This is the third post by guest blogger Shanti Christensen.
Méixiàn 梅县, Guangdong, China — I am fascinated by the diaspora of any people. Given the ease of mobility, we find ourselves in every country of the world and even on the moon. The family I met today is Chinese, of the Hakka minority group. They migrated from China to Indonesia and descendants dispersed from there; some moved to the United States while some like my host, Wēn Pó (age 82), “returned” to China. Chinese who have lived abroad and return to live in China are called huáqiáo (华侨).
To further illustrate the complexity of the Chinese diaspora, I’ll explain how I met Wēn Pó. My former colleague at eBay, Rose, took interest in the ShowShanti project and told me of an aunt she never met. Her aunt, Wēn Pó, was known within the family for her Hakka home-cooking. I love Hakka cuisine and the relationship between Rose in the states and her great aunt in China, intrigued me.
Upon arriving inside Wēn Pó’s home, she approached me warmly, clutching my arms and welcoming us with a grandmother voice endearing me to her instantly! We were introduced to her son’s schoolmates and wife, who would teach recipes Wēn Pó taught them.
Before the lessons began, Wēn Pó showed me a photograph of herself seated with siblings taken at least 20 years ago. After a bit of discussion challenged by my failure to arrive with Rose’s Chinese name, we figure out which siblings’ daughter I knew.
The recipes taught to me today are Hakka cuisine and the dialect spoken amongst my gracious hosts is Hakka as well.
Fan Shifu begins by introducing me to the ingredients. Flanking me at both sides are Chén Ayi (Wēn Pó’s daughter in-law) and Li Ayi. When Wēn Pó moved to Meizhou, her son grew up with these friends. Her son, Wēn Lǐ, a police officer managing new business licenses, joined us later for lunch.
Kèjiā Niàng Dòufǔ (客家酿豆腐, Hakka-style Stuffed Tofu) is one of my husband’s favorites, so I’m excited over this opportunity to learn how to make it. The process involves a bit of construction. Taking triangular cuts of firm tofu, we slit the hypotenuse and stuff it with a mixture of ground pork, cuttlefish, shallot, and scallion.
Tossed with tomatoes then somewhat destroyed in the process, Fan Shifu reasons how this dish looks better in restaurants because they use a lot more oil. More oil means, less tossing and an even, overall-golden crisp.
Looks set aside, at least the tofu parcels were hàochī (好吃, delicious)!
One pleasure I have acquired from living in China is eating a pork belly cooked until it melts in the mouth, releasing the flavors of accompanying ingredients intertwined with the divine and gratifying savor of pork. Fan Shifu parboils a hunk of pork belly then slices pieces which will return to the wok to crisp and season with soy sauce and salt.
Méicài Kòu Ròu (梅菜扣肉) is a dish prepared for special occasions given its multiple steps and perhaps the possibility that this much pork belly should be eaten sparingly. After stir-frying the sliced pork belly in the wok, the slices are placed on a dish with preserved greens between each slice. The slabs are steamed for an hour until the salt-preserved vegetable-fragranced fat seduces and woos taste buds to submission.
The first step to making Suān Tián Cù Liū Yú (酸甜醋溜鱼, Sweet and Sour Fish) takes me back to when I was little and my mom filled the house and her clothes with the aroma of fried fish. Mondays after my piano lessons, my mom would sometimes arrive in the pick-up truck, smelling like the food she was cooking for dinner. Some people like to close all the bedroom doors when cooking, but not me. A house that smells of the food cooking endears me. The aromas fade anyway.
So simple! Shredded daikon stir-fried with a little ketchup, sugar, vinegar and ginger then heaped atop the fried fish. I chuckle a little when I see ketchup added to a dish that isn’t fast-food fare. For this dish, Fan Shifu used the ketchup to add color to the dish.
Wēn Lǐ, Wēn Pó’s son, arrives for lunch and warms up a pot of the local Nuòmǐ Jiǔ (糯米酒, Glutinous Rice Wine). Oh, this is too easy to drink!
We retire to the living room for conversation, multiple cups of tea, and pomelo slices. Wēn Lǐ sends us off with two pomelos and two gallons of wine. Usually, after visiting families, I ask myself why I am so lucky to meet such wonderful people and experience the warmth paired with the food I’ve come to discover. After this visit, my heart sinks a little, wishing my colleague whose relatives have never met her, could join me in this full-circle of connections. I’m grateful Rose suggested this visit and I hope today’s gathering is something she can add to her family stories.