Monday, Dec 04, 2023

A Kolkata Chef's Search For Authentic Hakka Chinese Dishes

A Kolkata Chef's Search For Authentic Hakka Chinese Dishes

Kolkata-based chef Katherine Chung tells us all about Hakka Chinese food which essentially consists of dishes that are pickled, cured or smoked, and bear a strong influence of Cantonese style of cooking

Hakka noodles: Born in Calcutta
Hakka noodles: Born in Calcutta Image credit:

A classic example of a person who cooks from her heart, Kolkata-based Katherine Chung avoids noting down the exact proportions of the ingredients that goes into her cooking. Although she opened a home kitchen in August 2020, it was her collaboration with a Hong Kong based food consultancy in 2021 that made her dig deeper into the classical dishes of her community, the Hakka people. 

Katherine Chung at her home kitchen in Kolkata
Katherine Chung at her home kitchen in Kolkata Image courtesy: Katherine Chung


What is the speciality of Hakka Chinese food? Do tell us briefly how it is different from other styles of Chinese cuisine.

We can say Chinese cuisine is largely divided into four main schools - Beijing in the north, Shanghai in the east, Sichuan in the west and Cantonese in the south, with further subdivisions. Hakka cuisine doesn’t feature predominantly anywhere.

Hakka translates to ‘guest people’. We’ve primarily been nomadic and with no land to call our own; we became adept at succeeding even in the remotest of places. Hakka food is an amalgamation of the local food practices and local produce of the regions the Hakka people settled in.

So, is Hakka food a reflection of the Hakka people's lifestyle? 

Hakka food is often called the country or rustic version of Cantonese food. That’s because Hakka people ultimately settled in the Meizhou district of eastern Guangdong (Canton).

In Calcutta [as the city was called when the Chinese began to settle here], Indo-Chinese food did cater to the local taste buds. Interestingly, as the Hakkas moved to countries like the US, Canada, etc., the Indo-Chinese cuisine introduced by them became popular as Tangra-Chinese food.

Salty rice ball, a typical Hakka dish
Salty rice ball, a typical Hakka dish Image credit:

What are the main constituents of Hakka cuisine?

Hakka cuisine uses a lot of soy based products. Whether it’s soy sauce, tofu, or fermented black beans. Foods like pickled and preserved mustard greens, pickled radishes, salted duck eggs, cured meats like lap cheong (Chinese sausages) and lap nyuk (cured pork belly) - these form a staple of any Hakka family in Calcutta.

Of all the Chinese dishes available in Kolkata, Hakka noodles is one of the most popular. Is it an authentic dish or is it a Calcutta speciality?

It’s definitely a Calcutta speciality. It still comes as a surprise to some people that authentic Hakka cuisine doesn’t include Hakka noodles!

Has there been any moderation/change to Hakka cuisine in Kolkata?

When restaurants first started in Tangra, they were small mom and pop establishments, serving food cooked in the home kitchen itself. But slowly, the food was modified to suit the local taste buds.

Liu Sha Bao, salted egg yolk custard in steamed bun
Liu Sha Bao, salted egg yolk custard in steamed bun Image credit:

What about the food eaten at home?

Even in Hakka households, many of the recipes which are time consuming to prepare are being forgotten. Take rice wine, for example. Because of the various superstitions associated with making it and it being a time consuming process, the younger generation has almost lost interest.

You have been working to popularise authentic Hakka cuisine in Kolkata. Please tell us briefly about it.

I had started a home kitchen in August 2020 during the lockdown. In January 2021, I was contacted by Gormei, a Hong Kong based food and travel consultancy. Their mandate was that I dig into my roots and create menus that reflect the soul of Hakka cuisine.

To do that, I held brainstorming sessions with my mother and mother in law to discover how food was cooked in their time.

A dish that I discovered we do differently was the steamed pork belly with preserved mustard greens. To save time, we just pressure cook the greens with the pork belly. But during my grandmother’s time, they would slowly steam the dish on wood fire, I was told. It tasted deliciously different, my mother recalled. After that, I made the dish, steaming it for around one and a half hours, and my mother assured it tasted exactly like how her mother made it. And these are the kinds of dishes that have become popular with Calcutta’s discerning foodies. 

What are some of the special dishes that you prepare at your kitchen?

Even as a young girl, I loved to experiment in the kitchen but it’s always the classics that interested me. For example, a classical salt steamed chicken may sound like the simplest dish to make but right from the size of the chicken, the amount of fat on it, the amount of salt and the marinating time – everything has to be just right! When I first started my home kitchen, I added the classical fish and fish pork meatballs on the menu, which is not normally on restaurant menus. The specially curated menu that I do for Gormei* focuses on authentic Chinese Hakka cuisine.

*Recently, Gormei in collaboration with Mumbai's popular Masque restaurant, organized a special dinner for select guests where chef Chung presented a selection of authentic Hakka Chinese dishes along with vintage rice wine prepared by her.