When one thinks of Hakka in this part of the world, noodles come to mind. But very few know that Hakka is a tradition, a tribe, a whole culture. In Kolkata Tangra region, a shrinking tribe of the Hakka resides. Their population ran into thousands a few decades ago but now they are only a handful of hundreds. Chef Katherine Chung, whose grandparents had migrated from China and settled in India, is on a mission to revive the food culture of the Hakkas before it becomes invisible.
The chef travels to places across the country and even abroad and talks about the fading tradition, the food practices and curates dishes from the traditional Hakka recipes, but, with her own touch and locally available ingredients. Her most recent stop was at 'Honk by Pullman' in Delhi’s Aerocity where she put together a Hakka Tradition menu.
For the unversed, Hakkas are a Han Chinese subgroup and the word 'Hakka' literally means ‘Guest families’ as it referred to Northern Chinese migrants fleeing social unrest, upheaval and invasions in northern parts of China during the Qing dynasty.
As for Chung, she was born in Amritsar, where her grandparents had first moved when they came and settled in India. She later moved to Kolkata as a teen and since has been living in Kolkata’s China Town. “It is very surprising to know that my grandmother was a chef in the Airlines Hotel in Amritsar in the 1940s-50s, a time when women chefs were unheard of and my grandfather was also an amazing cook. My uncles and elder brother, all are professional chefs who have worked in India and abroad,” she says.
She grew up observing her mother trying to bring the Hakka traditions to the dinner table - she made her own soy milk, tofu, pickled own mustard greens, made own Chinese sausages, Chinese bacon, and egg noodles. This is what fueled Katherine’s thirst to learn. She now cooks for both – her family and as a profession in various pop-ups, restaurants in India where she adapts the ancient Hakka recipes and uses locally available ingredients. For instance, when in Mumbai, she uses gobindobhog rice (Bengali rice) to make traditional Hakka rice cakes. In Pune, she used the chonak fish (giant sea perch) instead of bhetki fish that she uses in Kolkata. She sums up her style as ‘bringing in internationally acclaimed dishes and tweaking them in her own style'.
For her Hakka menu at Pullman’s Honk, she presented dishes like roast crackling pork, whole fish steamed with ginger, scallion and sichuan peppercorn and steamed prawns on glass noodles for non-vegetarians and soy braised tofu sliders and king oyster mushrooms with rice wine and more for vegetarians.
She tweaked the ingredients with the locally available ones rather than sticking to the original Hakka ingredients which are a rarity in India. “Hakkas are people who have migrated and have been pushed out and persecuted and have never had something of their own. They have adapted to the places they have lived at and made that culture their own. I am documenting their recipes because they will soon be lost,” she says, highlighting that Hakkas have been migrating out of Kolkata.
When asked if Hakka menu finds a permanent space in their homes, she says only on special occasions, otherwise it is the usual dal-chawal.