I was walking through a market in Myanmar (modern day Burma) when I noticed a familiar sight.
It looked like ham choy.
I went closer and sniffed.
It smelled like ham choy.
Could it be ham choy?
We were in the Shan State of Myanmar, high in the mountains of the Nyuangshwe Township, around Burma’s famous Inle Lake. Myanmar is bordered by India, China, Laos and Thailand. In the faces of its people (*) you can see its mixed ethnic heritage and in the food, the flavors of India and China are heavily apparent.
Myanmar’s population is 3% Chinese with Han roots from Fujian, Guangdong and Yunnan. Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka histories are all present here. It’s no surprise to find familiar foods in regional specialties.
Mohnnyin tjin (မုန်ညင်းချဉ်) is one of those specialties. The name translates to ‘sour mustard greens’ and the recipe involves cold pickling vegetables with salt, sugar, rice, vinegar and spices. While mustard greens are typical, white radish leaves and almost any other vegetable are also used.
Unfortunately I never had a chance to taste the dish in Myanmar. However Eating Asia‘s blog post on the recipe and process reads almost identical to making ham choy and pork. If I ever go back I’ll have to seek the dish out and tell you what it tastes like.
(*) For a look at the faces of Burmese people, see Myanmar Portraits in my sister blog TheSandyChronicles.com
One of the hazards of reading information written in another language is relying too heavily on Google Translate. I use this app all the time to translate menus, signage and web pages. Sometimes it works very well. Sometime, not so much. When I came across a FB page with a Surinamese version of stuffed bitter melon (niong fu gua) I eagerly translated the ingredients written in Dutch. When ‘sardines’ came back, I put it down as a dodgy translation. After all who would stuff fu gua with sardines? How could that even work?
In response to one of my Hakka Heritage posts, Simone Tai clarified the mystery to me. She said:
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! … 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!
Sardines were a substitute for salt fish! Aaah. Huh? There’s salt fish in stuffed fu gua? I didn’t know that.
When I mentioned Simone’s reply to my Dad his reaction was immediate.
“Yes, my mother used to make it with salt fish too!”
He’d never liked it because of the smell. He recalled that his mother would corn fresh fish with salt, wrap it with newspaper and then hang it out to dry. It sounded like something I’d seen in old Chinese shops: paper wrapped fish, hung by their tails and strung up for sale.
Dried fish is a common delicacy in Asian cooking. In Seoul’s Gwangjang market, dried pollack is especially prized and schools of petrified fish are tied up with yellow ribbons and hung like banners from suspended poles.
In Singapore’s Chinatown, entire sections of the market are devoted to dried goods and dried fish, shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish and scallops are laid out in pristine displays.
Cambodian markets are a bit more rustic and their uniquely styled fish is splayed into concentric circles and offered for sale with dried sausages and cured meats.
In Laos, roadside stalls sell fish hung from the rafters along with wrapped and unwrapped selections laid out on tables. In these open displays, where the fish is naturally dried and closer to its source, the smell can be overpoweringly strong. Swarms of flies hover over the display, settling and moving as fans of air or hands wave them away. With this context, it’s easy to sympathize with my father’s dislike of dried fish.
My Dad says that some people (not him) love the taste of fu gua stuffed with pork and salt fish, claiming that the additional aroma of fish makes it truly authentic.
My mother and her mother have always made the filling with ground pork and fresh shrimp. I grew up thinking this was traditional. Apparently not. In a quick poll, I discovered that 1) most people don’t make stuffed fu gua anymore, 2) those that do, make it wholly with pork and 3) never ever with shrimp.
So where did my mother’s recipe come from? Did her mother come from a different village in China? or did my father’s abhorrence of salt fish force a substitute which then became a new tradition? I’ll never know.
This experience though, has had me poking at what’s truly authentic heritage food. Is it defined by recipe or taste? Is it specified by ingredient or by flavor? Within each family, do traditions evolve according to preference and a what time does preference get molded by tradition ?
Growing up I’ve never eaten Chinese salt fish. I admit to being curious. Last week I tried a Cantonese style fried rice cooked with egg and shreds of dried salt fish. It wasn’t bad. Maybe I’ll add it to my next batch of niong fu gua. My Dad is in another country, thirteen time zones away. He won’t mind.
In Singapore one of my favorite activities is wandering around local markets. I’ll have little conversations with the vendors, even though I’m constrained by language and accent. I don’t speak three of the four official languages and some Singaporeans have difficulty understanding my accent.
It is a bit of a treasure hunt. There’s always the ordinary (stuff I know), the strange (stuff I don’t know) and the mysterious (stuff which I recognize but don’t know for sure).
On one trip I spied a large plastic lined bin filled with pickled leafy vegetables. It looked just like my mother’s ham choy. My mum used to make it at home and we’d always have a supply in the fridge, ready for our favorite week day supper dish, Pork & Ham Choy.
The stall vendor saw me looking at the bin.
“What is this called?” I asked in slow, carefully enunciated English.
“Ham choy,” she said in slow, carefully enunciated Hokkien.
Actually, what she said was ‘kiam chye’ which sounds like ‘ham choy’ in Hakka and ‘hum choy’ in Cantonese.
Ham Choy is made by salting the leafy stems of Chinese mustard greens (gai choy) and then pickling them in a sweet and sour brine. It is the Chinese equivalent to German sauerkraut. Highly unreliable historical sources say that the Great Wall was built by laborers rationed on rice and ham choy. Highly imaginative kids like my younger self, used to fantasize about patrolling the wall, guarding against invading Mongols and eating bowls of steaming rice topped with luscious chunks of Pork & Ham Choy.
Truth be told, those dishes probably didn’t taste like my home style favorite. Certainly, in Singapore kiam chye is used differently, in a variety of Hokkien and Teochew dishes. The most famous dishes being Kiam Chye Ark soup and Kiam Chai Boey. Kiam Chye Ark soup plays off the savory tang of kiam chye against the fatty richness of duck. Kiam Chai Boey is a stew made with roast meats, fresh and pickled mustard greens. It is the day-after dish made with leftovers from family reunion dinners at Chinese New Year.
Reaching back into my memory, I vaguely recall a Chinese Jamaican recipe using roast pork (siu yuk) mixed in with Pork and Ham Choy. I remember thinking that it was an awful waste of siu yuk‘s crispy crackling skin. Maybe though, it was a variation of Kiam Chai Boey. After all, the Hoklo, Hakka and Cantonese all emigrated from the Fujian and Guandong provinces; it seems inevitable that cooking styles and ingredients crossed ethnic lines.
The recipe for kiam chye is relatively easy to find. Uncle Phil, a Singaporean in Australia gives wonderfully clear instructions in How to make Kiam Chye. He hangs the fresh vegetable in the sun to wilt and dry before curing them in a brine made of rice water and salt.
Initially, I was puzzled at the use of water left over from washing rice. It was strange and (wait for it …) unlike what my mother did. She used a mixture of vinegar and sugar to make ham choy.
On reflection though, it’s not so strange. Rice water left at room temperature will ferment into vinegar and fermentation is key to making this kind of cold pressed pickle. In all likelihood, this was the only option for workers on the Great Wall so many years ago. My mother’s way was just a modern day convenience to speed up the process.
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.
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!