• This dish symbolises the resourcefulness of China's Hakka people. (Aaron Wong)Source: Aaron Wong
This pork dish tells a story about China's Hakka population. It also reflects the childhood and identity of Sup Boss's Aaron Wong.
By
Pilar Mitchell

25 Aug 2021 - 11:08 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2021 - 2:42 PM

For Aaron Wong, chef-owner of Sydney's Sup Boss restaurant, food defines culture and identity. It creates a sense of belonging, even when you feel like an outsider.

He was in kindergarten in 1998 when One Nation's Pauline Hanson – famous for her "I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians" maiden speech in Parliament – was at her political peak. “I got beat up at least once during that period. A face like mine wasn’t ‘Australian’,” he says.

Wong’s family is Malaysian Chinese, specifically Hakka. He was born in Australia and grew up in Western Sydney. On the surface, his Malaysian eatery Sup Boss in Neutral Bay is a business, but learning to cook, and sharing with people the food he grew up eating represents his journey to owning his identity.

“In Malay Chinese culture, food has such an important role in community and celebration. Chinese New Year is one of the best examples. The New Year’s Eve meal begins with yee sang. It’s an iconic dish. You sit around this circular table, and everyone is holding a pair of chopsticks. In the middle, there’s a massive platter with raw vegetables: spring onion, purple cabbage, white radish, cucumbers, carrot, mint, lettuce, and raw fish – particularly salmon belly. Just before everyone gets in with their chopsticks to toss the ingredients, plum sauce is poured over the top.”

The ritual is called the 'prosperity toss'. Everyone makes declarations of good fortune, health and wealth. The higher the ingredients are tossed, the better. “The sense of participation for a child is huge,” he says.

At home, every meal was Malaysian or Chinese food, and cultural traditions were observed. School was a stark contrast. The food that defined him, betrayed him.

“Amongst my mates, I was the only Asian kid. If I brought char siu bao, or noodles for lunch I’d get teased. You know when you have dumplings in a container, the condensation has a unique smell? The kids used to say, ‘It stinks’.”

Wong’s parents worked full time, so after school, he’d take public transport to his paternal grandparents’ house. His grandma would cook a meal, “because that’s what grandmas do”. Afternoon tea told the story of survival of the Hakka people.

“Hakka people are considered the wanderers of China. Dialect groups are usually centralised around a province. Cantonese are from Guangzhou, or Canton, Hokkien are from Fujian, but Hakkas don’t have a province. Originally they’re from the north, but due to famine and war, they migrated south. Eventually, Hakka centred around southern China, but other dialect groups already inhabited the good areas, so Hakkas were left with the crumbs: the mountains, the poor lands. That influenced the cuisine,” he says.

Displacement and Inhospitable lands forced the Hakka people to be resourceful.

“Preserved vegetables are a key characteristic of Hakka food. They couldn’t grow much in the mountains, so they had to stretch every ingredient. Pork is usually the only meat, and every part of the pig gets used.”

“Hakka people are considered the wanderers of China ... Other dialect groups already inhabited the good areas, so Hakkas were left with the crumbs: the mountains, the poor lands. That influenced the cuisine.”

One such quintessential Hakka dish is what he calls cheng zhi yoke, or steamed pork belly mince with pickled vegetables. Wong says it’s a comforting favourite of home cooks that’s not usually found in restaurants.

The pork belly is minced to a fine paste in a blender and seasoned with Shaoxing wine, sesame oil and light soy sauce, mixed with pickled vegetables, and then pressed onto a plate to a diameter of 20 to 30 centimetres and a depth of two to three centimetres. It’s placed in a steamer basket and steamed over a wok.

“The pork shrinks on the plate, and the fats of the pork belly will create a natural jus around the meat. I was super greedy as a child; I would tilt that plate to collect as much gravy as possible for my rice.”

His mum’s memory of Wong eating the dish is vivid. “She said before eating, I’d stare at it, bring the plate to my nose, inhale the aroma of the melted pork fat, and rub my hands together.”

It's important for Wong that these dishes continue beyond the cooks who make them.

“This is my way of preserving a bit of Hakka culture. The fact that these dishes carried on through oral traditions for so many generations is a huge feat. Only recently I’ve had more appreciation and understanding of my roots. When you start to understand and see characteristics of your culture in food, I think things start to make sense.”

It’s been a long journey for Wong to understand how the different parts of his background make him who he is. For many years, Wong couldn’t define himself as Australian, or as Malaysian. But he’s come to a place of acceptance.

“I figured out I belong to both,” he says.

 

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Cheng zhi yoke (steamed pork mince with preserved vegetables)

Serves two to four

Ingredients

  • 60 g Tianjin preserved vegetables
  • 350 g minced pork belly
  • 2 spring onions, chopped (reserve a small handful of green parts for a garnish)
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
  • ½ tbsp sesame oil
  • ½ tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp raw sugar
  • ½ tsp white pepper
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • 2½ cm piece of ginger, julienned
  • Steamed rice, to serve

Method

  1. Wash the Tianjin preserved vegetables thoroughly to remove excess salt. Squeeze excess water from vegetables. With a knife, mince the vegetables (in a consistency similar to minced garlic) and set aside.
  2. Remove skin from pork belly and then cut the pork belly into strips. Place the pork belly into a blender or food processor and mince into a paste-like texture.
  3. Add the preserved vegetables, most of the spring onions, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, light soy sauce, ¼ cup water, sugar, white pepper and cornflour to the blender or food processor. Blend until the mixture has a smooth consistency (around 20 seconds).
  4. Spread the paste onto a medium heatproof bowl (preferably around 2.5 cm in depth and 20-30 cm in diameter). Make sure this is evenly spread – the top surface should be completely flat. Sprinkle the julienned ginger on top of the paste.
  5. Steam the pork for 20 minutes. If using a wok to steam the pork, pour boiling water to a point where there is at least a 2.5 cm gap between the base of the steamer basket and the boiling water (use a wok-ring if necessary). Place the bowl into the steamer basket and close the lid for 20 minutes. When it is ready, the pork will be light beige in colour and firm in texture.
  6. Garnish the pork with the reserved chopped spring onion and serve immediately with rice.

Note

• Tianjin preserved vegetables are available at Asian supermarkets.

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