The crisp exterior deliciously contrasted with the smooth pillow-soft milk pudding interior.

Steamed Hakka Buns

Cheung’s kids insisted we also order the steamed Hakka buns that they had eaten here before. I’m glad they did. Steamed buns, the color of aged ivory, cratered with craggy fissures, sat on a square of banana leaf. Their texture and appearance resembled the bready exterior of a steamed pork bun. The bread boasted a fine, dense, moist, tender crumb. I detected a mild caramel sweetness and golden color that might have originated from brown sugar or the Chinese brown slab sugar. Even though they had no filling, we couldn’t stop eating these soft, slightly sweet buns.

Do you know these Hakka desserts? If so, please share your recipes.


Chuen Cheung Kui Restaurant
Shop C, 1/F, Alliance Building, 133 Connaught Road
Hong Kong
Hong Kong Island, Sheung Wan

Chinese food in Myanmar

Last month, while traveling through Myanmar (aka Burma), I received notice of a new post from The Sandy Food Chronicles. The headline read” In Myanmar: Ham Choy in Monnyinjin”. She writes about finding the Hakka salted mustard greens (ham choy) in the Shan state near Inle Lake. What a coincidence, I am in the same area. A few days later I find a dish of pickled mustard greens and radish tops on the table, ready to add to my noodle soup.

I didn’t meet anyone who identified as Hakka but I’m sure they must be here. The Chinese population in Myanmar is roughly 3% and most come from Guangdong, Fujian, and Yunnan. The Chinese have invested in development in this country, so many Chinese have come to work and live here.

Since Myanmar is bordered by China, India, Laos, and Thailand, it’s not surprising to taste those influences in the cuisine. Chinese and Indian flavors strongly show up. Our guide tells us that most restaurants serve Chinese food, because customers prefer it since they can eat Burmese food at home. That was also true 40 years ago when I first visited Burma in the mid-70’s, I came here to report on Burmese food but no restaurants served it, only Chinese food. I could only find Burmese food in homes, not restaurants. Luckily, I had connections and was able to visit a family and eat a home-cooked Burmese meal. For me, there are many similarities in a Chinese and Burmese meal. Both are centered around rice.

Soy-braised pork belly resembles similar Hakka dish in this typical Burmese meal.

My photos show some of the dishes we ate on our recent tour. Lots of meat and vegetable stir-fries, noodles, and stir-fried vegetables show a strong Chinese hand. The soy-braised pork belly reminded me of Hakka stews.

Simple meat and potato curries were less complex and spicy than Indian versions. Light and brothy soups with a few vegetables were  present at most meals. Some were thickened with legumes.

The salads boast a distinctive Burmese flavor– vegetables lightly dressed with lime juice, chile, ground dried shrimp, fried shallots, fish sauce, and peanuts. Condiments such as relishes, chile pastes, and pickles allow diners to tailor dishes to their taste.

Burmese tomato salad in back, Chinese noodles in front