Bay Area food expert Linda Lau Anusasananan has long held food society captive with her eclectic palate and insights as a food writer. Since her cookbook was released last fall following an incredible ancestral journey abroad, the gaze has turned to her own Hakka ethnic culinary roots. She takes a moment with IE to bring “Hakka soul food” home.
Q: What is your definition of soul food, and how does it contribute to a peoples’ survival, longevity and health?
Soul food is food that comforts your soul. Often, it’s food that makes you feel good about yourself — makes you feel like you belong. My younger brother, Eugene, summed it up well on page 8 [of the book]: “It was a form of establishing an identity, a security in who I was. All the comfort, security, and warm feelings one could ask for were wrapped up in a simple bowl of soup.” For my brothers and I who grew up in an all-white town, as for other Hakkas who grew up in isolated areas where they were unwelcome and different, food offered familiarity and safety. Soul food gives you strength, identity and a home.
I’m not an expert on Chinese medicine. However, in Chinese cuisine, many ingredients are used for their medicinal qualities. For instance, the Hakka classic, “Savory Pounded Tea Rice” (p. 119) promises to cure all ailments. It is supposed to reinvigorate your energy, lower cholesterol, boost the immune system and provide fiber and antioxidants. The tea is made by pounding fresh green herbs such as mint, basil, cilantro, dried green tea leaves, nuts and seeds in a mortar and pestle to make a paste. Then boiling water is added to make a green herbaceous tea which is poured over a bowl of garlic rice, topped with assorted stir-fried greens, peanuts, tofu and salted radish. After eating this dish, I did truly feel invigorated.
“Wine Chicken” (p. 109) is fed to new mothers to help rebuild their body after giving birth. The wine increases the mother’s supply of breast milk, the ginger builds her chi, or energy, and the dried black fungus improves blood circulation.
Many Hakka dishes use pork. I noticed that often when a fatty cut such as pork belly was used as it was in “Braised Pork Belly and Black Fungus” (p. 172), an ingredient such as dried, black fungus would be added to contradict the effects of the pork fat. The fungus helps blood flow … [and] is … a cholesterol antidote.
Hakka often eat bitter melon, stuffed (p. 24, 74,163) or stir-fried. It is often suggested to lower insulin, combat colds and virus, and some cancers. Hakka use tiny dried dark-red particles of the red yeast Monascus purpureus that grows on cooked, non-glutinous rice. The dried red yeast is used as natural dye and preservative, as found in red, fermented bean curd and some marinades. The dried red yeast rice is used medicinally to improve blood circulation and digestion. It is believed to combat cholesterol. It is often used when making rice wine and sauces (p. 50,194, 228) and with pork stews (p. 51). I believe it is used more for its color and medicinal properties than for flavor.
Q: How would you describe your cooking philosophy, and how was this influenced by your family, culture and roots?
To cook well, you have to learn to eat well — taste a wide variety of real food, prepared well. As you develop your tastes, your cooking will improve because you can recognize what the end product should taste like.
When I was young, food was my security blanket. For a few years, we had big family banquets on Tuesdays, my father’s day off. It was like Thanksgiving with Chinese food. We had homemade chicken soup with bird’s nest, stir-fried vegetables from the garden, sometimes roast duck, savory, braised chicken or pork. School was scary, but those family banquets were my comfort zone. I learned to eat and appreciate good food at the family table. Po Po (Grandmother) grew vegetables in the garden and raised chickens, so we had good ingredients.
Q: How did you learn how to cook, and when did you start cooking?
I didn’t start cooking much until I was a teen. I asked my mom and grandmother how to cook some of my favorite dishes. In my last two years of college, I lived in an apartment, so we had to cook. That’s when I really started to cook on a regular basis, and I found it creative and enjoyable. I had a Chinese roommate who loved to eat, and she often helped me prep the ingredients. I started work at Sunset Magazine just a couple of years after I graduated. The test kitchen was a great training ground.
Q: What would your advice be to the novice cook who is trying to prepare good meals that are healthy and taste good?
Cooking doesn’t need to be complicated. If you start with good ingredients, you don’t need to do much to make them taste good. Learn where to find good ingredients. I love going to the farmers market every week to find the freshest produce. In California, we have a great variety of produce year-round. We can even buy meat and seafood. Learn a few basic cooking techniques such as stir-frying, steaming, braising, sauteing, boiling, roasting. Also invest in a good knife and practice your cutting skills. Buy a few decent pans. If you can only afford one pan, buy a 14-inch wok which can be used for so many techniques. It is not limited to Chinese dishes. If you know basic cutting and cooking techniques, you can apply them to any type of ingredient. Remember to taste the ingredients and the finished dish. As you grow more experienced, explore spices and seasonings to give your dishes more personality.