One of the best ways to learn about a new culture is to eat it. When I was little, I didn’t really know anything about Hakka history or traditions, only that it was the name of the language my maternal relatives spoke and that I couldn’t understand (unless they were talking about me, because then every few word were “愷凌 this” and “愷凌 that,” accompanied by solemn glances my way. Life in a multicultural family is always filled with intrigue.). The first time I remember eating Hakka food was a few months after I moved to Taiwan, when my parents, Ron and I went down to Miaoli County (苗栗縣) to visit my relatives.
One of my favorite dishes was the sautéed stir-fried river shrimp, which are small and delicate enough to eat with their crispy shells still on. Everything had a lot of flavor and texture: pungent garlic cloves cooked until tender, slices of pork with fat that melted over my tongue, sharp vinegar mixed with strips of crisp ginger, juicy scallions that balanced out the oils in the stir fries.
|Braised short ribs in plum sauce|
|Stinky tofu with century egg|
I learned later on that Hakka cuisine is traditionally made to be highly calorific so people had plenty of energy to engage in a full day of physical labor, with ingredients that had been preserved so that not a bit was wasted. I already knew my grandma and her family all had very well-honed work ethics. Even my grandmother’s hobbies, like growing vegetables in her backyard and sewing, make sure that she never fritters away a precious moment by idling. But I had no idea how deeply productivity and thrift are ingrained in Hakka culture until I moved here.
|Three types of lightly battered seafood stir-fried in sweet-and-sour vinegar sauce|
|Strips of preserved eggs|
Many Taiwanese people who came of age before the 1980s are financially conservative (at least in their personal budgeting) and very practical. Taiwan’s rapid economic growth caused a shift in values between generations, which I’ve mentioned before in my review of “Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?” (搭錯車). I sometimes wonder if that cultural gap was particularly difficult for older Hakka people to deal with because they consider thriftiness not just a way to make ends meet, but also a very important moral indicator. I know that whenever my grandma asks me how much I paid for something, I always lower its price by about 30%. I’m not trying to mislead my grandma. I just don’t want her to think that her oldest grandchild is willfully tobogganing down a greasy slope into the jaws of turpitude.
Anyway, enough of this tangent, let’s talk about food!!! My favorite Hakka restaurant in Taipei is Chiachia Seafood Hakka Restaurant (家家海鮮客家餐廳) off Yongkang St. It’s well regarded, but for some reason it does not get as much attention as other places in that neighborhood. We took my parents there when they visited Taipei a few weeks ago. My Mom ordered the pork intestines stir-fried with vinegar, ginger and chili peppers, a classic dish she ate when she was little. Chiachia’s signature, the stinky tofu with century eggs, is not as traditional, but it still captures everything that makes Hakka food special. Chunks of buttery soft stinky tofu are lightly coated in batter and flash fried until just crispy enough. They are tossed with the century egg yolk, which leaves a delicate, slightly grainy texture on the surface of the tofu, and served with the jelly-like egg whites (which are, of course, actually black), also fried. All the flavors and textures mesh together very well. I would eat it every day if I weren’t concerned about the size of my butt.
|Pork intestines stir-fried with vinegar, ginger and chili peppers|
Other dishes I like include these of salty, preserved eggs and any of Chiachia’s sweet-and-sour seafood dishes. Their braised short ribs covered in tangy plum sauce are also excellent. I’m sorry I forgot to write down the Chinese names of the dishes we ate with my parents (I was too busy making them watch Denver the Guilty Dog on Ron’s phone), but my review from last December for the Taipei Times is more detailed. Another great Hakka restaurant in Taipei City is Jinjiang Tea Room (晉江茶堂), which my husband wrote about four years ago. If you have a favorite Hakka restaurant, please let me know!
In related news: Tomorrow is the last day to vote for your favorite restaurant for inclusion in the Miele Guide’s ranking of the best dining establishments in Asia. Here’s some more information.
Also, I just remembered that my tag for food-related posts is “gluttony.” Do any KMT legislators want to accuse me of vulgarity?