The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World
How does one characterize the cuisine of nomads? It's a question explored through The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World, by Linda Lau Anusasananan, who delves into her Hakka heritage, tracing its origins in China to its diaspora in reaches as far as Peru and Hawaii. (Anusasanana notes that in James Michener's Hawaii, Dr. Whipple specifically requests Hakka laborers for his sugar plantations. When asked why, he replies “…Hakka can work…”)
Who are the Hakka? Originally from north-central China, they were driven out, and since then, according to the book, "Unlike other Chinese groups who claim a connected homeland, Hakkas lived dispersed as minorities."
Hakka itself means "guest family," and Anusasanana finds these guests and explores their cuisines. In Hawaii, she talks to Hakka descendants and shares their recipes for pickled mustard greens (see recipe below) and even a raw-fish salad of a Hakka by way of Tahiti.
So what characterizes Hakka cuisine, I asked Anusasanana. She replied via email, "At its traditional core, you might call Hakka cuisine the comfort food of the working man. It is hearty, satisfying, straightforward food with strong robust flavors.
The people did hard manual work so they needed food that would fuel their labor. The strong flavors came from ingredients such as preserved vegetables, cured meats, and soy sauce. These ingredients were prominent in the Hakka pantry because these Chinese nomads lived in isolated areas so they needed ingredients that kept a long time...As the cuisine traveled the world, it expanded through migration. It adapted to new environments, tastes, and lifestyles. It added new ingredients and invented new dishes to fit a new lifestyle. Yet even in its travels, it managed to retain its traditional roots."
It's worth a read, a documentation of how a cuisine has adapted to its surroundings, a fusion food out of necessity.
Pickled Mustard Greens
Recipe by Margaret Lai, a Hakka in Honolulu
Reprinted from The Hakka Cookbook with permission
3/4 to 1 1/4 pounds broad-leaf Chinese mustard greens
2/3 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or table salt
1. Pull apart the mustard greens and separate the stems. Cut the stems and thicker part of the leaves into 1-inch pieces to make 4 to 5 cups. Wash and drain the greens.
2. In a 3- to 4-quart pan over high heat, bring about 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the mustard greens to the boiling water. Stir to separate. Drain and rinse with cold water to cool.
3. In a large bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the mustard greens. Cover the bowl and let stand at room temperature overnight or about 12 hours. Transfer the mixture to a smaller container. Cover and chill in the refrigerator until the pickles are yellow-ish green and sweet and tangy, 2 to 3 days. Store in the refrigerator up to 2 to 3 months.