In the eastern New Territories lies a secluded village cocooned by forests and streams considered sites of special scientific interest. This idyllic setting is where some returning villagers are trying to recreate a Hakka dish that has rarely been tasted in the past 50 years. It’s a rice noodle dish unlike those available in supermarkets or most ordinary restaurants because it has to be eaten almost the moment it is ready, before it turns soggy and sloppy: a truly pan-to-plate experience.
The now-unpopulated Hakka village, Lei Uk, located in Sha Lo Tung, is one of the few villages in Hong Kong with minimal freshwater and electricity supplies, where villagers must carry bottled water from the city and install solar panels for their weekend gatherings. The last resident is believed to have moved out in 1981. The village was abandoned for the next 35 years, until some former residents and their descendants began returning on a weekly basis.
The Hakka community is a Han Chinese subgroup that first settled in Hong Kong around 400 years ago. Unlike other Chinese cultural groups, who are usually associated with a specific geographical region, the Hakka are known for their migratory past, something reflected in the name Hakka, which is Cantonese for “guest families” (haak3 gaa1 客家). Recent anthropological and linguistic evidence has shown the group originated from what was called the Central Plain in China, meaning the present-day Shanxi and Henan provinces. When they migrated south to Hong Kong and other nearby regions, they were subject to discrimination by long-established Cantonese people and pushed to live in the mountainous and coastal areas, giving rise to a diet that differed from typical Cantonese cuisine. One characteristic of Hakka cuisine is the heavy use of preserved or dried ingredients, a reflection of the more rugged settings of most Hakka settlements.
In Lei Uk, the dish the returning residents are trying to make is called laai6 wok6 bin1 (瀨鑊邊), literally “to drizzle on the wok’s edge.” In the past century, it was popular among Hakka and Fujianese populations in southern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as a go-to lunch option during rice harvest seasons. But in communities that speak Southern Min, a language native to Fujian, it is known as tiánn-pinn sô (ding2 bin1 co3 鼎邊銼) or tiánn-pinn hôo (ding2 bin1 wu4 鼎邊糊).
It is so named because of the way it is prepared. Villagers first prepare a soup in a big wok. Then, they toast a rice flour batter using the sides of the wok and scoop the cooked batter into the soup. The villagers say that the main ingredients for the soup vary according to where people live. Because Lei Uk is situated in a valley, they choose chicken, pork and dried seafood for their broth, they explain, while those living in coastal areas may go for fish, shellfish or other seafood instead.
Lei Sun-yuen, 63, a retired saleswoman and one of the returning villagers, says the soup was traditionally served at weddings and Chinese New Year celebrations. The one and only time she tasted it was when her late father cooked it for her when she was 10. Now she has another chance: Lei and her fellows are recreating the soup on the final day of the new year celebrations, also known as the First Full Moon Festival or the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
It’s a substantial dish. One single wok of soup can feed dozens of people in one go, so it was regarded as an economical choice for those who still needed to farm for a living. Although it isn’t particularly hard to make, it’s a dish that requires many helping hands. The prerequisites for the dish are two components that are almost impossible to come by: a huge wok that is more than a metre wide and a tailor-made firewood stove able to seamlessly enfold the wok to ensure heat can be evenly distributed throughout the cooking vessel.
While one person starts chopping up firewood to set a fire, others rinse and rehydrate dried ingredients for the potage, including scallop and shiitake mushroom, and dice aromatic vegetables for garnishings, such as Chinese celery, yellow chives and spring onion. One villager who is minding the stove says that no component is more crucial than dried flounder, the same ingredient that gives wonton noodle soup its signature, umami tenor. The fish must be char-grilled to bring out the aroma and remove any undesirable impurities before being cut into pieces and put into the soup. It is said that the fragrance of the dish can also be best enhanced by adding crispy fried pork lard (zyu1 jau4 zaa1豬油渣, literally “pig fat residue”), which is made by slowly rendering cubes of pork fat over low heat.
When the soup is ready, the meal is only halfway finished, as making the batter requires another set of skills and attentive cooks. Lei says it takes trial and error because if it is too watery, it can’t cling to the rim and runs into the potage directly, and if it is too thick, it will become too gooey. The best batter should be smooth and spread evenly onto the wok, like a swathe of cloth or a sheet of fresh lasagna noodles. It tastes savoury and meaty, a hearty supplement on cold days. The ingredients used to make up the potage max out the umami flavour, while the aromatic garnishings and the fried pork lard cubes add an extra level of fragrance to the soup.
It’s a delicacy for a reason, but it’s not just the soup that people appreciate. It’s also the setting: the fresh scent of the woods and surrounding farm fields. “It is hard work, but I can’t help thinking about it,” says Lei, who finally has her second chance to enjoy the dish while chatting with her friends and relatives. “It is mouthwatering. It is the taste of memory.”
Recipe: Wok drizzle soup (瀨鑊邊)
For the soup:
- 450 grams (1 pound) of pork
- 450 grams (1 pound) of chicken
- Jinhua ham to taste
- 5 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and cut into stripes
- 5 dried wood ear mushrooms, rehydrated and cut into stripes
- Dried shrimp and scallops to taste
- 1 dried flounder
For the batter:
- 300 grams of rice flour
- 1 litre of warm water
- Chinese lettuce
- Chinese celery
- Yellow chives
- Spring onion
- Pork fat
- Place the pork, chicken and ham in a large wok. Pour over enough water to cover them. Bring it to a boil. Rinse them thoroughly to remove scum. Discard the water and clean the wok.
- Grill or toast the flounder, turning frequently until crispy and charred. Scrape off any burned bits, if any, and cut the fish into bite-sized pieces.
- Pour over enough water until halfway through the wok. Bring it to a boil. Add all of the soup ingredients. Let simmer for at least two hours. Skim any floating scum from the surface.
- Chop the lettuce, celery, chives and spring onion.
- Cut the pork fat into small cubes. Place them in a large dry pan. Spread them out and pour enough water to cover the cubes. Bring the water to a boil over low heat. Let the water evaporate to render the fat. When they become golden, remove them from the lard into a paper towel to absorb excess grease.
- For the batter, gently add warm water into the rice flour. Agitate it until the flour dissolves to form a batter.
- Once the soup is ready, remove all the ingredients from the broth. Season with salt to taste.
- Heat the broth over high heat. Oil the rim of the wok. Agitate the batter again to ensure its homogeneity. Gently drizzle it on the sides of the wok to form a sheet. Once it is cooked on the sides of the wok, scrape it into the potage with a spatula.
- Return the reserved ingredients to the soup, add the garnishes and serve immediately.