Showing posts with label hakka_food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hakka_food. Show all posts

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Good, The Bland and the Authentic: A Hakka Stir-Fry Journey


Months ago, I picked up Cathy Erway's The Food of Taiwan, cooked a bunch of my favorite Taiwanese dishes from it, and wrote about the experience. I structured it as a discussion of how it feels to be a foreigner who calls Taiwan home improving her ability to cook Taiwanese food, but also of what makes a Taiwanese dish both "good" and "authentic". Something might be "good" but not taste particularly like a dish as it's usually served in a region (for example, I like the Taiwanese take on ma po doufu 麻婆豆腐. I think it's good, but it doesn't taste anything like what I used to eat in Guizhou and Sichuan). Or, something might be "authentic" - maybe your 92-year-old Hakka grandmother in Yangmei made it - but, as I noted to a friend, not everyone's Hakka grandma is necessarily a good cook.

Of course, the best dishes tend to be both: they're deeply rooted in their places and cultures of origin, and also made well.

I also considered the tendency of Westerners to have endless variations of their own food, while thinking food of other cultures only had one "correct" form, and any deviations from that particular way of preparing it were somehow "wrong" and "inauthentic". Of course this isn't true. Different cooks across Taiwan cook the same dishes in slightly different ways, just as cooks might do from Ohio to Iowa.

With that in mind, I want to return to the Hakka stir-fry (客家小炒) recipe in The Food of Taiwan. There was a discussion on this in the "books about Taiwan" Facebook group I manage about the various aspects of the recipe, and also on my personal page. I complained about the inclusion of carrots and the lack of garlic greens, the lack of rice wine, the way the pork belly was sliced (not into matchsticks as is common in Taiwan, but into slices and pre-cooked), and the lack of specification about the squid, which it is implied in the recipe may be fresh squid. And, I'd like to add, the sparing use of "light soy sauce". Some of my friends - all Hakka - were horrified. Other commenters thought this recipe would make it easier for non-Taiwanese and those not in Taiwan to make a version of the dish, and it was therefore fine.

To me - caveat: someone who is very much not Hakka - this just doesn't produce the Hakka stir-fry I've eaten in Taiwan. It just...doesn't. Maybe it's "good" (I made the recipe, I thought it was...fine. Totally acceptable) but it didn't strike me as at all "authentic". It just wasn't the lip-smacking, flavor-intense dish of greens and chewy matchsticks of tasty pork, tofu and squid that I've come to know and love.

Of course, there's an added issue when you're not just a non-Hakka cooking Hakka food, but a non-Taiwanese cooking a Taiwanese dish. I know I can cook good food, but if I'm going to fry something up and call it authentic, it has to really taste authentic. There is less space for me to spin my own variation on something and call it "Hakka stir fry" (or anything Taiwanese that I might make). If I change things up too much, but claim to be making a particular food from a particular place and culture, I not only become culturally appropriative (not appreciating the host culture) but also forfeit any claim I may have to seeking to better understand Taiwan through learning how to make this food with my own hands.

So, last night, I decided to try again. Instead of using Erway's recipe, I just grabbed the first search result off iCook, just to see how it played out. I cribbed a few of the better elements of Erway's recipe: the use of ginger and chili bean sauce. Hakka friends had told me these were acceptable flavor enhancers and I thought they worked well. I also cooked up the ginger, garlic (not garlic greens) and white parts of the scallions in a little oil before adding the pork.

I also soaked the dried squid in Shaoxing rice wine (紹興酒) with a little water added because that would otherwise require a LOT of Shaoxing wine rather than water, because that's what my friend says his Hakka wife's family does. That's pretty legit.

Notably, this recipe called for matchsticked pork cooked in a wok (not boiled), thick soy sauce (醬油膏) rather than light soy sauce (add the chili bean sauce at the same time if you like), sugar, reconstituted dried squid rather than fresh squid, garlic greens along with the celery and scallions, and rice wine. And absolutely no carrots.

I stuck mostly to the iCook recipe to see if it would produce a Hakka stir-fry that was both "good" and "authentic" - and you know what? It did!


Looks pretty solid, no? This not only tasted great, but tasted (and looked) like something I'd get in an actual restaurant in Taiwan.

Contrast that to the result of using Erway's recipe (though I didn't quite follow it - I did use dried squid, I did matchstick my pork, and I did use garlic greens rather than carrot because I have principles). Same "food photography" filter, same level of photo editing:


Seems fine, right? But it was a lot blander. It didn't have that thick coating of slightly sweet, soy-based deliciousness tinged with the subtle enhancement of rice wine that the stir-fry I made last night did.

Now, that's not the end of the story. That friend's Hakka wife, from Miaoli? Her family apparently fries up each ingredient separately "to make sure each one is cooked to the peak of fragrance and texture", and doesn't use dried tofu (though she concedes it's an acceptable addition. I happen to like it.)

She's actually Hakka - her version is certainly more "authentic" than mine. And though I've never tried it, I can be pretty damn sure it tastes better, too. I don't believe there's anything genetic about cooking: one doesn't get to be good at cooking Hakka food just because one is Hakka, but I didn't grow up in that culture. I didn't eat this dish as a kid. My family doesn't run a restaurant in Miaoli. There's a lot of experience-based knowledge that I can't have. I accept that.

In the end, though, I can make a pretty okay Hakka stir-fry too, and I do think there's a "way" to do that where "good" and "authentic" intersect.

I am a firm believer in seeking to understand other cultures (not appropriating them), and I appreciate it when certain cultural knowledge - like how to cook commonly-served dishes - is made accessible. I don't think I have to be Hakka to make Hakka stir-fry, or Korean to make kimchi, or Mexican to make flautas (though I'd hesitate to attempt to make a profit doing so). But, if we're going to seek to understand through cooking, we do have to at least attempt to produce the real thing. No carrots, no long slices of pork, no fresh squid, no light soy sauce. Otherwise, we're just making stir-fry and pretending it's 客家小炒. We congratulate ourselves, but have learned nothing.

Here's my full recipe for White Lady Makes Hakka Stir-Fry: 

1 pack of pork belly (五花肉)from the supermarket, sliced into matchsticks (I never get up early enough to go to the traditional market)
3-4 scallions (青蔥) , white and light green section sliced, green sections sliced into thin matchsticks
1 large garlic green (蒜苗) - white bulb section sliced, green sections sliced into matchsticks
1-2 roots (which have several stems) of Chinese celery (芹菜), de-leafed (though you can chop and add the leaves too) and matchsticked
1 pack dried tofu (豆乾), cut into matchsticks
1 dried squid (魷魚乾), soaked in Shaoxing wine (紹興酒) with a little water for a few hours or overnight, with tentacles, sliced up into pieces about the same size as the pork - cut against the grain so it won't curl up when stir-fried
2 cloves garlic (蒜頭), chopped
1 thumb of ginger (薑), in coins
A little neutral-tasting oil (沙拉油) - don't worry about using a little. The fat from the pork will give the dish a satisfying oiliness
1-2 tsp sugar (to taste) (糖)
2 tbsp thick soy sauce (醬油膏) - this is the secret to getting the sauce to stick to the meat/tofu
2 tbsp chili bean sauce (optional) (辣豆瓣醬)
1/4 cup rice wine (米酒)
powdered white pepper to taste (白胡椒粉)

Cook up the garlic, garlic green bulb (the white part), white part of onion and ginger in a little oil until fragrant. (I use medium gas, which would be high on an electric stove.)
Add pork and cook until pink disappears
Add tofu and cook for a minute
Add squid and cook for a minute
Add rice wine, toss
Add thick soy sauce, sugar, white pepper and chili bean sauce, toss till well-coated and it starts to stick to the meat/tofu/squid
Add all remaining greens, cook briefly until slightly wilted

Serve immediately over white rice.

Boom! Done.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Some photos from Lion's Head Mountain

A few weeks ago we did the fairly quick and easy hike up Lion's head Mountain, which straddles Hsinchu and Miaoli counties.  

We got there by HSR, taking the bus (1 hour) from the HSR station that leaves, if not frequently, at least not that rarely - about twice an hour on weekends. Why HSR? Because we're lazy and didn't want to get up early, and I'm used to doing it for work. I sort of forget that when I'm traveling for fun that I won't get reimbursed the NT580 that the trip costs.

I wouldn't call it the best hike I've done in Taiwan, but it was certainly good, and certainly had a great temple at the end (some photos above).  You can start out from either side: Hsinchu or Miaoli. On the Hsinchu side the hike up is longer but is all road, few if any stairs. The Miaoli side hike is steeper, shorter, and all stairs. I prefer road to stairs and don't mind a longer hike if it means avoiding stairs, so I'm happy we went up from Hsinchu (a bus runs between the two).

On the either end you can pick up snacks, eat something and buy bottled drinks - on the Hsinchu side I recommend the street stall with the turnip cake (蘿蔔糕), the best I've had in Taiwan, very fresh. Locals kept coming by to buy huge chunks of it.

The trail is dotted with temples - none are spectacular in their own right except the last one as you descend, but all make nice rest stops and taken together they're lovely dots to connect on a not-too-difficult hiking day trip. Having been extremely busy lately, and generally in a bad mood (punctuated by good moods: it's not all gloom and doom), the adjective "easy" was important to me when choosing a hike that would get me out of Taipei.

Unfortunately, we left sunny Taipei thinking Hsinchu would be equally nice - it wasn't. Pure fog. No view whatsoever until we hit Miaoli.

Many of the temples along the way were actually monasteries - we encountered one full of monks and another full of nuns. At both, we were given tea and snacks and we sat down to chat with the monks, nuns and other visitors. I would call it the highlight of the trip.

At the first we got Pu'erh tea, and the second featured osmanthus tea.  The scent of osmanthus (a delicious flower, not the one below) wafts across Lion's Head Mountain at this time of year: the area is a major producer of the flower which is used in sauces, teas and desserts.  The shops aimed at sightseers all sell Oriental Beauty (東方美人) but if you really want something from this area, try and track down something made with osmanthus (good luck with that, though - what we encountered was fresh and served to us, not preserved and sold).

not osmanthus, just a nice photo

Recent rains, however, left the landscape lush, and turned spiderwebs into crystalline sculptures.

This cave temple in Japanese colonial baroque style was my favorite facade (I just love the style - the turn of the century through the 30s and 40s was a fine time for architecture in Taiwan), although inside wasn't that spectacular. 

Most of the painted murals on the inside did not photograph well in low light.

Brendan and Joseph on the Miaoli/Hsinchu county border.

Later on the view improved only slightly, but the temple at the end makes the whole hike worth it (as mentioned above, you can start from here, but I was happier to start from the other side and end up here). Watch out - the stone steps beyond this temple get mighty slippery.

Besides the extremely ornate multiple roofs, I liked that the roof decorations - the usual dragons, phoenixes, people, pagodas, tigers etc. - were of varying ages. Some were new, some were clearly very old. The temple seems to be undergoing piecemeal long-term renovation and upkeep, but still retains its older unique character.

This is one of the older parts, which I happen to like quite a bit.

If you leave early enough, which we did not, you can  even have lunch or dinner and take a walk around Beipu: the bus passes through in both directions whether you're going to Hsinchu or back to Zhubei, as we were.

Great hike if you want out of Taipei but don't want to go full-on up a mountain!

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Day in Meinong

After the King Boat Festival in Donggang ended two weeks ago, we headed to Meinong for the day before catching the HSR back to Taipei. Meinong is the center of southern Taiwanese Hakka culture and is famous for its oilpaper parasols, which are beautifully handpainted and sold in several places around town. At least they would be if half of the old street weren't torn up by construction at the moment.

The food is excellent too - we really enjoyed everything we ate at the well-known restaurant on the outskirts of town (which is actually called "Traditional Hakka Restaurant" but is quite good). We had lotus leaves, cold peanut "tofu", flat board rice noodles cooked two ways, basically all of their famous dishes. All of it excellent.

Below is a set of photos.

The dog and the couch suit each other quite well I think.

For old architecture enthusiasts, Meinong is full of examples of traditional homes. You'll see a lot of them in this post.

Dongmen, the only gate and most famous landmark in town, sits at the end of Yongan Street (the "old street" which isn't very old and is currently partly under construction).

A piece of door calligraphy (this year is the year of the rat). I just liked it.

Something in an old temple.

Dongmen in black and white.

A pretty cornice (?) thing on Dongmen, partially painted.

Hakka woman on bicycle, taken from the 2nd floor of Dongmen.

Old guy watching his front stoop get torn up by construction.

Temple lion.

Three sets of fortune blocks in a temple.

Side column of a traditional house.

Traditional houses (above and below)

Shi Jin Lai is 100 years old and has made traditional Hakka blue clothes since the 1920s. His relative/apprentice here now does most of the work (Shi himself sits in an easy chair and says hello to visitors and is generally celebrated by the town, which sounds like a pretty good deal for a centenarian.) I ordered a blouse because they're pretty, and I like to support the traditional arts.

Cool dragon thing outside of a quirky shop.

Another traditional home - the friendly owners allowed me inside.

Baskets of things (yucca? yam?)

The back of the old Matsu temple (the front is brand new)

The brand-new front of the Matsu temple.

Oil paper parasols above and below - I bought one for my aunt as a Christmas gift - not the yin-yang - I bought some pretty purple...flox or irises. (above and below)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Beautiful Beipu

Anyone who's read a guidebook on Taiwan knows where Beipu is and why it's famous. Well, nationally famous anyway. So I'll be short on the commentary (it was a typical fun day trip with the usual suspects) and get right to the pictures.

Beipu is well-known for being a stronghold of Hakka culture. This means Hakka food (yum!), Hakka lei cha or "pounded tea" - apparently not really an 'old' or 'traditional' drink at all, so says Lonely Planet - made with various nuts and green tea, which tastes basically like liquid trail mix to me. Don't get me wrong, I like the stuff.

And, of course, lots of old buildings as well as the usual tourist market and purty temple.

If you want some good food and to otherwise hang out in a teahouse and wander the streets of a quaint old-style town (with lots of newer buildings as well; Beipu is still an active settlement), it makes a lovely day trip for anyone on the northwest coast.

And now, the photos:

A lovely view inside the main temple in Beipu. It looks more or less like almost every other temple in Taiwan, but I love the column, the lighting and the billowing incense smoke in this shot.

Stone carvings with red lips.

One thing we noticed in the temple is that the decorations are rarely just painted on, as with many other temples. This one follows a different style (which I've also seen elsewhere in Taiwan) where the art is done as tiny sculptures. This takes a lot more time, a lot more skill and, of course, a lot more money. Another form of decoration uses bas-relief carvings, sometimes painted.

The old stereotype of the Hakka is that they're a.) exceptionally hard workers and b.) quite stingy with their money, and good at saving it too. That would explain why they could afford such a spiffy temple.

I'm not a big fan of stereotyping based on culture/race (lordy knows Americans get enough of it directed at them - we are not all fat, lazy, undereducated and materialistic, thank you very much), however, so maybe people in this area donate more to temples than elsewhere.

This guy appears to be selling "traditional beautiful food" (can also be read as "American food" but it is quite obviously not that), which seems to be "Zhu Ge Chang" or "Pork Elder Brother Prosperous". Seeing as these are quite clearly glutinous zongzi, the dessert kind most likely...well...anyone better at Chinese than I am care to explain?

Pretty lantern

View through a teahouse window

View through a red-painted fence

Drying herbs on a very low roof (the buildings open out onto a street much lower than the one on the opposite side, so from the road we were on, you could climb quite handily up onto these roofs. Besides, older buildings tended to be far lower. Money was scarcer for building materials and people were shorter.

The one on the right is garlic. The one on the left is some traditional herb used in Hakka cooking. I have a few bundles of them at home . They make a great pork stew but I don't actually know what they are.

It was great, being able to peer through old stone fences and down tiny alleys and come upon pretty scenes of plants and old buildings. We did a lot of that through the course of the day.

Through the main temple entrance.

Window on the old meeting hall, built by the Jiang family, who came to Beipu with the 'mandate' to keep the local aborigines at bay. Hmmm.

Selling dried herbs and bananas.

The area is still a real town, but its main economic bastion seems to be tourism. The area around the temple and square is a huge tourist market, selling toys, balloons, trinkets, souvenirs and lei cha. I kind of like those markets; they're great for gift shopping and I have a soft spot for traditional-style stuff (some of my natural fiber Chinese-style clothes, the tonghua Hakka-style fabric, my flip-flops and my favorite little wooden massage doodad all came from those markets).

Old brick doorway

Some of the heritage homes are kept in good condition, and many still house residents who remain in their ancestral homes. Others, however...

...are not in such good condition.