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.
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
Black Pepper Chicken
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
- 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.
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.
experience with Hakka people, food or cooking?
More recipes from 2012 Asian Cookbooks: