Indo-Chinese Hakka cuisine is a blend of Chinese and Indian cuisines that is said to have first originated in the early 1900s when Hakka Chinese settlers in India (Kolkata) fused Chinese cooking techniques and seasonings with Indian spices to create a unique culinary experience. An exotic cuisine was thus born with a label and cult of its own.
Over the years, this cuisine has gained in popularity and has spread to other parts of the world, adding other national influences as well as newer non-traditional ingredients and techniques. It still however retains the same signature end result – sizzling, spicy, tantalizing dishes for any day using fresh green chilies, coriander leaves, garlic, ginger, red chili powder, and a range of spices and sauces.
Devotees as well as the newly converted can find Hakka restaurants quite readily in any corner of the world these days. Restaurant menus often have key words to provide clues to the dishes soon to be brought to the table. Szechuan refers to hot red sauced based dishes, Manchurian refers to garlicky brown sauce based dishes, and Chili refers to batter based fried spicy creations.
Still, there is always a limit to how much one can eat out without guilt. And so, this book is all about fully replicating restaurant taste in the home kitchen where you as the cook have the option to control the quantity and quality of ingredients used for healthier versions and discerning taste buds. All you need are some basic tools, ingredients, and techniques.
First off, the tools make the trade. The smoky, semi-burnt, wok-fragranced fried rice made in a carbon steel wok over high flames cannot be replicated with a non-stick sauce pan over mellow heat in the kitchen. If you truly want your cooking to be equal to or better than the nearest Hakka take-out, invest in a quality wok and wok turner. A carbon steel wok is inexpensive and can easily be seasoned into a naturally non-stick multi-purpose utensil.
Now for the ingredients and flavorings. Resist the urge to use just any rice or noodles in your pantry or else your time and effort are more or less wasted. The best rice to use is long-grain white rice. Look for rice bags labelled as “Chinese Style”. Jasmine rice can be an alternative but basmati rice is a no-no as are parboiled or brown rice. Noodles that turn out dishes exactly like the restaurants are harder but not impossible to find. Look for fresh Chow Mein in the refrigerated section of grocery stores. Hakka style noodles make use of medium sized dry egg noodles and can be found in Chinese grocery stores. Stick to the size of noodles called for. For example, Singapore noodles are made with very thin rice noodles. Use a different sized rice noodle and you really cannot claim to have authentic Singapore noodles.
Next, the list of ingredients can seem lengthy and for some could be a turn-off from even attempting a dish. In reality though, a sub-set of the list is more or less static across any recipe and so it becomes second nature in no time. Hakka style cooking makes use of readily available pre-prepared sauces and cooking pastes including soy sauce, Szechuan chili bean paste, and rice wine. Once bought, these keep for a long time, so go ahead and spend the time sourcing them if you don’t already have them in stock. If you really cannot get your hands on these, then and only then consider substitutes. Finally, professional techniques can be learnt and become second nature with experience. Don’t overcook rice or noodles – this cannot be stressed enough. The secret to perfect fried rice for example is the proportion of water to rice used and ensuring that the cooked rice is thoroughly chilled before use. Use hot soft rice and you are guaranteed to have a blob of something that does not come close to even the worst Hakka restaurant you’ve been to. The amount of time spent “frying” the rice or noodles is equally important. Do a quick job of the fried rice and you will have what can legally only be called mixed rice. Next practical rule – have all ingredients prepared before you begin cooking. Most if not all Hakka dishes require rapid cooking over high heat and taking the time to wash and chop with a hot wok on the go will surely result in burnt or overcooked food.
Above all, don’t forget to have fun! Few cooks follow recipes end-to-end and this should be the case here also. Although the recipes have been formulated to recreate the exact restaurant taste at home, Hakka cuisine hasn’t survived over a century by people cooking the same thing the same way. So, don your apron, arm yourself with a wok turner, get creative and let the chef in you wok magic!