The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World

The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World, by Linda Lau Anusasananan is a delicious stew of memories, history, flavors, and travels. (My subtitle would include the words culinary memoir.) The author’s Hakka roots were planted in the Northern California kitchen of her Chinese grandmother Popo. After her retirement as a food writer for Sunset Magazine for 34 years, Anusasananan documents her culinary heritage by visiting Hakka home kitchens and restaurants from Singapore to San Francisco.

In the book’s telescoped history of the Hakka Chinese, who now number approximately 75 million, mostly in Southeastern China (Guanzhou) and also in other parts of Southeast Asia and countries/places such a Canada, Peru, and Hawaii, we learn that the Hakka Diaspora spans centuries, starting with the first migration in 317 A.D. to 1867.

The Hakka spirit seems to have developed from their landlessness and frequent relocation, which have honed their abilities to adapt and survive almost any situation. (The women’s feet were never bound, a practical move since women took over the family compound when the men went in search of additional work in hard times, because the land in which they were guests was marginally suitable for agriculture. *) Their name actually means “guest people,” because they were always moving, not just throughout S.E. Asia, but also, into other countries, far from their homeland of China, bringing their Hakka flavors with them and blending them with some of the flavors in their new homes. (They lived next to the Cantonese, so there is some similarity between the two.)

This is a cookbook anthology, that is, the recipes are drawn from chefs and cooks in all the places the author and her “tasting team” visited, reminding her of her beloved Popo’s dishes as well as some new tastes in the Hakka’s adopted countries. While a certain amount of fusion seems inevitable, the author can still identify the global dishes as Hakka.

If you are serious about experimenting with the more than 100 recipes that The Hakka Cookbook contains, I suggest, as does the author, to starting at the back of the book with The Hakka Kitchen, The Hakka Pantry, and Basic Recipes. Then, if you find a recipe you want to prepare, you will be familiar with the ingredients.

Note: Because many of these items are found in Asian food stores and may be printed in Chinese, Anusasananan has thoughtfully included the Chinese characters and translation of the ingredients for shopping ease. I plan to take the book with me when I shop for my recipes. Below is one I plan to make after going to the Asian store where my neighbor shops, although the author does offer mainstream substitutions in many cases. I called Whole Foods and they do have the Chinese rice wine. Now I can make the dish authentic, although I don’t use sugar as a general rule, but will make an exception here, since it is a mere 1/2 teaspoon.

Sketch of fresh ginger by author’s brother, Alan Lau, p. 111

What attracts me to The Hakka Cookbook is the love of the author’s own culinary journey, bolstered by her beloved Popo’s dictum: “You should be proud to be Hakka.” Reaching back into her childhood and beyond, writing with passion and precision, opening the door wide to an unfamiliar kitchen and making it inviting are all positive attributes of this beautifully illustrated (See ginger sketch below by her brother Alan Lau) and designed food book with its mouth-watering shades of orange colors on the cover and inside. Even if you never made one recipe, the story that the author weaves throughout the book makes it worth the price. However, each recipe is part of the story, and reading the introduction to the recipe is a must to understanding this culinary journey.

Published by University of California Press (Berkeley, CA) the hardcover Hakka Cookbook sells for approximately $35 (online prices vary).

*When I was an editor for a professor of architecture and town planning at Penn State, I researched the Hakka extensively as part of my work, and agree with the historical journey in the book, including the need for Hakka men to find work far from their adopted homeland in Southeast China. Their willingness to leave their country for a better life, economically and physically, is probably the trigger for their unique Diaspora, which feels familiar, since my Jewish roots are also based on such a Diaspora.

Ginger-Scented Squash, Peas, and Lily Bulbs
pages 52-53

In Meizhou, we ate this colorful combination of ginger-scented orange squash, green pea pods, and white lily bulbs.  The lily bulbs were new to me. They looked much like the small onions or large garlic cloves and tasted mildly sweet, with a slightly starchy texture and a bit of crunch. Back home, I found vacuum-packed fresh lily bulbs in an Asian supermarket.  Use shallots as an alternative. Serve as a vegetable side dish in a Chinese or Western meal; it’s a lovely companion to chicken or pork. (For me, it would be tempeh or tofu. es)

Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse meal.

8 ounces winter squash, such as kabocha or butternut (see note)
2 fresh lily bulbs or shallots, each about 1 1/2 inches wide
3/4 cups water, or as needed
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon fresh ginger
4 ounces snow peas or sugar snap peas, strings removed

1. Peel the squash, cut in half, and remove the seeds. Cut the squash into strips about 1/4 inch thick, 1/2 inch wide, and 2 inches long to make 1 1/2 to 2 cups. If needed, use a flat mallet or hammer to help force the knife through the squash.

2. Trim off the base and any soft or discolored parts from the lily bulbs.  Separate the bulbs into layers to make about 1 cup. (If using shallots, trim the ends and cut in quarters lengthwise.  Peel and separate into layers.)

3. In a small bowl, mix the water, wine, sugar, and salt.

4. Set a 14-inch wok or 10-inch fry pan over medium high heat.  When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add the oil and tilt the pan to spread.  Add the ginger and squash; stir-fry to coat with oil. Add the water mixture. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until the squash is almost tender when pierced, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in the lily bulbs and peas. If almost all the liquid has evaporated, add 2 to 3 more tablespoons water. Cover and cook until the peas are crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Transfer to a  serving dish.

Note: Although you may sometimes find small kabocha or squash pieces at farmers’ markets, it’s likely you may have to buy a larger squash.  Cover and chill the leftover squash and reserve for another use.

Sample of the author’s writing. I love this author’s way with words and have included a few lines from the opening chapter, at the beginning of Linda Lau Anusasananan’s journey back to her Hakka roots, starting with her beloved grandmother.

Chapter One: Popo’s Kitchen on Gold Mountain California (p. 15)- Pioneer in Paradise

On the deck of the S.S. Nile, the petite Chinese woman shivers with excitement as the ship pulls into view of San Francisco, the entry to Gold Mountain, the Chinese nickname for California.  Fear tempers her joy as the ship anchors at the cove of Angel Island, where the immigration station for the Chinese is located.  her dream could end here.

Moist clouds of fog billow in as the immigration authorities lead the Chinese arrivals up the hill to the detention hall. The guards separate the men from the women.  She is shunted into the women’s barracks.  Wind whistles through the cracks of the thin wood walls……

To me, this sounds like the beginning of a novel, instead of a non-fiction book, especially not a cookbook! But the author’s story is integral to understanding her quest for her Hakka roots.

4 thoughts on “The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World

  1. Thanks for such a lovely review and sharing your views about the book. I really appreciate your detail and understanding of the book. It sounds like you read the book from cover to cover.
    Thanks again,

  2. Dear Linda,
    Thank you so much for writing! I made the squash recipe Iposted & will write a follow up to my making it with a photo. Do you live in San Francisco area. I come there to visit my daughter and daughter-in-law.

  3. Linda,
    I made the Ginger-Scented Squash and it will post as an update tomorrow, Fri., Feb.15th @ 4 pm, underneath the my Black Bean Soup recipe. I re-posted the recipe and added my notes as well as a picture of the dish which I made on Monday. Very tasty!

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