Hakka food ingredients are very similar with the food eaten by the Han majority during Chinese New Year, proving its close relation to Han culture in ancient times. However, based on Hakka cooking techniques and flavoring methods, it is clear that the unique Hakka food culture is derived from the adaptation to environmental changes and from overcoming life’s hardships.
Hakka dishes have the following features: First, Hakka food emphasizes mountain delicacies but very little seafood. Most of the Hakka minority lived in mountainous areas, thus it was natural that there were more mountain delicacies and meat than seafood and fish. Second, Hakka food emphasizes the ingredients of the dishes and disregards presentation. There are a large number of Hakka dishes that do not consider how the food is presented on the plate. This is a reflection of the Hakka’s practicality, which shuns showmanship in favor of down-to-earth ingredients. Third, Hakka dishes emphasizes the original taste of the food rather than adding many flavorings. Food combinations are usually simple and uncomplicated, leading some to believe that this is the Hakka’s way of emphasizing the original taste and individual tastes. However, researchers believe this might be because Hakka communities lived in remote mountainous areas for a long time, away from influences by other cuisine nearer the sea, and therefore reserved the natural, original cooking style which has become so popular today. Finally, the Hakka love eating offal and other foods, which may have prompted by their ability to cook with offal due to their harsh living environment and conditions.
Salted foods included pickled vegetables, brewers’ grains, pickled taros, and the commonly-seen pickled radish, and can all be found on the dinner table. In the spring and summer, salted vegetables or brewers’ grains are often included in meals. During the summer harvest, the main course is taros. In the autumn and winter, pickled radish is the main dish. For joyous events and festivals, favorite dishes include fermented bean curd, meat balls, and fish balls. Fermented bean curd is a dish especially rich in Hakka culture.
The Hakka minority in Taiwan has evolved for more than two hundred years, having lost the material support of their original homeland and thriving along with the development of Taiwan society and industries. As a result, only a few aspects of the Hakka food culture may have been preserved in today’s food industry. However, the soul of traditional Hakka food culture is still very much alive throughout its numerous food presentations. The practical significance of Hakka food culture will be explained in the following:
Pickled food is an important essence of Hakka food. Although the food custom of the Hakka minority is similar to that of the Han majority in Southern China, Hakka food has always featured a saltier taste and developed advanced pickling techniques. Therefore, Hakka pickled food has become an important and changing ingredient in Hakka dishes. Many scholars believe that the development of Hakka pickled food is mainly for convenience in preserving and transporting, as the Hakka continued to migrate. Some think that it is because the Hakka minority work hard, and the salt from perspiration need to be replenished. In this way, Hakka food can be regarded as the Hakka people’s strategy in adapting to unstable environments and a representation of being economical.
In order to store harvested fruit and vegetables, the Hakka eventually developed advanced pickling techniques and created various classic Hakka ingredients such as fermented mustard, soy bean paste, soy-preserved radishes, sour pickled cabbage and bacon. In times of frequent war and uncertainty, it was especially important to store food. Of particular note is the fact that, apart from meeting the basic nutritional requirements, Hakka food also replenished the body’s salt. The Hakka techniques for pickling far surpassed those of other minorities at around the same time.
Even in the 21st century, old women can still be seen drying radishes and radish leaves in the sun and hanging fermented mustard in front of their houses in Hakka villages. Whether harvesting taro in the summer or storing radishes in the winter, the Hakka all use their free time after cultivation to grow and harvest ingredients for pickling, reflecting the Hakka’s wisdom in fully utilizing the land.
Rice cakes are an important feature of Hakka food and are similar to the rice culture of the Han majority. However, Hakka rice cakes are mainly made with glutinous rice, rather than indica or japonica rice. Glutinous rice contains a lot of amylose and is very glutinous, which results in a very filling products that offer a sense of fullness for a long time.
Apart from rice cakes prepared for festivals, women also make rice cakes such as Mochi, Hakka salty balls, Hakka vegetable filled steamed buns and rice ball soup for their family when they go out to work. Hakka rice cakes are large portions, mainly filled with shallots, meat and dried radishes, and well known for tasting “oily, aromatic and salty” and being “big, thick and filling”.
Hakka dishes reflect their well-known nature of being hard-working and economical. In the past, Hakka breakfast and lunch consisted mainly of rice with porridge for supper. Most dishes were made from fresh vegetables grown in their gardens and pickled products that were usually boiled, stir-fried, fried or stewed (braised) with an emphasis on an oily and salty taste. At festivals or during celebratory events, the Hakka would kill livestock to add dishes to the table. Even in poor times, Hakka dishes adhered to old wisdom and adapted to changes in the combination and application of their ingredients.
The Hakka classic dishes, “four braises and four stir-fries,” include Pork Tripe Soup with Sour Pickled Cabbage, Hakka Braised Pork, Braised Rib and Vegetable Soup, Fatty Braised Bamboo Shoot Soup, Hakka Stir-Fried Pork, Stir-Fried Pork Intestines with Ginger Juliennes, Stir-Fried Pork Tripe with Leeks, and Stir-Fried Pork Lung and Pineapple with Agaric (nicknamed Salty, Sour and Sweet). The whole of the pig, inside and out, and even the blood is used. Chickens and pigs are rarely killed, but when they are, the meat is stewed in water to make a big pot of oily soup with dried bamboo shoots. The soup and the bamboo shoots balance out each other, with the soup removing the sourness and bitterness of the bamboo shoots and the bamboo shoots absorbing the greasiness of the soup, making it a dish suitable for all ages from children to the elderly. Chicken is dipped in a special kumquat sauce, soy sauce is added to pork to make braised pork, grease from the pork is then used with vegetables so not even a drop is wasted. The spirit of practicality is infused within the culture of Hakka food, contrasting sharply with the rapid waste of resources in the modern world. We can all learn something from the Hakka’s environmentally-friendly principle of “make use of everything.
Hakka tea culture
The tea culture has for a long time been part of Hakka life. Love songs sung between male and female pickers symbolized Hakka tea culture. In recent years, pestle tea has become a synonym of Hakka tea.
Pestle tea, also named San Sheng Tang, was a plague-ridding remedy in the Three Kingdoms period. It is made by grinding tea leaves, peanuts, and sesame in a mortar into a nutty paste, which is then combined with boiling water and black rice. It can be drunk to quench thirst or hunger and is good for health. Traditional pestle tea is generally salted, but has since been adapted to a sweet tea to accommodate the taste of the modern population.
In the old days, green tea was common in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli, where most tea growers ran a small tea farm and baked their own tea. In Beipu and Emei of Hsinchu, Pengfeng tea was famous during the Japanese occupation. It was exported to the UK and Japan, earning large sums of foreign exchange. The tea is still produced in large quantities. In recent years, Hakka tea is produced in Beipu and Emei, along Provincial Road Number 3. Tea-related foods and snacks that developed due to burgeoning tourism have been introduced to complement Hakka tea to form new strains of Hakka food culture. Peanut candy, moonlight cake, and the tea foods developed in Luye, Taitung are very popular. Tea-related foods are starting to gather a larger following, as people become more familiar with cold-brewed Eastern Beauty, chrysanthemum tea of Tongluo, iced pestle tea and meals made of pestle tea, and newly-developed chrysanthemum cake, chrysanthemum glutinous rice tamale, chrysanthemum wine, and chrysanthemum ice. Depending on demand, it is quite possible that new flavors and items will be introduced.