Good cookbooks that delve into a single area of China’s vast culinary culture are rarities. Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Land of Plenty,” the chronicle of how the author became the first Westerner to study full time at a cooking school in Sichuan province, comes first to mind; its combination of integrity, comprehensiveness and good writing made it an instant classic. Linda Lau Anusasananan’s “The Hakka Cookbook” easily vaults into this exclusive club.
Like Dunlop, Anusasananan weaves a tale around these foods, drawing us in and helping us not only understand what these foods taste and look like, but more important, why she loves them so.
All of the Hakka classics are here for the first time in an English cookbook, as well as local specialties from the diaspora that flung Hakka descendants to the far corners of the world. It’s a rich tapestry of stories, savory flavors and rich broths.
What is Hakka food? As Anusasananan’s little brother Gene described it, Hakka dishes are nothing less than “honest, earthy and rustic — the simple comforting soul food of the peasant.” Dishes born out of poverty and thriftiness seasoned with ingenuity and an eye to satisfy all of the senses — this is the essence of Hakka food.
These recipes were carried to China’s southern provinces when war and famine drove the ancestors of the Hakka from the central plains, starting almost 1,700 years ago. Left with few choices but to farm where others disdained to plow, these immigrants settled in the mountains of such provinces as Guangdong, Jiangxi and southern Fujian, where their newly-arrived status was enshrined in the name Hakka, or “guest families.”
Much like in-laws who are never quite absorbed into a close-knit family, the Hakka remained outsiders with their own language and cooking styles, marrying among themselves and creating a unique culture where women were expected to be strong and work in the fields, meaning that foot-binding was forbidden. This set them apart from their neighbors, and little ever changed since it was rare for anything new to ever find its way into their world. Thus, when the Hakka left China to make their way in other countries, they brought the ways of their ancestors with them.
‘Hakka Cookbook’ has generational appeal
An ethnic Hakka of an American-born mother and a father who emigrated from China, Anusasananan grew up in a small Northern California town, but as hers was the only non-white family, she did as just about every child in the same situation does and attempted to assimilate herself and erase the obvious differences. Fortunately, her maternal grandmother moved in and brought the old Hakka ways with her, as she had left the old country in 1921 to join her husband in California.
Popo, as she was called, “soon became the matriarch of our family. At 4 feet 10, she was a small woman with a big presence.” She taught her grandchildren about the flavors of her homeland and encouraged them to hold their heads up high. “You should be proud to be Hakka,” she admonished her grandchildren, and with her food she showed them why.
I admit, I am a bit biased. My late father-in-law, the best cook in the family, was Hakka, and we reveled in his New Year dishes: stuffed bean curd, salt-baked chicken, pork belly slices stuffed with preserved mustard greens … this was pure comfort.
And thanks to Popo and her food-loving granddaughter, we can eat these dishes as they were meant to be enjoyed because the recipes are clear. A longtime writer and editor for Sunset magazine, Anusasananan knows her way around a recipe, and her experience shows.
Even more wonderful for me, at least, was the glimpse into the lives of Hakka all over China, from Sichuan in the central regions to Taiwan and even Beijing. I had wondered as I opened this book, how has the food survived the onslaughts of history and the 21st century? With surprise and gratitude, I discovered, very well indeed.
Top photo composite:
Author Linda Lau Anusasananan and the cover of “The Hakka Cookbook.” Author photo credit: Therdphong Anusasananan. Book cover image courtesy of University of California Press.