I am Hakka from both my father’s and mother’s sides. People often say that Hakka dishes are inferior to other dialects’ food. Cantonese food, for example, is well-known all over the world for its soups, dim sum and roast meats. Having eaten at some Hakka eateries in Singapore, I agree with the critique about Hakka food. However, Hakka Yu 客语, a chain restaurant in Zhuhai, is a revelation that changes my mind completely: Hakka cuisine isn’t inferior, it’s just that Singapore’s Hakka food is terrible.
There are three outlets of Hakku Yu in Zhuhai: 奥园广场 Ao Yuan Shopping Mall, 扬名广场 Yang Ming Shopping Mall, and 华发商都 Hua Fa Shang Du. We were at the Ao Yuan outlet, which has a fantastic decor. The restaurant is designed like an ancient tavern and on one side of the side, they project ancient Chinese paintings with animated figures moving.
The menu is extensive and I have not seen many items before. So I stuck to the classics. My Chinese friend was adamant to order a soup, pork and salted vegetable soup 土猪汤 (¥15/pax). (Many China Chinese like ordering soups.) Hakka aren’t known for our soups and if I drank this at a Cantonese restaurant, I would have flipped the table. That said, it is acceptable. It feels like they dump the pork and salted vegetable into water to boil for 15 minutes and serve it. I imagine this is something Chinese would make at home for a fuss-free soup. It’s rough around the edges, but homely and easy.
Abacus seeds or 算盘子 (¥25), which is essentially marbles of yam and tapioca flour, is something my now-deceased grandmother used to make during festive seasons. I also have a good recipe, which I need to dig up and share with you. But here, their abacus seeds, as you can see, are vastly different from Singapore’s version. Theirs is translucent whereas Singapore’s is grey, and fried with mushrooms and minced meat. The version here is harder than Singapore’s and you need to chew quite a bit. I suppose it’s because the skin is caramelised with a layer of sweet soy sauce, tasting more like black fried carrot cake than the savoury abacus seeds. But once I adapted to the taste, I did enjoy the feeling of homeliness the food conjured.
Hakka is known for our tofu (¥28) which everybody wants to eat. Get it? 吃我的豆腐。This tofu served in a claypot is a must order. It’s rare to come across a tofu like this, a tofu that still retains the integrity of soya bean flavour. The six pieces are pan-fried first, so the surface is slightly charred, creating a contrast with the extremely silky inside. At the center of each piece is a surprise: a well marinated lump of pork, giving much flavour to the tofu but not overpowering it. I hate tofu because I don’t like bland food, but this dish is far from bland. It’s complex and super delicious.
We also had a seabass steamed lightly with scallion oil, leeks, and Sichuan peppercorn 鲜花椒葱油鲈鱼(¥68). Fish is fantastic in Zhuhai; I haven’t eaten a less-than-fresh fish yet. And this fish is pristine and fresh and sweet. The peppercorn gives the dish an exciting numbing sensation on the tongue, but it is not spicy. There are all sorts of flavours going on–numbing, salty, pungent–and yet the sweetness of the fish comes through first and foremost. Beautifully done.
To eat the fish and the tofu, it is best to order rice (¥3). Why do I specially mention the rice? Because they steam each bowl individually! (and not cook in a big pot to portion out.) I noticed that the rice grains are sticking upright, which is a sign that the rice is steamed in individual bowls, and I asked the waitress who confirmed my suspicion.
We also had the Hakka wine (¥30/carafe). When I took a sip, I exclaimed, “Sake!” So I suppose, like sake, Hakka wine is made from the fermentation of rice. But unlike sake, it is extremely sweet, which makes it extremely dangerous to drink because it is so easy to drink it. A second difference from sake is that the Hakka wine is thicker and more viscous. This wine was so great I had most of it myself.
We paid ¥192 for two persons. The food is extremely good and although I hate chain restaurants, I think this is one that I will visit frequently.
Hakka Yu 客语-客家菜(奥园广场店)
Ao Yuan Shopping Mall, Level 5, Unit 03, No. 237 Mei Jie Road, Zhuhai
tel: 0756-8986695 or +86-756-8986695
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