The Hakka People (Ke Jia Ren, 客家人 in Mandarin) are Han Chinese who originally migrated from northern China to southern regions to escape wars centuries ago. Some even emigrated to other countries, notably in Southeast Asia.

Literally “people from the guest families”, the Hakkas demonstrated their incredible fearlessness and strength in surviving and prospering in new places they settled. Their unique dwellings, mostly in remote mountainous areas, are called tulou (土楼), meaning “earth building”. Designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Site, the tulou can be round or squire, and were designed as both a fortress for defensive purposes and a large multi-family communal living structure, typically consisting of only one entrance and no windows at the ground level. I visited a tulou in Fujian Province a few years ago and was blown away by the architectural marvel created by the Hakkas.

The food of the Hakkas, not surprisingly, carries the same traits of its people: robust and vibrant. Hakka cuisine is known for using preserved meat and vegetables, which provide rich and strong seasoning to the dishes and make them irresistibly fragrant.

One of my favorite Hakka ingredients is mui choy (梅菜), which is a type of preserved mustards. Packed with salty, sweet, and umami tastes, mui choy lends layers of flavor and aroma to a dish. In Hakka cuisine, it is often paired with pork. Braised pork with mui choy is hearty and comforting, especially when it’s cold outside. A steamed version, which I’m introducing today, is lighter and quicker to prepare, a perfect dish to make in hot or warm weather.

While mui choy gives this dish its unique character, the pork plays an equally important role. To have a successful dish, you want to use a piece of pork with at least 20% fat, and ideally chop the meat to “coarse-ground” texture by hand (or ask your butcher to grind it coarsely for you). This ensures the cooked meat turns out juicy and flavorful with a meaty texture. By comparison, most store-bought ground meat is fine-ground, which tends to be dense and paste-like, and becomes dry and mealy when cooked.

You can find mui choy in most Asian grocery stores. It’s often labeled as “preserved mustard” or “preserved vegetable”. Be aware that there is a different, much drier variety of preserved vegetable called meigan cai (梅干菜), which would require different handling and is not suitable for this recipe.

 

Hakka steamed pork with mui choy (客家梅菜蒸肉)

Serves 2

Ingredients

10 1/2 oz (300 g) pork, preferably with at least 20% fat, hand-chopped to coarse-ground (or ask your butcher to grind it coarsely)
6 oz (170 g) mui choy, both stems and leaves, soaked in cold water for 1 hour
Half of 2-inch ginger, cut into 2-inch thin matchsticks
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Freshly ground white pepper

Direction

  1. In a large bowl, mix the ground pork with the salt until sticky, about 1 minute. Add the starch mixture, Shaoxing wine, sugar, and a few grinds of pepper. Mix well.
  2. Squeeze out water from the soaked mui choy. Remove any tough bits from the stems, and thinly slice the stems and leaves. Add the mui choy to the pork, and stir to combine well.
  3. Spread the mixture on an 8-inch heat-resistant shallow plate into a round-cake shape. Use a pair of chopsticks to poke the mixture to loosen it up so it is not tightly packed. Spread the ginger on top.
  4. Steam until the meat is just cooked through, about 8 minutes. You can serve the dish hot or warm, and right before serving, drizzle with the sesame oil and garnish with the scallion.
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