One of the most interesting Asian cookbooks released this year had no color photographs. Yes, no food porn was in The Hakka Cookbook by Linda Lau Anusasananan. In an era where readers love to cook with their eyes, it was a gutsy move on UC Press to publish a cookbook only graced by simple watercolors. Without photos to distract, you have to read and flip each page (imagine that!), following the author’s journey through a cuisine and culture.
The Hakka Cookbook may seem like it’s for Chinese food geeks -- there are maps, Chinese characters and Romanized pinyin Mandarin. The book begs you to spend time with it. Once that you start looking at it, you’ll be stuck in your chair for at least a good hour. You’ll pick out familiar dishes seen on Chinese restaurant menus.
For example, the panfried stuffed tofu served at dim sum, food hawker stalls, and made at home are foundationally Hakka. It's a classic and I checked in with Linda while developing the recipe in Asian Tofu.
I first encountered the Hakka in Hong Kong when I was student there in the early 1990s. The older Hakka women often farmed while wearing their distinctive hats. My friend at the time, Melanie, told me that the women were tough. That scared me a little, especially because my Cantonese was nonexistent and my Mandarin was rough.
So it’s taken nearly 20 years for me to finally get in depth knowledge of the Hakka people and their food. The Hakka are a group of Han Chinese people that have migrated from their home in China to inhabit many far corners of the globe, influencing Asian cooking wherever they go. Moreover, the Hakka are the resourceful masters of fusion cooking simply because they found themselves far from home. They cooked and adapted their foodways to their circumstances. Those are among the points that Linda aims to show you in her book.
She’s Hakka and the book details how she traveled and connected with people all over for her collection of recipes in The Hakka Cookbook. She is curious, skeptical, and many times comically honest in her assessment of what she experiences along the way. A former food editor of Sunset magazine, Linda’s recipe writing is straightforward. There’s little fuss and waste. In other words, she’s a pro. I’ve been waiting for Linda’s book for many years and without hesitation wrote an endorsement blurb for the cover.
When I recently sat down with the final book, I paged through and was instantly attracted to this Chinese-Indian chicken dish. It seems similar to a homey Viet recipe I read in Lam Bep Gioi, the Joy of Cooking equivalent in 1940s Vietnam. It’s also akin to the chicken and ginger in caramel sauce recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.
In all instances, the idea is simple: simply season the chicken and let it gently cook in its own juices. With this dish, which Linda got from a Chinese family that lived in India for years, the total cooking time is about 45 minutes, after which the chicken is imbued with flavor. With just a handful of ingredients involved, I was double sold.
And if you’re wondering about Chinese-Indian food – you should pick up a copy of The Hakka Cookbook. You’ll get the answer and lots more -- personal stories and a terrific collection of recipes to cook from.
The recipe below was adapted from The Hakka Cookbook (UC Press, 2012). The original recipe called for 6 chicken thighs but I threw in a drumstick to see what would happen. It was fine. The thighs cook more evenly because of their flatter shape.
Soy-Glazed Black Pepper Chicken
Yields 3 servings as a main dish, 4 to 6 with as part of a multicourse meal.
- 2 pounds / 1 kg total bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or combination of thighs and drumsticks
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground or cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- Cilantro leaves, for garnish
- Trim any large pads of fat or excessive flaps of skin each thigh. Rinse and pat dry.
- Find a large pot or deep large skillet that will fit all the chicken in one layer. In that pot or skillet, mix the pepper and soy sauce. Add the chicken, and use your hands to coat each piece with the seasonings. Peel back the skin to swab the flesh with seasonings too. Arrange the chicken, skin side down, in one layer. The bottom should be nearly covered.
- Cover and set over medium-low heat. When you hear light bubbling, lower the heat slightly and cook for about 15 minutes, until the skin has turned dark brown. Turn the chicken over and continue cooking gently for 20 to 25 minutes, until done (cut or poke with a knife to test). Check on progress during cooking to ensure there’s liquid in the pot, adding a little water if things are dry.
- Transfer the chicken to a plate. Skim off the fat from the pan juices, then pour the dark liquid over the chicken. Garnish with cilantro and serve.
Note: The chicken was great hot, warm, or cold. The pan juices were great mixed into rice. I used a tablespoon of the skimmed fat for stir-frying green beans for dinner, adding a splash of the pan juices for seasoning.
Have any experience with Hakka people, food or cooking?
More recipes from 2012 Asian Cookbooks: