Following the delicious Hakka trail

It was decades ago that this India-bred-Chinese cuisine transcended to become a popular street-side fare and continues to thrive even today - at street-side stalls, as well as fine-dining restaurants alike.
Hakka feast by Katherine Lim
Hakka feast by Katherine Lim

One cannot deny the joy of digging into a plate of greasy desi-chinese food after a night of revelry. Whether it is comfort that you seek or a celebratory meal or a fine dining experience, Indian Chinese remains a cuisine of choice for most of the people. Call it Chindian, desi Chinese, or Sino-Indian cuisine–these are all names that find their origin in the lip-smacking marriage of the two cuisines, and yet if you talk about Indian version of Chinese cuisine to someone in China, they wouldn’t recognise it as their own, as the only thing common between the two is probably the soy sauce! Indian-Chinese mostly mandates black pepper as a dominant flavour—if you taste Chinese and it’s mostly black pepper, what you’re experiencing is purely Indian-Chinese.

In fact, it isn’t just black pepper, but also the usage of green chillies, coriander powder, and even garam masala in some cases that is used in the process to appease the natives. The Hakka chefs of the ’70s and ’80s are believed to have created some of the most iconic Indo-Chinese dishes we know today, like chilli chicken, manchurian, and of course, the hakka noodles or chow mein.

It was decades ago that this India-bred-Chinese cuisine transcended to become a popular street side fare and continues to thrive even today - at street-side stalls, as well as fine-dining restaurants alike. I remember back in the early stages of my career, my regular go-to place for lunch would be the Chinese food van outside of my office in Noida’s media hub - Film City.

The regular order would be chilli-garlic fried rice which the man inside the van would toss in a giant iron wok on high flame and add a generous portion of rice, followed by vegetables and plethora of sauces and then serve it piping hot in an aluminium foil container. In a high-intensity busy newsroom where we would work as cub-reporters, this meal would come to us like a hug packed with heady and robust flavours.

Lim served Hakka cuisine at a pop-up
Lim served Hakka cuisine at a pop-up

But what happens when you get to taste the traditional Hakka cuisine by one of its descendants settled in India for generations? Katherine Lim–a third-generation Hakka Chinese descendant, whose family settled in India after her grandfather arrived at erstwhile Calcutta’s ports from China was in Delhi NCR for a unique pop-up, where she joined hands with Chef Vanshika Bhatia of OMO Cafe in Gurugram, to put together an all vegetarian Hakka feast. Vegetarian? Chinese? Hakka? Well, I did say it was unique, even for her.

When I spoke to Lim earlier this year, she told me, “I believe the Chinese food served in most eateries nowadays is completely Indo-Chinese, which is a genre of cuisine on its own. Hakka food is not about garlic, chilli vinegar and dark soy sauce-laden dishes. We do eat chilli chicken and hakka chow at home, but we also eat a lot of steamed, braised and stir-fried dishes—and each meal is balanced with green vegetables.”

At her pop-up last weekend, Lim served us starchy hakka yam abacus beads - a dish that is a Hakka speciality and is a must during the Chinese New Year as abacus signified counting wealth and riches. The dish is known for its ‘QQ’ or chewy texture, where the beads are tossed in a hot sauce made of garlic chives, wild mushrooms that are seasonally available and bean sprouts.

Another dish that stood out was the simple cucumber and watermelon rind salad, where smashed cucumbers and cured watermelon rind is tossed in sesame and soy dressing–this was very kimchi like, and yet lighter in terms of its flavours.

The Liang Pi i.e. cold noodles tossed with chinkiang vinegar, garlic water, chilli oil and accoutrements was a burst of flavours and very similar to the tibetan laphing - which apparently derives its origins from Liang Pi, Lim informs me.

This meal by Lim provided an insight into what the Hakka community eats at homes, contrary to what they’ve created and served in restaurants. In no way am I suggesting that one is better than the other, but I do believe that both have a space to exist and for food lovers like us, there couldn’t be anything better.

Vernika Awal is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog ‘Delectable Reveries’

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