Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Jumping Table -- Hakka Legacies

I recently wrote a commissioned article for a leading culinary magazine in Singapore, and in the course of my research I visited the office of the Nanyang Khek Community Guild at Peck Seah Street. One thing led to another, and before I realized it, I found myself talking one afternoon to Mr. Lai Fak Nian, chef and owner of Plum Village Restaurant.

During the chat with the affable Mr. Lai, he gave me a quick lesson on the various Hakka dishes found in Singapore, and how they had evolved from their origins in China.

The Hakka were originally nomads from the northern regions of China. In historical times, they were uprooted from their homelands, and forced to move south in five major exoduses. The majority of Hakkas eventually settled in the area around Guangzhou, in Canton province. Their famous settlements, with their unique architectural style, can still be seen in Canton, Teochew, Shenzhen, and the New Territories (SAR). The Hakka lived on challenging terrain, and had to work hard to support themselves. They cooked whatever the land provided, thus developing a cuisine that was versatile and down-to-earth. Their diet consisted mainly of carbohydrates, salt and oil, to provide the necessary energy. As they also needed to travel long distances, they would prepare rice cakes or other food to sustain them for the journey. Meat was scarce during much of Hakka history, and was eaten only on festive occasions.

I found what he told me so interesting, that I asked Mr Lai to prepare a 10-course meal of some of the seldom seen or near-disappearing Hakka dishes of Singapore. Although he had less than 5 days to prepare the meal, Mr Lai and his kitchen team managed to “wow” our table again and again…

This unique dish, a steamed mixture of shredded radish and meat, is served during festive banquets. The radish was a crop that grew abundantly in Meizhou, the main home territory of the Hakka; and this is one of the ways the Hakka would make use of this vegetable in their cuisine.

When served, it looked like plain fish balls with loose strands of radish sticking out of them. The meat was minced, pounded and mixed so that the protein became ‘QQ’, as the Taiwanese would call it, meaning the ball acquired a slight bouncy feel when bitten into. The shredded radish gave a distinct sweetness to the balls; in fact, this was one of the favourite dishes of the evening.

During festive celebrations, animals would be slaughtered as offerings. Their offal was not wasted, but instead prepared in various ways for human consumption. Chicken intestines were originally used for this dish, but were subsequently replaced by pig’s intestines. A whisked egg mixture is poured into the intestine, which is then steamed, cut, and blanched. In the Hakka dialect, “egg” sounds like chun; therefore this dish is also known as chun guan chang.

I was amazed to learn that the last time this dish was prepared in Singapore was more than 30 years ago! The dish looked so simple, even boring. The taste of the egg was rich but light. How I wished that duck eggs had been used instead, as it would have made the sausage more dense and robust. I would also think chicken intestine, which was less chewy, would have tasted better than the pig’s intestine; but unfortunately chicken intestine is banned in Singapore. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable dish.
As the Hakka were a nomadic people, they practiced frugality by seldom wasting any food. In this instance, wine lees is added to warm up the body during the colder season, and pig’s offal is not gone to waste but put to good use.

At first sip, the soup tasted sweet, almost dessert-like. The second spoonful seemed more palatable, as the meat stock and rice wine slowly tickled the taste bud. And before I realized it, I was reaching for the second bowl!

While most people are familiar with Hakka Yong Tao Fu, not many are aware that this pocket of meat actually evolved from the north of China.

The Hakka were originally inhabitants of the Yellow River region, and after their migrations they eventually settled in southern China. The northern type of siew mai was one of their early staple foods; but in the south, the Hakka used bean curd and its related by-products to replace the siew mai skin, giving rise to the version that we are familiar with today.

The stuffed tao fu was slight braised in a light broth brewed from soy bean, meat stock and dried cuttlefish. However, the mainland version would use soy bean sprout instead of the soy bean used here, as it gives to the broth a sweeter vegetable-like taste.

This dish evolved during the exodus period, and eventually became one of the classic representatives of Hakka cooking. Dried oyster, dried sole and pig’s membrane were uniquely Guangzhou delicacies, which the Hakka co-opted into their cuisine when they arrived in the south. This dish is cooked only for important occasions.

Mr Lai wrapped the dried oyster in minced pork; and instead of further enveloping it in pig’s membrane as is traditionally done, he substituted bean curd skin.  I prefer the original version, as pig’s membrane would actually moisturize the meat patty, as it was being deep-fried and turning crispy.

Yellow wine made from fermented glutinous rice is a classic ingredient of the Hakka cuisine. Here, it is used in a dish specially cooked for women in confinement, as it is believed to nourish and promote blood flow.

In the past, mothers would prepare this dish for their daughters after childbirth; hence it is also commonly known as “Mother’s Wine”.

It was a pity this dish turned out tasting quite similar to the Mixed Pig’s Offal in Wine Lees, for I thought it would be less soup-like and more like braised chicken.  

No Hakka meal would be complete without Abacus Beads. The Hakka would grow yam and sweet potato in the mountains, hence the bulk of their diet came from these crops. One of the methods of cooking yam would be kneading yam dough into abacus beads, which was believed to be an auspicious food, bringing prosperity for the coming year like ‘counting money with their abacus’. For our dinner, the abacus beads were fried with minced meat, mushroom and bean curd, but the Hakka living around Xiamen would cook them in soup.

Most places would use less yam in the beads to cut cost, but here I could taste the strong yam flavor, which made the dish far more robust, and returned it to its rustic, rural roots. The crust was slightly burnt, making the “wok hay” very obvious. This was one of the best versions I had ever tasted.

Salt-baked chicken was another dish created during the Hakka’s ancestral exoduses. Meats were heavily preserved in salt, so that they could be eaten on the move from place to place. This is one of the dishes that evolved, where chicken is baked in salt. It is a dish normally served during the festive season to remind the Hakka of their history.

In the past, the chicken would be seasoned, wrapped in fresh lotus leaf, buried in coarse salt, and baked for an hour. These days, the lotus leaf is scarce, so it has been replaced by baking paper.

Tonight’s version was superb. The skin was slightly crispy and the chicken meat succulent, with a hint of saltiness on the tip of the tongue.

The story goes that a mother greatly missed her son, who was serving Admiral Cheng Ho in one of his expeditions to Taiwan. She would prepare her son’s favourite snack during the Mid-Autumn Festival, hoping he would return to the family soon. Eventually, the son returned after being away for 30 years, and this snack became known as “Remembrance of her son”.

This dish was much anticipated. In fact, a friend of mine from Hong Kong kept asking me to look for it when I mentioned that I was researching heritage foods. The skin of the cake was filled with the taste of yam; its bite was soft as expected of tapioca flour. The minced meat stuffing was blended with Chinese celery that actually perfumed the dish.

A simple dessert made of sweet potato, water and sugar. It is the Hakka’s take on the Cantonese “sweet potato dessert”, made typically without much frills.

Plum Village Restaurant
16 Jalan Leban
Singapore 577554
Telephone: 6458 9005

Photography by: Mark Ong


  1. Meal looks so amazing! Bet I can't really find it in Hong Kong either!

    I do notice that in the New Territories (HK) in the remote villages, some restaurants serve food that are so Mainland Chinese like and local... I need people to guide me to those places :O

    1. If you could find a guide, please let me know. I would love to explore these villages and have a taste of their food. : )

  2. Thank you for your great post. Your post is really valuable and help me a lot. Waiting for your next similar post.

  3. Your sharing has just made my day. Thank you a lot. I learn so much from you post.
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