Characteristics of Hakka delicacies

According to an old saying, the Hakka reside in every mountain. As it is hard to find food in the mountain, the frugal Hakka residents have developed all sorts of tasty, pickled foods that can be preserved for a long time. In addition, the Hakka take advantage of the fruits and vegetables found in their surroundings throughout the year and create a myriad of dishes and snacks.

Hakka food has long been characterized as being salty, fragrant, and fatty. The high salt content helps preserve the food for long periods of time and replenish the salt lost through perspiration after a hard day’s work on the farm. Foods are generally fatty to boost the energy needed for the strenuous physical labor that many of the Hakka are engaged in. The fragrance of the food stimulates the appetite and leads to a greater feeling of fullness. In addition, Hakka food makes use of varieties of hard foodstuffs, such as dried squid, which is why special attention is paid to the handling of the finished aroma of food. 

The Hakka use indica rice and sweet potatoes as staple foods. Japonica rice was introduced during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and adopted shortly after. Pork, mutton, chicken, duck, and fish are commonly used, but little seafood. 

Many Hakka dishes are steamed, boiled, deep-fried, or roasted, and served simply without much adornment. Signature dishes include Meigancaikourou (steamed pork belly with preserved mustard greens), Suancaidupiantang (pickled cabbage and pork tripe soup), Dongguafeng (stewed winter melon), Kuguafeng (stewed bitter gourd), Gaolicaifeng (stewed cabbage), Hakka stir-fried dishes, ginger stir-fried with intestines, dried cabbage stewed with ribs, and soups made of beans and dried shredded meat.

Production of local foods was dictated by geographical conditions. As rice production is limited in mountainous areas, food grains such as sweet potatoes, taros, fern roots, and yams are primarily produced. Red potatoes, pumpkins, taros, and soybeans are made into snacks and Ban (flat rice noodles) or Gao (cakes), while soybeans are made into bean curd.

Poor living conditions also impacted Hakka food. Life was difficult, as many had to climb mountains while carrying loads with a bamboo pole on a daily basis. 

To facilitate frequent migrations and preservation of food, the frugal Hakka people invented all kinds of pickles ranging from vegetables, fish, sauces, and red yeast, to dried food, with pickled vegetables widely regarded as a Hakka favorite. The Hakka are also very good at making use of natural resources to create a wide range of side dishes and sauces. One example is orange sauce made of sour citrus, which has a strong fruity fragrance and serves as a balance to greasy Hakka dishes and reduces the need for additional seasoning. The many snacks developed over the years to reflect the changing seasons also reflect the spirit of the hardworking Hakka.  


Hakka dishes:

1. Si Wen Si Chao – Four Braises and Four Stir-fries

Si Wen Si Chao (Four Braises and Four Stir-fries) are classic Hakka dishes originating from the eight dishes often seen in earlier times at weddings, funerals, and deity-worshiping ceremonies. Hakka people are frugal, hard-working, and generally thrifty, only butchering pigs, chickens, and ducks on special occasions to worship their deities. Pork, chicken, and squid dishes are also prepared on the first and fifteenth of each month of the lunar calendar to worship the God of the Land. In order to make the best use of the foodstuff and create delicious dishes, they take full advantage of the whole pig and chicken and turn them into delicious dishes. That’s how Si Wen Si Chao came into existence.

Wen and Chao are the two features of Hakka cooking. “Wen” refers to cooking with a big wok and then leaving the food in the wok to keep warm. Si Wen refers to the four dishes cooked this way: Pork Tripe Soup with Sour Pickled Cabbage, Hakka Braised Pork, Braised Rib and Vegetable Soup, and Fatty Braised Bamboo Shoot Soup. “Chao” means to stir-fry, and Si Chao refers to 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). These eight dishes are not extravagant, sumptuous dishes in either quality or quantity. Nevertheless, they all look, taste, and smell delicious. Moreover, they are all easy to preserve and convenient to reheat, exemplifying the Hakka virtue of frugality without waste.

2. Ban Zai – Varied Hakka rice-made foodstuff

Rice is the main staple of Hakka food, and is eaten in all three meal in a day. In addition to everyday meals, it is used to make all kinds of snacks, including sweet, salty oil rice, rice noodles, Mi Tai Mu (silver needle noodles), and Mian Pa Ban (rice noodles). There are rice snacks that are available only on Chinese New Year, festivals, weddings, and funerals such as Hon Ban (red rice cakes), Gui Ban (red tortoise cakes), and Yu Ban (taro cakes). There are also Bo Ban glutinous cake made of baking powder, Mi Ci Ba (Mochi) made of glutinous rice, and Jiu Ceng Gao (steamed layer cake) made of alternating layers of two different kinds of powder. All these fully exemplify Hakka women’s ingenious cooking skills that have created such diverse Ban products.

3. Hakka pickles
– The essence of Hakka delicacies

Pickled vegetables, food items that can be preserved for a long time, have always been a Hakka specialty. Various dishes have been created using pickled vegetables, a common example is the radish, which is planted radish between harvests of rice. Radish can of course be eaten fresh, or preserved as Luo Bo Gan (radish chunks), Luo Bo Si (shredded radish), or Luo Bo Qian (sliced radish). These three types of preserved radish appear and taste different and can be added into a variety of dishes.

Luo Bo Gan is often used as the stuffing of Zong Zi (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves). Luo Bo Si is used as the stuffing of Cai Bao (vegetable steamed buns) or is stir-fried with eggs. Luo Bo Qian looks pleasing to the eye and is used to make soup. Some people believe that if Luo Bo Gan is aged for 20-30 years, it can be used in food or beverages to reduce body heat and alleviate sore throat, which demonstrates how thoroughly radish is used by the Hakka.

In addition to radish, mustard greens are also grown between rice harvests. With their skillful pickling technique, the Hakka have turned mustard greens into several famous Hakka specialties, including t Suan Cai, Fu Cai, and Mei Gan Cai, all pickled mustard greens differentiated by degree of dryness.

If one adds salt to leaf mustard, tread out the water and put it in a jar to ferment, it becomes Suancai. Put it under the sun for several days, it becomes Fu Cai. If Fu Cai is put under the sun until it dehydrates completely, it becomes Mei Gan Cai.

Other pickled dishes include gourds, fish, tofu, pineapple sauce, and fermented beans. These are common Hakka dishes that can be cooked, stir-fried, or turned into lunch boxes. In addition to being a seasoning, the traditional red yeast has in modern times become a popular health food capable of lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

4. Traditional Hakka foodstuff

Because the Hakka resided in mountainous areas and move frequently, a unique food and drink culture has developed. The Hakka formed eating habits adapted to the wilderness, with foodstuff consisting of mostly edible wild herbs that can be readily found in the mountain and woods. They include perilla, mugwort, bamboo shoot, gracilaria, and vegetable fern. In order to facilitate frequent migrations, they developed advanced pickling techniques to preserve and transport food, giving rise to various kinds of classic Hakka dishes such as Fu Cai, yellow bean paste, Jiang Luo Bo (radish sauce), Suan Cai (pickled mustard greens), and salted meat.

Classic Hakka foodstuff:

Xian Cai (picked vegetable): Also called Hakka Suan Cai. It is made by putting leaf mustard under the sun until tender, then layers of crude salt and leaf mustard are pressed. As a last step, a stone is placed on the top layer and dried for one week. The finished product is usually cooked into a soup with meat (pork, pig stomach, duck) or stir-fried with dried fish or pig blood in a delicious dish.

Fu Cai: Another form of Hakka Suan Cai made from pickled mustard greens. The leaves are dried in the shade and under the sun. Before completely dry, it is put in a jar, sealed, turned upside down and fermented for  4-6 months. The finished product is sweet and sour with the fragrant roots. Both Fu Cai and Xian Cai can be made into a soup or stir-fried. Fu Cai stir-fried with water fern, stewed bamboo shoot, and stewed pig stomach are all classic Hakka dishes.

Mei Gan Cai: Also named Xian Cai Gan, Mei Gan Cai is also made of leaf mustard. Semi-finished Fu Cai that is not put in a jar is air- and sun-dried, then bundled up for preserve. Mei Gan Cai can be cooked, stewed, or braised with meat. The famous Hakka dish Mei Gan Kou Rou (steamed pork belly with preserved mustard greens) is an example. They can also made into balls or cakes, which are made into soup or other dishes.

Jin Ji Jiang (orange marmalade): Jin Ji Jiang, the favorite dip of northern Taiwanese Hakka, is only found at Hakka restaurants. Jin Ji, or kumquat, ripens in November of each year and is made into Jin Ji Jiang. Ripe kumquat is steamed until it’s cooked, seeded and ground into juice. The gold, thick juice tastes sour, sweet, and delicate with the fragrance of kumquat. Some of the juices can even taste spicy hot. Jin Ji Jiang goes well with either meat or boiled vegetables, is appetizing, and helps lower internal body heat and cholesterol.

Luo Bo Gan (pickled radish chunks): Also named Cai Pu, Luo Bo Gan is made by first cutting fresh radish into small pieces and then preserving them with salt, drying them in the shade, and sun dried. Luo Bo Gan is widely used in Hakka dishes, with various kinds of Luo Bo Gan going through different stages of dehydration and air-drying. In Hakka villages, some people even age Luo Bo Gan for 3-80 years, believing it to help digestion and promote good health.

Luo Bo Si (shredded radish): In the winter, when radish is in season, fresh radish is shredded, air dried, and sun dried. It is rich in Vitamin D and usually cooked together with eggs and meat. Stir-fried Luo Bo Si can be stuffed in Cai Bao (vegetable steamed buns), Xian Ai Ban Cai Bao  (savory mugwort vegetable buns). Luo Bo Si can also be added to enhance flavor in soups.

Luo Bo Qian (sliced radish): Luo Bo Qian is the sister product of Luo Bo Gan and Luo Bo Si. Fresh radish is sliced into coin-like shapes and air and sun dried. It is commonly used to make delicious soups such as Luo Bo Qian Rou Pian Tang (radish lean pork soup).

Jiu Ceng Ta (basil): Named Qi Ceng Ta by Hakka people, Jiu Ceng Ta is an Asian basil available from spring through early winter. This herb is loved by the Hakka, and indispensable when frying fish, making fish soup, and stir-frying eggplant. It can also be minced and mixed with soy sauce to add more flavor. In Chinese medicine, this herb is good for healing bruises, easing muscle aches, stopping bleeding after childbirth, and helping children grow.

Perilla: This is an herb often found in Hakka dishes. Perilla has a unique flavor and produces perilla aldehyde, a natural organic compound that stimulates smell and balances out the smell of fish. Moreover, it is blood-enriching, antitussive, diuretic, soothing to the stomach, and relieves anxiety.  Perilla adds flavor to meat, fish, pickled vegetables, and fruits, and has even been added to produce Zi Su pastes and oils in recent years. Innovative Hakka dishes have been created using perilla. In Taiwan, most of the  perillais grown in Miaoli and exported.

Mugwort:  Mugwort is similar to herba gnaphalii hypoleuci in Taiwanese, except that is smells more fragrant. It is usually sold in markets of Hakka villages during the Tomb Sweeping Festival. It’s available both fresh and boiled, and often used to make Ai Cao Cai Bao (mugwort vegetable buns) and Ai Ban (mugwort rice cake).

Dou Gan (dried bean curd, or dried tofu): Dou Gan is another classic Hakka pickle. Both the long cowpea and short string bean are summer vegetables that begin producing abundantly beginning at around Tomb Sweeping Festival. The Hakka first cut cowpeas (also named Chang Jiang Dou or Cai Dou) into pieces 3-4cm long, boiling in lightly salted water, and then sun drying for preservation. It is often used to make soup, stewed with streaky pork or spareribs, or cooked with shredded pork and mushroom to make rice porridge.

Bai Dou Gan (white bean curd): Also called Dou Fu Gan. This white bean curd is unique only to Hakka villages. Although shaped similarly to ordinary bean curd, it has a thicker flavor because no artificial coloring is used. Only with this kind of bean curd can authentic Hakka dishes be made.

Dou Fu Pi (tofu skin): Dou Fu Pi is a type of tofu product that the Hakka sometimes use as one of the five domestic animal sacrifices used during deity-worshiping ceremonies. Although the ritual calls for domestic animal sacrifices, they are often replaced with vegetarian offerings. Before it is made into a dish, it is better to deep-fry tofu skin. This way, it is more likely to stay in a fixed form so that it doesn’t break when cooked and retains its flavor.

Dou Fu Ru (fermented bean curd): Tofu is cut into inch-long cubes and sun dried. After adding salt and bean yeast, it is fermented. As it can be preserved for a long time and goes well with rice, it is commonly found in Hakka households. It can be eaten directly, stir-fried with water spinach, or made into numerous dishes such as Dou Fu Ru Rou (pork with fermented tofu), steamed fish, and stir-fried arrow bamboo shoots. In addition, it can be blended with shredded ginger and chopped basil, to be used as a dip for goose. Other usages include Jiang Ginger Jiang Cucumber, Jiang Bamboo Shoot, Jiang Turnip, Jiang Radish, and Jiang Squash.

Green Stalk Leek: The Green Stalk Leek grown in Hakka vegetable gardens is different from the leek commonly seen in the cities. Its appearance is smaller and thinner with shorter and greener stalks, and has a milder taste compared to ordinary leek. Whether cut into sections or minced, it is usually stir-fried with duck blood. Together, the presentation of the red of the duck blood and the green of the leek is pleasing to the eye. The dish is fragrant and crispy.

Dried Bamboo Shoot: Bamboo shoot and dried bamboo shoot are indispensable dishes on Chinese New Year and other festivals for the Hakka. They are commonly dishes that few Hakka dislike. Green bamboo shoot is often eaten with mayonnaise as a cold dish, stewed with spareribs to make a soup, or stir-fried. Makino, Ma, and Meng Zong bamboo shoots are usually sun dried. Before being cooked, dried bamboo shoot needs to be soaked in water for a long time, slightly boiled, and rubbed with water. Makino bamboo shoot is usually used to stew Hakka Xiao Feng (pork stew) and Fu Cai Soup. Barrel Bamboo Shoot made with Ma bamboo shoot is popular with many.

Large intestine: One of the major source of income in agricultural society came from raising pigs. When pigs were sold, the internal organs could be made into delicious dishes, such as stir-fried pig intestine with shredded ginger. In fact, there are many ways to make use of large intestines. Traditional Hakka cooking has a unique flavor, transforming large intestines into soft and crispy delicacies with sour white vinegar.

Capsicum: Capsicum is often used by the Hakka in northern Taiwan, while those in southern Taiwan Hakka people prefer stir-frying ginger. Typical capsicum dishes are capsicum soup and shredded ginger stir-fried with capsicum.

Cong You Su (crisp red onions): Made of lard and red onions, Cong You Su is an indispensable seasoning in Hakka dishes.

Chayote shoots Chayote shoots are Chayote stalks and leaves or the commonly seen gracilaria. It is a hardy, easily-grown plant that can survive under adverse conditions, and often stir-fried or made into a salad with Hakka peanut powder and mayonnaise.

Dried shrimp: This is made by sun-drying tiny shrimps.  Dried shrimp usually appears light yellow and is used in Hakka cooking to add more flavors. It is also an excellent source of calcium.

Vinegar concentrate: Concentrated vinegar has a stronger taste than ordinary white vinegar, and is another common ingredient in Hakka cooking.

Water Fern (or vegetable fern): Named Guo Mao in Taiwanese, Water Fern is readily available as it grows along irrigation ditches by rice paddies. Before cooking, it needs to be quick-boiled in order to eliminate its unique, strong smell.

Cowpea: Another typical example of Hakka pickle,  cowpea is made by cutting fresh cowpea (named by Hakka people as Chang Jiang Dou) into pieces 3-5cm long, after which it is cooked and sun-dried. It is commonly added to soups and stews for flavor.

Black fermented beans: Fermented beans may be juiced to make soy sauce. They are also used to make fermented beans spareribs, fermented beans oysters, and fermented beans dried fish.

Cordia: It can be eaten after it is steamed or it can be stir-fried with garlic or basil after it is cut into pieces.

Jiang Squash (pickled cucumber): Cucumber is skinned, cut into chunks and placed under the sun to dry. Then the cucumber is pickled with salt in a jar for several days and placed under the sun until it’s 70% dry, after which it is picked in soy bean fluid for about half a month until it is soft and yellowish. It can be eaten as is or made into a soup. If made into a soup, shredded ginger and pork are often used in a delicious combination.

Hong Zao (red yeast): A special material used by the Hakka for pickling food, Hong Zao is made by fermenting red yeast and rice into an indispensable Hakka seasoning ingredient. It is often used to stir-fry or steam meat into dishes such as Hong Zao Steamed Pork, Hong Zao Chicken, and Hong Zao Pig Tail.