Chef Katherine Chung, the torch bearer of hakka cuisine, started her journey only during lockdown when her friends insisted that she cooks for them. Today as one of the prominent names in Kolkata, Katherine is giving Hakka Chinese food its due recognition
Chinese may be the most popular cuisine today in India, but having said that, not many may have tasted the real flavours, and when we dive deep , we understand that there are different subcategories to the cuisine, with Hakka being one of the most prominent ones. Recently, Honk By Pullman New Delhi Aerocity celebrated the soulful Hakka cuisine, where renowned Chef Katherine Chung, in association with Gormei, showcased some of the Hakka flavours that were more than Hakka noodles and chilli chicken. This Kolkata-based chef tells us all about the nuances of Hakka Chinese food, which is a culinary tradition that embraces pickled, cured, and smoked dishes, reflecting a strong influence of the Cantonese style of cooking.
Do you come from a family of passionate cooks? What made you foray into the kitchen?
Well, you could say that. My grandmother was a chef at Hotel Airlines in Amritsar in the 40s and 50s, when women chefs were unheard of. My grandfather was an amazing cook too. My uncles and elder brother are professional chefs who’ve worked in India and abroad. Right from my childhood, I’ve seen my grandparents and mom try to bring China to the dinner table. I have seen them making their own soy milk and tofu, pickled mustard greens, lap cheung and lap yuk, and egg noodles, which fuelled my thirst to learn. Professionally, it started in 2020 when people offered to pay me for my food and later when I started working with Gormei to showcase Hakka cuisine.
For a layman, how would you explain Hakka cuisine?
Hakka itself is not a cuisine. The Hakkas are a tribe of Chinese people who have never owned land and were forced to emigrate as a result of civil strife. As they were constantly on the move, their major sources of food were soy products like tofu, soy sauce, and preserved meats and vegetables. Some call it the country cousin or rustic cousin of the more refined Cantonese food. It’s a cuisine that has adapted to the places where Hakkas settled.
How is it different from other styles of Chinese cuisine?
So the main constituents of Hakka cuisine are soy-based products. We use a lot of tofu, and we use a lot of soy sauce. Meat for Chinese has always been pork because it has always been widely available. However, as Hakka communities settled in coastal areas, the introduction of seafood and prawns became more prominent in our diet. But I would say that we use a lot of preserved meat and vegetables, like we preserve and ferment mustard greens, and we make sausages out of pork, which, you know, is because we were nomads. We preserved meat so that the moment we were pushed to move, we had something to eat on the way. So that has always been the way Hakkas have eaten.
Hakka cuisine can be considered a distinct branch of Chinese culinary traditions with its own unique characteristics. Often referred to as the country or rural culinary cousin of Cantonese cuisine, there are notable differences between the two. For instance, let's take the example of Yang tofu or stuffed tofu. While Cantonese cuisine tends to present the filling in a refined manner, resembling a fine mousse, in upscale dining settings, Hakka cuisine takes a different approach. Hakkas use a paste-like filling that allows you to savour the distinct flavours of shrimp, meat, and shiitake mushrooms. This creates a more robust and earthy taste profile. In many ways, Hakka cuisine can be described as comfort food, rich in its homely appeal.
Tell us about your menu that has been designed for Pullman New Delhi Aerocity.
So the menu for the Pullman Hotel in Hong Kong has dishes that are rare. There are many dishes that are not seen on any restaurant menus in India, I believe, like the Yam Abacus Beads, the Salt Baked Chicken, and the Yang Tofu. It may be because these are dishes that don't look pretty. But you know, there's something called ugly delicious, so these things don't look pretty, but they are very high on the taste factor. There are dishes like the typhoon shelter from Hong Kong, where I've taken inspiration from the Hong Kong typhoon shelter cuisine.
There's also Xinjiang spice-crusted mutton. Originating from Xinjiang, which is known for its Muslim majority population in China, they incorporate a lot of mutton and beef in their cuisine. And they use cumin like Indians do, so I thought that would be a good dish to put on the menu.
Also, there are veg Hakka noodles because I don't want everything to be unfamiliar to the guests palates. And there are also desserts that have been very well received, like the mango pomelo sago, which is a common Hong Kong dessert. For instance, whenever you go to any of the dim sum places in Hong Kong, this is one of the desserts that will be on the menu.
There are sesame balls on the menu as well, which are again not found on any restaurant menu in India. As a chef, I strive to offer dishes that introduce our guests to unfamiliar flavours and culinary experiences while also understanding the importance of maintaining balance. Thus, I haven't tried to veer too far away from the familiar flavours.
What’s your idea of comfort food at home?
It might sound strange, but I am Chinese and grew up in Amritsar, Punjab. So my idea of comfort food is either rajma-chawal or a simple steamed fish and steamed rice with stir-fried vegetables. In Hakka households, too many of the recipes that are time-consuming to prepare are slowly being forgotten.
What is one of your special dishes?
This is a very easy-to-make party recipe that all my guests have always gone ga-ga over.
Spicy Garlic Wings (4 pax)
For the wings:
• 500 g chicken wings
• 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
• 1/4 teaspoon pepper powder
• 1 teaspoon of sugar
• 1 cup cornflour
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon chilli sauce/gochujang
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• Oil for frying and cooking
• Marinate the chicken for at least an hour with soy sauce, pepper, sugar, and minced garlic.
• Mix all the sauce ingredients well.
• Coat the chicken with cornflour and fry till golden. Remove.
• Heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok and add garlic. Fry till light golden, then add the sauce. Bring to a boil, then add the fried wings. Toss and serve.