FEAST "Comfort food for the working man," is how longtime Sunset Magazine food writer and Hakka Chinese daughter Linda Lau Anusasananan describes the food she grew up watching her grandmother prepare. Anusasananan spent years penning articles on everyone else's soul foods in her professional career, and finally decided that the earthy — yet at times incredibly complex — eats that have been developed by the diaspora sprung from her nomadic ancestors deserved a cookbook of their own.
She traveled to Hakka hotspots in China, Malaysia, Toronto, Peru, and the Richmond District to explore the various permutations of the plates (and basins) of her ancestors. The result is her appropriately-titled The Hakka Cookbook (University of California Press, $39.95, 293pp), and a long overdue collection of the unique cuisine with hale roots in country eating. We caught up with her via email to learn more about the roots of Hakka cooking, and the path that led Anusasananan — who makes an appearance this week at Omnivore Books — to her most personal project to date.
SFBG: In the book, there's an incredibly elaborate recipe for a Hakka basin feast. Where did the basin feast originate?
LLA: There are several stories about how this dish was invented. Basically it is a multi-course banquet layered in a metal wash basin. Diners gather around the big pan and eat their way from top to bottom. This dish is popular in the New Territories of Hong Kong. One story is that when Emperor Bing of Song moved south during the Mongolian invasion, there weren't enough dishes to hold food for his entire entourage. Inventive villagers filled their wash basins with the army's banquet. Another story is that when the Qianlong emperor visited Guangdong, he liked to eat the villagers' banquet leftovers.
SFBG: Where do you go for decent Hakka food in the Bay?
LLA: There are two SF Hakka restaurants mentioned in the book, Ton Kiang (5821 Geary, SF. (415) 387-8273, www.tonkiang.net) and Hakka Restaurant (4401 Cabrillo, SF. (415) 876-6898, www.hakkarestaurantsanfrancisco.com). Both menus also include other types of Chinese cuisine, and the owners of both are Hakka. At the Hakka Restaurant I love chef Jin Hua Li's Chinese bacon with preserved greens and the chicken with preserved Greens. I also love the Chinese broccoli with rice wine. At Ton Kiang, they serve a fine salt-steamed chicken, it is moist and smooth.
SFBG: What characteristics of the Hakka people are reflected in their food?
LLA: Migration and adaptation. For example: the Hakka originally came from the north. When they arrived in the south, they wanted to make the dumplings they ate in the north. However, they could not find the wheat to make the flour used to make the dumpling wrappers, so they adapted to the available ingredients and stuffed the pork filling into chunks of tofu, creating a Hakka classic, stuffed tofu.
SFBG: What are the most emblematic ingredients in Hakka food?
LLA: Preserved vegetables, cured meats, soy sauce, rice wine and its by-products.
SFBG: What led you to write The Hakka Cookbook?