Hakka Heritage Food

My friend Linda Anusasananan recently blogged a video post of her making Hakka Stuffed Tofu (niong dou fu) with fellow author Lorraine “The Chinese Lady” Witte.   Her version of niong dou fu looks delicious.  It also looks quite different from what my mom used to make.

Notes on Jamaican and Suriname Chinese
Food notes on Jamaican and Suriname Chinese cooking

Which reminds me of a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with fellow Hakka foodie, Stuart Lee. This was right after the 2016 Hakka Conference in Toronto, during which I’d listened to some fascinating talks about the Hakka diaspora.

Hakkas are known as the ‘gypsy’ or ‘guest’ people of China.  They were originally from Northern China but in a series of migrations (between 317 and 1865)  they drifted south into the Guangdong and Fujian provinces.  After the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) the Hakka people were persecuted for their part in the war.  This resulted in a wave of emigrations to the Americas, Africa, India and South East Asia. Which explains how my, Stuart’s and Linda’s ancestors ended up in such disparate places as Jamaica, Suriname and California.

Stuart and I talked about traditional Hakka foods and how they’ve evolved in different regions. The distance between Jamaica and Suriname is 2700 kilometers but they share a common Hakka heritage and migration path.  A hundred years ago, families leaving China would travel together before splitting up in the shipping ports of Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname.  It’s not surprising that traditional dishes from these countries are so similar.   What is interesting, is the level of adaptation and adoption in the different regions.

Stuffed bitter melon (niong fu gua) for instance, is a variation on  niong dou fu.  In my childhood home in Jamaica, this was strictly family fare, enjoyed by my Chinese parents, aunties and uncles.  It was always made with pork and steamed-braised in a savory, oyster flavored sauce.   In Suriname, the dish is enjoyed by both Chinese and non-Chinese. The home-style Chinese dish is the same, but locals have adopted it and created their own variations.  Pork is replaced with beef, oyster sauce with Maggi sauce and ketchup.  Flavors are kicked up with fresh tomatoes and spicy hot Madame Jeannette peppers.

In Singapore niong dou fu is known as yong tau fu and is a food court favorite.  Perhaps because so many more miles separate Singapore and Jamaica, their version is vastly different. Yong tau fu refers to not one dish but a variety of stuffed foods cooked in soup.  Deep fat fried or steamed, tofu is typically stuffed with ground pork, while vegetables like bitter melon, okra, aubergine and green peppers are stuffed with fish paste.  The flavor profile is  lighter and milder tasting, counter-balanced with dipping sauces of chili, soy and fermented bean curd.

One similarity between Singaporean and Jamaican stuffed tofu is its shape. Subtly different from the Surinamese and American versions, the Jamaican version is triangular. My mother would always cut the tofu cubes on the diagonal and stuff the filling into a pocket at the side.   In Suriname, Stuart’s mother kept the shape square with a shallow well of filling on top (similar to that shown by Linda in her video.)

All this talk about Hakka heritage and diaspora started me thinking about the evolution of ‘traditional’ foods in different parts of the world.  Not many (English)  books exist about Hakka Chinese cooking.  Linda’s The Hakka Cookbook is the only one I know of. The cuisine is not well known, probably because of the predominance of Cantonese style restaurants, but also I think,  because of its high variability by region.  The Hakka people have such a history of migrations, many ‘traditional’ dishes have morphed and changed according to location.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in Beijing, Taiwan, Singapore etc., when I’ve seen a ‘traditional Hakka dish’ which was not recognizable in taste or description to me.   I’ve always wondered if it’s my heritage or the dish’s, that’s not traditional. Does it even matter?  Maybe not, but it’s a good reason to initiate a little project that I have.

Over the next year, I intend to investigate different Hakka dishes from different countries.  I’ll look for the familiar and the not so familiar.  If I can, I’ll trace the similarities and in so doing, explore a Hakka heritage food trail.

Are you interested in reading? or even contributing to this heritage trail?  What are your favorite Hakka dishes from what region?  Let me know by leaving me a comment below.  I’d love to hear from you!

Toronto, Canada. August 2016

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20 thoughts on “Hakka Heritage Food

  1. Hi Sandy I have a posted a dish we call Mu Fun. Wondering if you know other variations of thia dish. Its one of my favourite and my family absolutely loves it as well

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  2. I’m not sure if it’s for taste but it does add colour. Like I mentioned previously my mum always say it’s good for preventing high cholesterol and you can add as much as you want or as little. Again back to mum she always say with Hakka cuisine ingredients matter because it’s added for a reason.

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  3. Sweet & bitter melon with pork and tomatoes sounds almost like a variation of ham choy & pork. Yummy.

    When you say cooked with ‘red rice’ do you mean the nam yee (fermented red bean curd paste) or the leftover lees from making glutinous rice wine?

    Although I’m very familiar with nam yee, I only recently discovered red rice lees in a cooking session with a Hakka mum.

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  4. I’m glad I came across the book actually hubby did whilst we were visiting my inlaws in Seattle. It’s rare to find Hakka cook book so this was a must have book.
    Bitter melon is my favorites I love the texture and bitterness it adds to dishes. The book has a receipe for stuffed bitter melon although I have tried it at a Malay Hakka resturant I have never know mum to make it. Instead we make a sweet and bitter pork dish. The bitter melon and onion is soaked in vinger and sugar a quick pickled mixture then a tomato paste is mxed up the pork is sliced either pork neck is used a cheap cut but nice and tender with the right about of fat. All is cooked up with red rice (my mum swears by it when cooking fatty pieces of pork that it helps break down cholesterol…) served with rice and is delicious a sweetness from the sugar, bitterness from the melon and a sour taste from the tomatoes. A dish I craved whilst pregnant with my second one.

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  5. Food connects us. It reaches across generations, geography and language. I’m glad that you’re also on a Hakka Heritage Food trail. I’d love to hear more about Mauritian Hakka dishes. Keep reading and let me know if any of these other dishes sound familiar!

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  6. I am currently reading “The Hakka Cookbook” by your friend Linda L Anusasananan. I have never read a cookbook before but I’m really enjoying it. I’m from Mauritius and my grandfather is Hakka is only through food I feel I am connected to him because he passed away long before I was born. I’m using book to help me learn some traditional Hakka dishes but also compare them to Mauritian Hakka dishes.
    My mum also means stuffed tofu she cuts her tofu into triangles and fill them with a pork and dried shrimp mixture. The tofu that had been cut out are stir fried with vegetables or used in a clear soup.

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  7. sopropo! that’s the stuffed bitter melon in Suriname 🙂 I just discovered that the Surinamese Chinese cookbook my aunt gave me has English translations as well as the Dutch recipes. I hope to have it photographed for you soon!

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  8. Shh … don’t tell anyone this as I’ll probably get lynched as an ignorant foreigner … but Singapore and Malaysian food is pretty much the same 🙂

    Thanks for clarifying the mystery of sardines in Suriname’s stuffed fu ga. I’d read about it and wondered how it was done. I mentioned your reply to my Dad and he remembered (with great distaste) that his mother used to make it with salted fish too. He didn’t like it either, which probably explains why the version I grew up with contained pork & fresh shrimp only.

    Thanks for reading. I love your feedback.

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  9. Great post! And love your thoughts at the end….does it really matter? I know whenever I meet someone who knows about Stuffed Fu Ga that they are Hakka and likely Chinese-Jamaican! Your description of the Singapore versions reminds me of my Malaysian Hakka friend’s versions. He even stuffed Okra and Scotch Bonnet. Because he could. My mom’s recipe calls for tangerine peel and salted fish (she used canned sardines as a substitute). I never did like Stuffed Fu Gah…too bitter. But have come to enjoy it, first for nostalgia but also a new version: omit both tangerine peel and sardines…I like it much better!

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