Friday, October 19, 2012

Hakka on my mind

This week on Zester Daily I've had two articles published, and both of them center on Hakka cuisine. The first was a review of Linda Lau Anusasananan's terrific look at Hakka cuisine, The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from Around the World (UC Press, 2012).

The second one talks about a Hakka-style cake for Double Ninth Festival, which will fall on Tuesday, October 23 next week. This confection (the Chinese word for almost any pastry can be called gao, which translates loosely as "cake") is utterly beautiful, with alternating brown and white stripes turning it into a pinstriped affair that looks terribly sophisticated and difficult, but which actually is quite simple.

First, though, let me praise Linda's book some more.

As I note in my review, and as I've mentioned here many times, my late father-in-law was Cantonese Hakka, and he was without a doubt the family's best cook. My husband adored his father's home cooking, and as a result, when we lived in Taiwan, we often ate at a rundown shack under an overpass on Zhongshan North Road that served these foods he loved.

Linda & her Hakka Cookbook
The place was called Tianchao Fandian, or Overpass Restaurant. This was, as the name suggests, a dining place that did not put on airs. The guys who ran the place looked like old soldiers who had followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan and then opened up a place that smelled like home when they retired.

They were invariably grumpy, wore torn old wife-beaters and stained khaki pants, and growled out their orders to the guys back in kitchen. Sitting at their rickety old tables on ancient chairs, with flies buzzing around and layers of grease that were so deep even the roaches avoided them, this was not a place that reeked of atmosphere. What it did reek of was memories.

Pots of chicken soup sat in bamboo steamers on the propane burners, their tops covered with a good half-inch of golden fat, the chicken so tender it would fall apart as your chopsticks made the gentlest touch. Tender and moist, it was heaven on the tongue. And then we'd be served a dish filled with stuffed beancurd braised in a savory sauce, the pork filling springy and highly seasoned against the bland tofu. We'd pile these and whatever else we ordered onto our bowls of rice and revel in the sauces as they worked their way down into the grains, plumping them up and slicking them with deep flavors that were intensely gratifying.
Nine translucent layers

So why am I mentioning this when I'm supposed to be talking about Linda's book? Because what she wrote revived all these tasty memories of my years in Taiwan, when my husband would suggest at least once a month that we go to Overpass for his Hakka fix.

Linda's book is a delicious compendium of the foods that the Hakka people eat in China and Taiwan, as well as around the world. It is beautifully written and is punctuated with the people who make the food of their ancestors both in foreign lands, as well as in their native villages. This is a fascinating and heartfelt look at the Hakka way of life by someone who is Hakka herself.

I've talked about Hakka food myself many times on this blog, such as a wonderful and easy Spice-Crusted Salt Pork that practically does all the work itself, the fragrant Salted Limes of the region, and their mochi-like Tamales, one of my all-time favorite foods. 

And that allows me to segue into this lightly sweet and subtle Hakka sweet, Nine Layer Cake. Unlike most other mochi-like confections, this one is made with Indica rice flour (i.e. regular rice), rather than glutinous rice. The traditional recipes I looked at all called for soaking and grinding the rice, which seemed like too much bother. So I developed this one using just rice flour, and it works like a dream.

Pour in the different color slurries
In addition, I cut way back on the sweetness so that the flavors of the black Korean sugar and the hint of banana essence shine through. It's simple, it's unusual, and it also is quite traditional in its sensibilities. See the recipe here.

If you have older Chinese friends, pieces of this cake will be welcome gifts, because Double Ninth is a day for honoring the elderly. In fact, this holiday has turned into Senior Citizen's Day in Taiwan, perhaps in part because so many of the old ways have been forgotten, and this is a gentle way of ushering old customs into the 21st century.

Linda Lau Anusasananan's photo credit: Therdphong Anusasananan
Book cover image of The Hakka Cookbook courtesy of University of California Press
All other photos by Carolyn Phillips

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