It’s just ahead of lunchtime on the Sunday before the Lunar New Year, and Hakka chef Alan Tsang is bustling around his kitchen in Lai Chi Wo, in the Plover Cove Country Park in Hong Kong’s northeast. Tables are prepared outside, blue and white rice bowls stacked vertically and horizontally in a plastic basket, ready for the steady flow of hikers and heritage visitors to this 300-year old walled village. Orange banners by the door wish good fortune for the new year, blessing the kitchen inside.
On a table, four yellow chickens lie in a bowl covered in salt. Salty chicken is a Hakka staple at this time of year. On the stove, pieces of pork belly simmer in a pan. Pork belly with preserved vegetables is a key dish that will be cooked both in the home and be found in a few of the Hakka restaurants in Hong Kong.
Hakka food in Hong Kong is represented by two different types of Hakka cooking, explains anthropologist Sidney Cheung of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There’s the indigenous Hakka food, prepared by local Hakka people with ancestors who came after the end of the Coastal Evacuation (from 1662 to 1669) in the Kangxi period of the Qing Dynasty. These are often dishes that are shared in a larger group and the use of seafood shows how their eating habits changed after having settled along the coastal areas over the course of three centuries. And then there is the worker food, usually called East River (dung1 gong1 東江) cuisine, which Hakka restaurants supplied for individual lunches from the 1960s onwards, now widely available as takeaway food or inexpensive lunch sets. This could be salty chicken on rice or stewed pork belly on rice with a complimentary chicken blood soup.
But the dishes for the Lunar New Year are those dating back centuries. These days they may be served with delicacies, a kind of nouveau Hakka cuisine with expensive ingredients or even the collective poon choi (pun4 coi3 盆菜), a basin meal consisting of several layers of ingredients. But Hakka food comes from a rural farming population that didn’t have much access to fresh or expensive ingredients. Theirs was simple food enhanced with fermented vegetables (mui4 coi3 梅菜), fermented rice (zau2 zou1 酒糟) or a small amount of salty fish in minced pork, to create a stronger umami flavour at a time where there was no access to MSG.
In Tsang’s kitchen, the pork belly, chicken and pieces of tofu stuffed with minced pork and ginger are just three of around ten dishes that are traditionally served at this time of the year. “My favourite dish is the chicken,” he says. The salted chicken was a way to preserve the meat in the days before refrigeration. Preserved vegetables also could last longer and often incorporated dried turnip leaves and other vegetables to get rural Hakka families through the winter. While Hakka food can incorporate oyster, squid and other ingredients that are more hard to come by, their heritage is derived from very simple fare. Life was hard on the hillsides of Hong Kong.
In Mo Tat Wan, a coastal village on Lamma Island, villager Chow Choi Yun-tai has just arrived back on the ferry from Aberdeen. She has a few minutes to spare before she goes to make offerings to the family ancestors. “Oh, the pork! Yes, I only do that once a year, that’s a lot of work and complicated,” she says of the process of blanching the pork belly, and then sitting it in water so the fat rises to the top of the water. “But I didn’t have any of that sort of food as a child,” she says of her upbringing in a Hakka village near Tai Lam Chung Reservoir. “We were poor, we simply didn’t have the money.” Today, Chow is 72, a great grandmother who feels that Hakka traditions are becoming less distinct as the years go by.
Back in Lai Chi Wo, Tsang takes a wooden spoon and stirs the pork. He and his wife Jenny have returned to their Hakka roots and cuisine in the village where he was born and went to school. Before that, they spent 30 years in northern England running a Chinese takeaway, cooking “Chinese food for the English,” he says, laughing. “Chop suey, spring rolls, ribs, curry.”
That kind of distance can make the heart yearn for the foods of home. Nancy Li is a translator living in Paris. She was born and grew up in Hong Kong before moving as a teenager with her family to San Francisco and then on to France. “My grandmother was not from Hong Kong but from a Hakka community in the northern part of Guangdong province near Guangxi,” she says. Before moving to Hong Kong, says Li, her grandmother’s family would have had multiple servants. “We lived together in Hong Kong and she moved with us to San Francisco. She was not a great cook but she could do stuffed mushrooms and stuffed tofu (joeng6 dau6 fu6 釀豆腐). The recipe died with her.” She describes the stuffing as being similar to the kinds of meatballs you can buy from a street snack stall. “You ought to be able to find it in many Hakka style restaurants,” she says.
Among Hakka commentators, the consensus is that the salted chicken, tofu and pork are very typical of the Lunar New Year, served also with black seaweed that has the thin wispy consistency of hair (faat3 coi3 髮菜). This edible algae is one of several food types at the New Year where the sound is the same as good fortune and therefore auspicious for the consumer. The only downside of the popularity of this black seaweed is that it has been detrimental to the environment and to seaweed stocks.
While these days Hong Kong’s Hakka people are better off, with access to more ingredients, that wasn’t the case as recently as the 1960s and 70s, according to retired education inspector Carina Chan Ng Choi-ha. “My mother and father were both Hakka,” she says. “We came to Hong Kong in the early 50s, after the war, and I was born here in 1954,” she says.
She describes some of the Hakka new year favourites. First is one that every Hongkonger will be familiar with: nin4 gou1 (年糕), a brown sugar pudding. “The villagers would have a big wok,” says Chan of her mother’s village near Fanling. “They lit the fire with dry branches so it could go [to] a really high temperature, good enough for the big nin4 gou1 made with brown sugar and rice flour, maybe some red dates too to decorate on top. They would place a bamboo leaf underneath so it could remain preserved for a long time, so every time we received the pudding from a relative we could keep it.” That was necessary because refrigerators were still rare in the 1960s. The preserved pudding would become quite tough, so the family would slice off a piece, dip it in beaten egg and fry it until it became soft and brown.
Chan lived with her family in Tai Hang and her New Territories relatives would visit during the new year. “They always brought us a big piece of pork belly,” she recalls. “We had a big Chinese clay pot – a shallow one made of stoneware. My mother would clean the pork belly with the skin on and then marinate with black bean and dried tangerine skin which would taste yummy and then cook for hours. You didn’t have to eat it all in one day, you could keep for a week. And the flavour would simmer into the meat and the sauce was good for the white rice.”
Pork with yam or pork with preserved vegetables (mui4 coi3 kau3 juk6 梅菜扣肉) is often available in restaurants, but Chan notes that the version she remembers, with black bean and tangerine, is usually made at home. “I’m not sure that’s very common in a restaurant,” she says. One thing that sticks in her memory is how the fat would congeal over the dish after it cooled. “In those days, Chinese New Year was much colder than it is now. This year is quite warm. So the fat on the pork would make a white thin layer.”
Rural Hakka communities that farmed the hillsides would incorporate river fish into their diet along with vegetables and peanuts. This was also the case in Lai Chi Wo, where the Hakka community benefited from its proximity to the sea. One signature Hakka dish is fish maw cooked in a dried shrimp and minced pork soup with some vegetables. “It’s a kind of delicacy so they save it for the big event,” says Cheung.
Hakka academic Stephen Cheung says his 89-year-old mother, Lam Cheung-tai—featured in our first article on Hakka heritage—will be busy making several nin4 gou1 from scratch on the Monday before the lunar new year. She spends the day melting sticks of sugar in water before mixing them with rice flour in a bucket, stirring the mixture between her feet on the living room floor. The puddings are poured into dishes and then steamed before stiffening as they cool.
“Tomorrow she’ll be making turnip cakes,” says Cheung. “But today is an important day for her to prepare. And then she’ll make an announcement. Every child, they have to come immediately to pick up their pudding. That is an order. This nin4 gou1 is very important.” Like many foods associated with the new year, its name is a homonym: in this case, it sounds exactly like nin4 gou1 (年高), meaning a “year high” – ushering in a prosperous start to the Year of the Ox.
Six Hakka restaurants to try
Chuen Cheung Kui, Shop E, 2/F & G/F, Lisa House, 33 Nelson Street, Mong Kok. Tel: +852 2396 0672
Cheun Cheung Kui, Shop C & 1/F, Alliance Building, 133 Connaught Road Central, Sheung Wan. Tel: +852 2388 7488
Kong Hing Restaurant, 79-81 Tsuen Nam Road, Tai Wai, Tai Wai. Tel: +852 2691 6726, +852 2601 2982
Ming Kee, Lai Chi Wo. Tel: Alan Tsang at +852 6490 6917
Sun Hon Kee, 5 Luen Wo Road, Fanling. Tel: +852 2683 0000
Tsui King Lau, 7 Saigon Street, Jordan. Tel: +852 2384 2423