When the taxi dropped us off in a seedy downtown block of Broadway in San Francisco recently, my companion was not happy with my choice of restaurants. Even our cab driverseemed surprised at our destination. The tourists he picks up in front of hotels usually head for the city's famous world-class restaurants.
The small storefront restaurant next to a sidewalk vegetable market did not look promising and a look at the menu was not thrilling.
"Do you realize," hissed my companion, "that we would be sitting in the Hayes Street Grill right this minute ordering fresh salmon grilled over mesquite? But nooooooooo. I am facing a choice of pork intestine or braised sea cucumber."
"Think of the adventure you would be missing," I hissed in return, cheered to see a platter of whole dungeness crab in black bean sauce going to a neighboring table.
We were at the Ton Kiang I, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of the Hakka people, who prepare a variation of Cantonese cooking that is an ethnic curiosity virtually unknown to westerners.
Actually, there are three Ton Kiang restaurants in San Francisco, the first and only Hakka restaurants in this country, and all owned by Wong Chin, who has made a dazzling impression in the six years since the restaurants opened. Even the "Dolphin Guide to San Francisco" (Doubleday) lists the Ton Kiang restaurants as both interesting ("Marvelous combinations of expertly seasoned dishes and the clay pot dishes are a rewarding experience") and inexpensive. And this guidebook mentions only 23 Chinese restaurants in this city with the largest oriental population outside of Asia.
Now what makes obscure Hakka food different?
It is usually described as peasant cooking -- the soul food of South China -- and it usually takes a Hakka to recognize Hakka cuisine when it makes a rare appearance on a western menu.
Cookbook author and China cuisine expert Barbara Tropp says Hakka cooking is "gutsier than Cantonese cooking and uses less oil and more pungent condiments. It is for the most part earthy and simple, with a striking clean taste."
As for the Hakkas themselves, don't be alarmed if you draw a blank. Even Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco was surprised to learn of their existence when she was invited to a large gathering of Hakkas in that city last year. However, there also are enough Hakkas in the Washington area to have a society that meets about three times a year at Wheaton High School, according to Tom Lee, an area Hakka commissioner and owner of a fortune cookie and tofu factory.
Few westerners had ever heard of the Hakka until they read "Hawaii," in which James Michener chose a Hakka woman to be his quintessential Chinese immigrant heroine in the settlement of Hawaii. He capsuled a thousand years of Hakka history, describing their existence as "one of the strangest anomalies of history."
The Hakkas are both tenacious survivors and rebels. Their odyssey began around 333 B.C. when a group of Northern Chinese in Honan and Shantung provinces joined together and fled southward to escape Mongol invaders and famine.
In all, there were an estimated five migrations, the most legendary in the ninth century. It took the Hakka 17 years of agony to reach their destination -- the "golden valley" in Kwangstung province. The natives in the valley refused to budge from the river basin lowlands and the newcomers became the Hakka, guest people, and had to settle for the high ground in the mountains. Others moved southward and to the Fukien coast.
But what completely set the Hakkas apart was their refusal to adopt any customs of their new neighbors. For nearly a thousand years the Hakkas refused to assimilate, keeping their language, a variation of pure northern Mandarin, their dress and their customs, including their style of cooking.
Always mentioned first in any discourse on Hakka cuisine is the salt-baked chicken. After that, you learn about the meat-stuffed bean curd, the use of "innards," the "crispy meatball" soup, the fresh slab bacon with mustard greens and "wine flavored" dishes made with red rice mash.
Not exciting? Wrong. This is a case of dishes tasting a great deal better than they sound.
In Hong Kong, Hakka salt-baked chicken is as famous as Peking duck. Traditionally, the chicken was wrapped in mulberry bark paper, buried in hot salt in a clay pot and cooked on a stove.
The Ton Kiang has salt-baked chicken on the menu, but it is a misnomer.
"It was too time consuming," said Richard Wong, son of Chin Wong and manager of the Ton Kiang II on Geary Street, a newer and more modern version of the original on Broadway.
Instead, they are actually serving what is usually called "white-hacked" chicken. This chicken is poached briefly, cooled, brushed with sesame oil, hacked with a cleaver into small pieces, the pieces arranged to reconstruct the original chicken shape. It is garnished with scallions and coriander and served with three dipping sauces -- a hot chili oil sauce, an oyster sauce and a ginger sauce.
"It is all in the timing," explained Candyce Wong, daughter of the San Francisco restaurant owner and a third-year medical student at George Washington University.
You can quibble about the name of the dish because it is actually the famous Cantonese "white cooking," which is usually served cold. But Ton Kiang serves it hot and it is an incredibly moist, soothing, delicate chicken that was a perfect vehicle for the variety of hot sauces.
The Hakkas are also well known for their stuffed bean-curd dishes. The bean-curd pockets are stuffed with mixtures of beef or pork, saute'ed and then simmered in a soy/ginger sauce.
A distinctive Hakka taste is in the wine-flavored clay-pot casseroles. The seasoning is a red wine mash not available in most oriental markets.
Richard Wong says his mother and father make this seasoning by fermenting long-grain sticky rice with a yeast that turns the mixture red.
Hakkas were known to stretch rice with sweet potatoes when rice was scarce, but they are particularly imaginative with variety meats, carrying the term "innards" to creative heights. They not only used the familiar stomach lining (tripe) and pork intestine, but they also used spinal nerve columns, snouts and ears, and fish lips. Even the Ton Kiang skips some of these delicacies.
Another Hakka speciality is not for those with delicate stomachs, although the Ton Kiang version of the twice-cooked fresh slab bacon and mustard greens transforms a fatty peasant food into a luxurious creaminess tarted up with the tang of pickled mustard greens.
Many Ton Kiang specialties are served in the fragile stove-blackened clay pots called sand pots, which are made in Kwangstung province north of Canton.
You can buy these pots very cheaply in San Francisco, but you can't get them in Washington. An Ming Lee, a Hakka descendant who manages the Da Hua oriental market at 617 I St. NW, said he used to sell them, but can't get them from the wholesalers any more. "When they got to New York, half of them were broken." Instead, he sells a pottery casserole that is much sturdier, but also much more expensive.
It is impossible to recreate some of the Hakka food because of the obscure ingredients. At the China Grocery in Arlington, a request for red wine mash was greeted with a shrug. They knew what it was, but didn't carry it. "Not popular," was the explanation.
But there are some surviving recipes that are not just ethnically interesting, but truly delicious and different additions to a Chinese menu. BARBARA TROPP'S HAKKA PORK AND SHRIMP STUFFED TOFU (2 to 3 servings as a main course)
This is a wonderfully delicate and very different Chinese dish that is possible to make in advance and requires only a short last-minute cooking time. It also makes a nice single-dish entree.
4 3-by-1 1/2-inch cakes Chinese-style tofu, or 4 16-ounce squares of either firm or soft tofu, pressed*
FOR THE STUFFING:
1 rounded tablespoon dried shrimp**
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon scallion, green and white part, minced
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon chicken stock
6 ounces lean pork (about 2 pork chops), ground
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 cup unsalted chicken stock
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold chicken stock
6 to 8 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium whole scallion, shredded lengthwise
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, cut into hair-fine threads
Fresh coriander for garnish
To make the stuffing: Soak the dried shrimp in hot water 15 minutes. Drain, rinse, discard any shell. Pat dry and finely mince with food processor or knife.
In a bowl, combine shrimp, ginger, scallion, soy, wine, pepper, cornstarch and stock. Add pork. Ball the mixture in your hand and throw the mixture 6 or 8 times against the side of the bowl to compact it. Cover bowl with plastic wrap to seal and refrigerate until ready to use, overnight if desired.
*To press tofu: place tofu squares on rack in shallow pan or bowl. Place 2 or 3 small plates on top (about a 1-pound weight). Cover, refrigerate several hours or overnight. A 4-by-2-inch square will flatten to about 1-inch thickness. You can use firm tofu without pressing. I prefer to press both and personally like the soft tofu.
To cut tofu: Trim each tofu square into a block about 3-by-1-inch. Cut each tofu square into 4 triangles by cutting on the diagonal. Cup a triangle in one hand and with a knife in the other begin at the point and cut out a thin wedge, taking care not to slice all the way through. The idea is to make a "mouth" in which to put the stuffing.
Stuffing the tofu: Divide stuffing into 16 portions, or the number of tofu "mouths." Cradle tofu triangle in one hand. With other hand, put stuffing portion gently into the triangle, taking care not to force it and break the hinge of the "jaw." The stuffing can bulge gently at the sides. Place triangles on a plate, but do not let them touch. Once stuffed, the tofu may be covered with plastic wrap, refrigerated and brought to room temperature before cooking.
To cook: Make the sauce by combining stock and soy sauce in a bowl. In another bowl, blend the cornstarch and 1 tablespoon chicken stock. Set aside.
Heat a heavy 12-inch skillet until hot. Add 6 tablespoons oil and reduce heat to medium-high. Arrange tofu triangles in skillet, meat side down. Adjust heat so triangles sizzle but don't scorch. Fry until golden-brown, about 2 or 3 minutes. Loosen with a spatula, turn to brown second meaty side. Add more oil if necessary to keep pan lightly oiled. When this side is brown, turn triangles to flat side in the pan. Pour over the chicken stock/soy mixture, scatter scallion and ginger threads over, cover and simmer until about 1/3 of the liquid has been absorbed, about 3 or 4 minutes, and pork is thoroughly cooked.
Remove triangles to warm serving platter. Taste pan juices, salt if desired, raise heat to simmer. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until smooth, about 15 seconds. Pour sauce over triangles. Garnish with sprigs of coriander.
**Dried shrimp is available at oriental markets. Look for bright orange ones, not gray. They keep nicely in the freezer and are handy for other dishes requiring a shrimp flavor.Adapted from "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking," by Barbara Tropp WHITE HACKED CHICKEN WITH THREE DIPPING SAUCES (4 servings)
While the Cantonese usually serve this cold or at room temperature, the Hakka method at the Ton Kiang restaurants is to cook and cool the chicken and reheat it in boiling water when ordered by a customer and serve it steaming hot. "The timing is crucial," according to Candyce Wong.
Traditionally the chicken is "hacked" with a cleaver into about 35 small pieces and re-assembled into its original shape.
1 whole frying chicken, about 3 1/2 pounds, very fresh
4 slices fresh ginger, size of a nickel
2 cloves garlic, flattened
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Fresh coriander sprigs for garnish
Shredded scallions for garnish
3 dipping sauces (recipes follow)
Rub chicken with nylon scrubber to remove yellow film. Rinse, pat dry with paper towels. Fill a 4- or 6-quart heavy casserole with enough water to cover chicken and bring to boil. Add ginger and garlic. Carefully add chicken; bring back to a boil, turn chicken; cover, turn off heat. Let stand 20 minutes.
Turn chicken again. Heat water again to boiling point over medium heat. Cover. Turn off heat, and allow to rest another 20 minutes.
Test for doneness by inserting toothpick into thickest part of the thigh. If juice runs clear, chicken is done. If not, cover pan and allow to sit for 10 more minutes.
Remove chicken to colander, run cold water over and in cavity of chicken for about 5 minutes to stop cooking process. Drain and cool.
Place chicken on rack on plate, brush with sesame oil and cover with plastic wrap at room temperature until ready to serve, if a few hours. If longer, refrigerate and return to room temperature before serving.
Alternate cooking method:
In heavy casserole, bring enough water to cover chicken to a boil. Add the chicken, return to a boil, cover, turn off the heat and let chicken sit for 3 or 4 hours, until cool. (Cantonese do not like overcooked chicken and prefer it with a pink tinge at the bone.)
Serve garnished with coriander and scallion and with three dipping sauces. Adapted from "Introducing Chinese Casserole Cookery," by Lilah Kan, Workman Publishing GARLIC AND HOT CHILI DIPPING SAUCE (Makes about 3/4 cup)
2 dried chili peppers, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1 tablespoon red rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Combine chili peppers, garlic and sugar in a heatproof bowl. In a pan heat the oil until very hot, pour over the chili mixture. Add soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil. OYSTER DIPPING SAUCE (Makes about 1/3 cup)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and serve. GINGER AND SCALLION DIPPING SAUCE (Makes about 1/3 cup)
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
2 scallions, shredded
2 teaspoons salt (optional)
1/4 cup peanut oil, heated to boiling
Combine ginger, scallions and salt in a heatproof bowl. Add hot oil, mix and set aside. All dipping sauce recipes adapted from "Everything You Want to Know About Chinese Cooking," by Pearl Kong Chen, Tien Chi Chen and Rose Tseng (Barron's). TON KIANG FRESH BACON WITH FERMENTED MUSTARD GREENS (Makes 12 small portions)
1 1/2 pounds fresh bacon (pork belly), with rind, in one piece*
1/2 cup rice wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons peanut oil
8 cloves garlic, crushed
10-ounce can mustard greens in brine, rinsed and drained thoroughly
Fresh coriander sprigs for garnish
In a large heavy casserole or dutch oven, place bacon and cover with water. Heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Drain, rinse, cool to room temperature. Pat dry with paper towel.
In a small bowl combine wine, soy sauce and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Heat wok over medium high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add oil, swirling to coat wok, and heat until almost smoking. Carefully add bacon, rind side down. Cook 4 or 5 minutes pressing down with spatula until rind is brown. Remove from wok, set aside. Reheat oil in wok over medium high heat until almost smoking, swirling oil to coat. Add garlic and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add mustard greens and stir-fry 30 seconds, removing from heat when mixture begins to boil.
Slice bacon into a dozen 1-inch thick slices. Arrange slices close together on a 10-inch pie plate. Spoon mustard greens over the pork. Put plate in bamboo steamer. Fill wok with enough water to come to bottom of steamer. Bring water to boil, place pie plate in steamer, cover wok, steam until bacon is tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Check every 20 minutes, adding boiling water as necessary.
To serve, lift mustard greens with slotted spoon onto warm platter, top with pork slices, and pour pan juices from greens over the pork. Garnish with coriander.
*Fresh pork belly can usually be found at oriental markets with a fresh-meat department.