Do a search for ‘Hakka dishes’ and you will inevitably find Pork Belly with Preserved Mustard (Mei Cai Kou Rou/梅菜扣肉). Cited as an traditional dish, you’ll see images of caramelized slices of pork arranged over a bed of stewed vegetables.
There are many recipes for Mei Cai Kou Rou. It is long and complicated cooking, beginning with a slab of fresh bacon and a package of dried and salted mustard greens, mei cai. The pork is fried, sliced, braised and steamed for hours then turned over for final presentation. The unctuous looking meat is eaten with simmered mustard bits, accompanied by lots of steamed white rice.
It looks delicious but unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. The cooking technique is similar to something my mother used to make but the flavor components are different. I also had no idea what mei cai tasted like. This summer I had a chance to change that.
In an unlikely San Francisco neighborhood, on a deserted street close to the Pacific coast way, is the Hakka Restaurant. That’s its name by the way, not its description. In typical Chinese practicality, they dispensed with a fancy name and tag line – less letters, cheaper signage! Besides there aren’t that many restaurants specializing in Hakka food. This place does. On the walls and in the vinyl coated menu were pictures of all the traditional dishes – Mei Cai Pork, salt baked chicken and a less traditional but just as intriguing Fried Pumpkin with Salted Egg batter. Of course I ordered them all.
The pumpkin was unusual, I thought it tasty but my daughter described it as Cheeto flavored fries. The salt baked chicken had potential and the Mei Cai Pork was eye opening. Soft and rich, it was lightly flavored with star anise, five spices and soy sauce. The preserved mustard taste was mellow with the dusky fragrance of black tea. In the dish I recognized nuances of two of my mother’s favorites: Pork and Ham Choy and Pork & Yam. Similar but not quite the same.
I mentioned this dish to my friend Lilian (of www.hakkachinesefood.com ) who is Hakka born from Calcutta. She said the dish sounded like her mom’s except that she calls it mui choy not mei cai. She invited me to watch her cook and I happily agreed.
Lilian’s mom, Mrs Ling made a slightly different version of Mei Cai Kou Rou. It had the same flavor ingredients – preserved mustard, star anise, garlic, dark and light soy – but was lighter in fat by using lean pork ribs instead of fatty pork belly. It was also simpler to prepare, using a simple braising method. She cooked it just like my mom’s Pork & Ham Choy.
Later that evening as I reheated Mrs Ling dish for dinner, I wondered how it would taste with the two types of preserved mustard – dried mei cai and pickled ham choy. I tried it and was delighted with the result. The herby mei cai was brightened by the sweet and sour piquancy of ham choy. The dish that had been yumm before was twice as yummy now.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so) I subsequently found a recipe for Hakka Mei Cai Kou Rou made with mei cai and ham choy but prepared like the restaurant version. Singaporean blogger Joycezzz describes it in her Look-See-Eat blog spot.
It’s funny how the trail of flavors from San Francisco, Calcutta, Singapore and Toronto came together in this one dish. Each version unique but sharing common themes of taste, technique and adaptation. All elements traditional in nature but modified according to home, health and inspiration. All intrinsically and authentically Hakka.
Toronto, Canada. September 2016
Interested in cooking? Follow this link to Mrs Ling’s Mui Choy Pork recipe.