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.
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