The analog clock hangs above the daily lunar calendar.
My grandfather, affectionately known as Ah Gong, leaves his room.
In his part-library, part-bedroom, Ah Gong sometimes shows me the memorabilia collected over his eighty-plus years of life.
Next to his pillow lies a small stack of books. Many more pile in cardboard boxes fashioned into shelves. Only his prized books are displayed on an actual bookshelf. A notorious hoarder, Ah Gong unleashes his fury every time family members broach the idea of throwing some away. Collections of meticulously annotated newspapers rest next to his beloved calligraphy sets. Black and white photographs scatter the underside of his desk. I marvel at his watch collection. Both literally and figuratively, my Ah Gong is living history.
I grew up with this larger-than-life figure, who had a much too colorful past for someone who now calls American suburbia home. I have long since embraced a language foreign to my grandfather. I no longer speak the dialect Ah Gong taught me as a toddler. The hills of Piedmont North Carolina cannot compare with the elegantly positioned mountain peaks of southern China. However, the foods Ah Gong taught me to love still remain a core part of my life.
His room sits right next to the kitchen. I was eating a steamed egg custard one day when that same smell took me back to one afternoon spent with Ah Gong. My grandmother (Ah Ma) was making the exact same savory custard, whose aroma saturated Ah Gong’s room. Meanwhile, I asked my Ah Gong to sharpen a pencil. To my shock, he pulled out a knife from his drawer and started hacking at the pencil tip.
Never giving up his frugal ways, my Ah Gong always finds a way to fashion nothing into something. Never mind the newfound abundance of hand-held sharpeners. Since foods–including eggs–were once scarce, Ah Gong’s stubbornness reminds me to take nothing for granted.
Aging and dementia have taken a toll on Ah Gong’s body and mind. He usually dozes off in his rickety chair: not even his favorite war-period dramas can prevent a lifetime’s worth of fatigue. Yet, there’s one thing that my Ah Gong will never forget to do: check the daily lunar calendar. My Ah Gong gingerly steps out of his room. He looks at today’s page, and flips to the next.
Thousands of miles away, I can’t live the life he once did, and Ah Gong understands that. One summer, after flipping through the calendar, he says, “in about six weeks, you’ll be back in America, head in the books again!” But like any other human being, my Ah Gong’s interest in time is transient. Hunger trumps thought.
* * *
When you sit at the dining table, you can’t help but notice the overriding presence of the family altar. Two stately portraits undergird another portrait even higher up. The yellow cloth and red incense sticks seem too gaudy and superficial. I don’t feel anything. Veneration of photographs on an altar is difficult when geographically, culturally, and financially, you are displaced from your ancestors. My life is so much more materially crowded than that of my great-grandparents. For the man who first settled in my grandparents’ town, I cannot imagine what escaping marginalization felt like seven hundred years ago.
However, I feel their presence watching over me when I seat myself at the dining table. It’s through food I embody their lives. It’s through food I have come to appreciate the history of my ancestors. The taste, preparations, and aromas are so primal and familiar. It’s just who I am. And it’s who my ancestors were, too.
I look at the food and I cannot wait to savor Ah Ma’s dishes. But I wait until both my grandparents are seated. I wait for the nod from my Ah Ma, and my Ah Gong smiles.
I dive in.
* * *
Scholars have classified the Hakka as a subgroup of the Han Chinese, but multiple theories exist surrounding the origins of the Hakka. Hakka scholar Xianglin Luo traces the Hakka back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), but Sow-Theng Leong considers Luo’s genealogical work to be part “ethnic rhetoric” [i]. Other critics of Luo suggest that the Hakka are “non-Han,” and were originally from a southern Chinese mountain region [ii].
Literally translated as “guest people,” the Hakka were marginalized and were considered to be refugees of “dynastic turmoil.” The Hakka migrated in response to Jurchen and Mongol attacks, but it was the mass migration during the Song dynasty (1127 to 1129) to the southern province of Guangdong that solidified the Hakka identity. The Bendi of southern China – people that already settled on arable land – denied the Hakka access to land, resulting in an ethnic conflict known as the Hakka-Cantonese wars.
Plagued by poverty, ethnic strife, and landlessness, the Hakka have become known for supplementing their limited agricultural activities with industries in trade. The Hakka have practiced patrilineal kinship (like most other southern Han ethnic groups), but Hakka women have held a higher social status than Bendi women: Hakka women took part in the same backbreaking labor as the men and rejected the Bendi’s foot binding practice.
It’s no surprise that my Ah Gong married my Ah Ma, another Hakka. Marriage to another Hakka was not necessarily a means of ethnic pride, but rather survival. My grandparents reside in a small, mountainous district, a reflection of the unfertile land allotted for the Hakka. It’s also no surprise that my family temple is further up the mountains, hidden among the unkempt wild grass for protection.
After the Cultural Revolution, the derogatory status began to die out after it was revealed that then Chairman Deng Xiaoping was himself a Hakka. However, the multiple waves of migrations have resulted in a far-reaching Hakka Diaspora. The current Hakka population is estimated to be around 45 to 60 million people, with the largest Hakka populations in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Other Hakka have settled elsewhere, including Southeast Asia, North America, and the Carribean.
If there’s one thing that unites all of our experiences, it’s the food. The Hakka identity acknowledges the diverging migratory patterns, but the food consistently maintains the values of simplicity and frugality. These are the same traits shared with ancestors thousands of years ago.
People tend to lump Hakka cuisine under its more famous and flamboyant relative, Cantonese cuisine, but there are a few key distinctions.
Hakka cuisine is stronger in flavor, saltier, and pork is widely used. These rustic dishes are best enjoyed at home, with family.
My Ah Ma’s pork belly and taro dish (yu tou kou rou) is a rare indulgence. Only on special occasions such as Chinese New Year or homecomings does my Ah Ma make this fatty, savory, dish. Slathered with soy sauce, rice wine and salt, the carefully positioned strips of thick pork belly cover a mound of taro. The chewy texture of the pork belly and the softness of the taro make this celebratory dish a true delight.
The presence of pork and salt isn’t just relegated to overtly cardiovascular-compromising dishes. As my dad recalls in his childhood, money was scarce, and purchasing cooking oil by itself was not an option. Therefore, in order to save money, my Ah Ma would only purchase the fatty cuts of pork. To the Hakka, lean meat was of little worth back then. Ah Ma would heat the wok to extract the fat from the pork belly to make lard. While the lard could last for months, the leftover strips of cooked pork belly could then be incorporated into stir-fries.
Like other Chinese regional cuisines, stir-fries are a staple to the everyday Hakka diet. Of the endless combinations for stir-fries, one that stands out is pork belly stir-fry with mild green chiles. The pork belly is first pan-fried, and the excess oil is drained (oil is no longer as valuable as it was before). The crisp morsels of pork belly are then added to the wok with the julienned mild green chiles. When stir-fried, the leftover fat is infused with the charred chiles, and each bite becomes a burst of flavor.
Other components that complement the fatty meat include bamboo shoots and lotus roots. Unlike green chiles, the crunchy bamboo shoots don’t mop up the extra lard and provide a nice contrast to the indulgent pork belly strips. Lotus root is also characteristic of the Hakka cuisine. Using whatever is on hand to make a flavorful everyday dish, these stir-fries illustrate how Hakka cuisine is economical, simple, and unfiltered.
Another hallmark of Hakka cuisine is the use of tofu. Moreover, each byproduct from the soybean fermentation process can be used to make a delectable dish.
The soybeans are first grinded into a paste, and liquid is squeezed out from the beans. As you let the soybean paste rest, add some sugar to the soy liquid, and you now have yourself a refreshing soy beverage. A hardened layer of bean curd will form while the paste ferments.
The bean curd can then be air-dried, chopped up, and put into stir-fries with black fungus (also known as “cloud ears”).
Overall, tofu is important to Chinese cuisine, but stuffed tofu is distinctly Hakka. Legend has it that because dumpling skins were too expensive, tofu was used to mimic the delicate dumpling skins. With its extremely mild flavor, holes were dug into tofu cubes, and the pockets were stuffed with ground meat (usually pork).
When I first introduced this dish to my vegetarian friend, her facial expression was one of curious surprise. “Doesn’t that defeat the point of tofu?” she asked. But the irony was that in Hakka cuisine, tofu was never considered to be a substitute for meat. When poverty was commonplace, what little meat that was available was used to enhance the widely accessible tofu.
While not entirely necessary, many Hakka families still follow the tradition of making this stuffed tofu on special occasions. The preparation is labor-intensive: if the stuffed tofu is pan-fried, the tofu must be frozen overnight. Otherwise, the cackling oil would easily break the delicate tofu. Steaming is another option, but the care that goes into pan-frying makes each bite the more flavorful.
Once stuffed tofu became a canon in Hakka, variations of this recipe started to appear: stuffed king-sized mushrooms, mild green chiles, bitter melons, and eggplants.
Since meat was quite scarce up until the late twentieth century, Hakka cuisine has always been plentiful with vegetables. My Ah Ma would frequently salt leafy mustard greens to increase shelf life. Withered into an intense dark green hue, these were made into side-dishes to serve with congee. There was specifically one winter when food was extremely meager, and only rice was available. To make the everyday-winter congee more bearable, my Ah Ma would take out her previously-made fermented greens.
If there’s one final dish to highlight in Hakka cuisine, it’s a bowl of soup. Use whatever you have on hand to make something from nothing. One of my favorites is loofah squash and flower eggs soup, but any combination of broth and garnish will suffice. Wash down the heartiness of the pork stir-fries. Cleanse your palette of the residual bitterness from the mustard greens. From the simple daikon and beef bone to elaborate Chinese medicinal roots, a variety of soups always conclude a Hakka meal.
* * *
Each time before I fly back from China to America, my Ah Ma and Ah Gong take me to a cherished yet dilapidated building: the place where my great-grandparents lived. Unlike the family altar next to the dining table, no portraits of them can actually be found.
Instead, the founder of our clan is displayed in gold, surrounded by our family tablet and a large wooden table. My Ah Ma helps Ah Gong prepare the veneration ceremony, and she finally hands me the red incense.
I bow once, but I feel nothing except the incense ashes that sting my eyes. As I bow the second time, I focus my eyes on the food offerings my Ah Ma and Ah Gong bring out: the apples, a whole chicken covered in Shaoxing rice wine, and vodka. On my third and final bow, I forget the fact that I will be geographically removed from where my ancestors lived. I forget the hustle of the future, and in that moment, I only wish that I could share a meal with those I never had the chance to meet.
I descend from the mountains and venture into the concrete jungle of Guangzhou. From the airport, I ascend into the heavens. I leave behind my Ah Gong’s calendar flipping my Ah Ma’s cooking for another few years.
On the long flight back to America, I sit back and relax. I have the blessing of my ancestors, and ultimately, there’s nothing to worry about: I’ll savor the Hakka dishes when I arrive home to my dad’s cooking.
When there is food, you are never too far away from home.
* * *
Author’s Note: Ah Gong passed away suddenly on December 31, 2020, during the drafting of this essay. He was 88 years old. He leaves behind his wife, three sons, and four grandchildren. Ah Gong, you will be dearly missed.
[i]. Anusasananan, 24
[ii]. Anusasananan, 24
- Anusasananan, Linda. The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World. University of California Press, 2012.
- Lozada, Eriberto P. “Hakka diaspora.” Encyclopedia of Diasporas. 2005, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-29904-4_10
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