No matter the postcode, every Australian town seems to have a Chinese restaurant. It’s as much a historic Australian institution as it is an iconic cultural dining point.
But there’s a whole lot more to the Asian cuisine than the food we were traditionally served at our local Chinese restaurant back in the 80s. As people from various parts of the Chinese mainland are now immigrating to Australia, many are bringing with them their own cultural strand of the cuisine.
Kerry Yan tells SBS she immigrated to Australia from southern China with her husband Austin Wang six years ago. Together, they now run Sydney’s first and only Hakka restaurant, Wei Long Hakka Cuisine, situated in the heart of the CBD. Hakka cuisine is the native food of Hakka people who originally hail from northern China and later, moved to southern China.
“There was no place where we could have anything that remotely tastes like Hakka food in Sydney,” says Wei Long’s co-owner Yan. “My husband used to run a restaurant back in China and he has a passion for food, so we started this restaurant.”
“Now Hakka people in Sydney finally have some place to get a taste from home. There are lots of older people, some are in their 70s and they haven’t tried Hakka food for many years. So now that we have opened the restaurant, they are very happy.”
Freelance social-media manager for Wei Long, Hazel Xing, explains the differentiating features of Hakka cuisine. “It’s a little bit similar to Cantonese food but there are no overpowering flavours,” says Xing. “It’s not spicy and it doesn’t have a numbing heat. We use a lot of ginger, garlic and shallot, and minimal dried herbs. We have our own condiments and ways of serving pickles with Hakka food. For example, braised pork with pickled mustard greens only exists in Hakka. We put in the mustard greens in salt and then in a container to ferment. We leave it about a year, so it has a distinguished flavour that’s unique.”
Xing, who is half-Hakka and speaks both Cantonese and Hakka dialect, explains that although Hakka cuisine includes vegetables, it’s pretty meat-heavy. Traditionally, it features no fresh seafood although Wei Long’s menu offers some seafood dishes, to make use of Australian produce. Wheat is also a rarity because Hakka cuisine originated in a land-locked territory of China where wheat was too hard to grow because of heavy rains. Xing says this forced Hakka people to be innovative with their cooking and create dishes like stuffed tofu. “Imagine it is sort of a makeshift dumpling,” she says. “Hakka people didn’t have access to wheat to make a dumpling, so they stuffed tofu with a pork meatball.”
What does it mean to be Hakka?
Roger Li, a retired accountant who lives in Tai Po (Hong Kong), is a native Hakka speaker. “Hakka to me is my roots. I grew up with that distinction – being Hakka,” says Li. “Hakka in Chinese means foreigner. We are not a local people.”
Li explains that thousands of years ago, Hakka people fled en-masse from northern China, following the war. Their journey ended in southern China, where most Hakka people tried to settle. Many did not succeed. “We encountered a lot of resistance from the people who had been in that area of China a lot longer than us.” So the Hakka people then moved to the mountains. It was there that they cemented the longevity of Hakka culture, as they lived somewhat isolated in their own large communities. “We are the wanderers. They call us the Chinese Jewish people. We are scattered all over the place but we have maintained our traditions and assimilated into the local culture. We now melt into the system.”
Hakka people live all around the world but predominantly reside in China, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan and parts of South-East Asia. But no matter how far and wide the Hakka people have travelled, the dialect, food and traditions have remained intact. There are, in fact, few cultural variances between countries where Hakka peoples live. “In Hong Kong [where I live], we gather together in a group for village meetings and for ancestral worship,” says Li. “The last function we had, we came together and cooked Hakka food.
"Cooking and food is a way to maintain our culture; our difference branch of Chinese culture.”
An integrated cuisine
Li explains that, compared to other cuisine strands, he’s seen few Hakka-specific restaurants around Hong Kong. Most people cook Hakka food at home, he says. It’s also common for Hakka cuisine to be served at traditional Cantonese restaurants because, over time, the culture has become accepted and some of the food integrated into the regional menu of Canton (Guangzhou). “You can ask for Hakka belly pork, boiled chicken in yellow rice wine and stuffed tofu in a Cantonese restaurant,” says Li.
The chef at the family-run restaurant Ping Shan Traditional Poon Choi in Hong Kong tells SBS he offers Cantonese fare and ‘poon choi’ cuisine – a traditional style from the walled villages in Hong Kong. Translated to mean ‘Chinese casserole in a basin’, the dish features different foods layered in large bowls.
Tang explains that his family also incorporates a famous Hakka dish – yellow rice-wine chicken – into the restaurant’s menu because his mother is of Hakka origin. Australian-Vietnamese chef, Luke Nguyen, visits Ping Shan during his time in Hong Kong and samples several Hakka dishes on Luke Nguyen’s Food Trail.
“A long time ago, my mum used to have the dish,” says Tang. “She tells me they first used to cook the chicken, slice it and dip the slices into a sauce of yellow rice wine.” Since then, Tang explains, the dish has been modernised and the restaurant now makes a sophisticated version of the age-old Hakka staple.
“To make the yellow wine, you cook the sticky rice first and then wait for it to cool before adding a crystal sugar and bacteria powder to it to turn it into alcohol. You put it in a sealed container for at least three weeks and it will turn to rice wine. Then you just add salted chicken, chopped ginger, more crystal sugar (in a bowl) with the yellow rice wine.” The result, he says, is a chicken soup of sorts marked by a sweet and sour flavour and a tang of alcohol.
The same dish served at Sydney’s Wei Long Hakka Cuisine is made using Chinese dates, which melt into the broth to give it a rich-red colour. Kerry says they also cook off a fair bit of the alcohol. Their version provides a sweet flavour cut through with a spicy bite of ginger. “This dish is a delicacy and for women who have just given birth,” says Kerry. “It’s a warming dish to keep your body strong and give you energy."
The Sydney restaurant, which caters for around 100 people, hasn’t been opened for long so in some respects, it’s still a local secret. But Yan is hoping that word spreads about Hakka culture and more people become familiar with her cultural cuisine.
“People have started to come into the restaurant,” says Yan. “We are building a small community here. It helps a lot of our Hakka people come together. They all feel excited that now they have a place to eat their cultural food."
It's a Hakka flavour and cultural exploration on this week's episode of Luke Nguyen's Food Trail airing 8pm, Thursday on SBS and then on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.