Hakka soul food cooking class

IMG_1363I have been busy giving cooking classes and slide presentations at four branches of the San Mateo County Library the past two weeks. This Saturday, February 20, marks my last event in East Palo Alto. Come to learn about the Chinese migrants known as the Hakka and Chinese New Year foods and traditions. I will cook three Hakka soul food dishes and tastings follow. If you have a copy of The Hakka Cookbook, bring it and I will be happy to personally autograph it. There will also be copies for sale.

IMG_3853I love meeting people at these presentations. In Foster City, I met a young couple who told me they had cooked three recipes from The Hakka Cookbook for their Chinese New Year’s dinner. These were some of the more labor-intensive Hakka classics such as Salt-baked Chicken, Stuffed Tofu, and Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard Greens. I am so proud of them!

One member of the Millbrae audience said her father was Hakka from Jamaica. She was thrilled to buy a book with her Hakka history. Another attendee told me she had read the book from cover to cover and appreciated the research and stories. She admitted she was not much of a cook so she focused on the simpler recipes. She was so happy that the results were successful.

Comments like these are my reward.  When a person understands and uses the book, it makes all those years of research and testing worthwhile.

Catch the last event: February 20, Saturday, 2 pm. East Palo Alto Library, 2415 University Ave., East Palo Alto, CA 94303. 650. 321. 7712, ext. 225.

 

Gifts for the aspiring Chinese cook

gift with book and steamerIf there’s a cook on your holiday gift list who is interested in Chinese history and cuisine, consider The Hakka Cookbook. Or if you know someone who is Hakka, give them the book to help them discover their own cultural and culinary heritage. They can learn how to cook Hakka classics such as stuffed tofu and salt-baked chicken as well as easy Chinese comfort food.  The Hakka Cookbook was named “Best Chinese Cuisine Cookbook in the World in 2013 by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

If they already own the book, take a look at this post from last year for other gift suggestions from cooking tools (woks, steamers, clay pots, Chinese cleavers) to ethnic ingredients. Or assemble a Chinese cooking kit.

Happy holidays! May it be full of joy and good food!

 

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.

 

 

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.

Hakka tastes in London

Just back from London. Ate at Four Seasons, a Chinese restaurant famous for its roast duck. My sister-in-law, a flight attendant, says all the Thai flight crew order duck over rice.  They present the duck Thai-style, cut-up over rice with a dark salty-sweet sauce, accompanied with a tray of Thai condiments. My Thai husband loved it.

I was drawn to the Hakka dishes on the menu. Although it wasn’t a Hakka restaurant, Hakka classics such as steamed pork belly with preserved mustard greens (kiu nyiuk moi choi) and salt-baked chicken (yam guk gai) appeared on the menu. They weren’t labeled Hakka but were popular with the Chinese customers.

Pork belly steamed on a bed of preserved mustard greens in a dark savory sauce

Although I didn’t get to London for my cookbook, it makes sense there would be a Hakka presence in Great Britain. Many Hakka immigrated to British colonies such as India, the West Indies, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Some may have later migrated to the United Kingdom. The Chinatown looks like most throughout the world. A few compact blocks are packed with restaurants selling dim sum, roast ducks, and fresh seafood. There are small noodle shops and Chinese bakeries. Although I didn’t meet any Hakka there, I could taste the Hakka presence in the food.