My superlative Citizens – welcome to installment 2 of TFD’s six recipe exposition on rare dumpling recipes from around the globe! Today, we visit the ancestral home of dumplings in mainland China, but this is no ORDINARY recipe for a pedestrian (and totally delicious, I might add!) Northern Chinese jiaozi you can find in any restaurant! Nor is it a representative of Cantonese cuisine, such as har gow shrimp dumplings or siu mai, both of which regularly grace my plate when I go for dim sum!
No, today we are showcasing a recipe from the far south of China, using ingredients more commonly associated with Southeast Asia – I speak of nothing less than fun guo, aka crystal dumplings! This is an acclaimed recipe of the Hakka people, who are also known as Teochew or Chiu Chow in alternative dialects of Cantonese and Mandarin. The Hakka are a seafaring trader minority people who visited many countries in Asia and left an indelible stamp of Chinese cuisine wherever they landed!
The Hakka (Chinese: 客家), sometimes also referred to as Hakka Han, or Hakka Chinese, or Hakkas, are a Han Chinese subgroup whose ancestral homes are chiefly in the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, Hainan, and Guizhou in China, as well as in Taoyuan City, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Pingtung County, and Kaohsiung City in Taiwan.
The Chinese characters for Hakka (客家) literally mean “guest families”. Unlike other Han Chinese subgroups, the Hakkas are not named after a geographical region, e.g. a province, county or city, in China.
The word Hakka or “guest families” is Cantonese in origin and originally refers to the Northern Chinese migrants fleeing social unrest, upheaval and invasions in northern parts of China (such as Gansu and Henan) during the Qing dynasty who then sought sanctuary in the Cantonese provinces such as Guangdong and Guangxi, thus the original meaning of the word implies that they are guests living in the Cantonese provinces.
Over the centuries, they have since more or less assimilated with the Cantonese people. Modern day Hakka are generally identified by both full Hakka and by different degrees of Hakka ancestry and usually speak Hakka Chinese.
The Hakkas are thought to have originated from the central plains and multiple genetic studies have shown that the Hakka people are largely descended from North Han Chinese. In a series of migrations, the Hakkas moved and settled in their present areas in South China and from there, substantial numbers migrated overseas to various countries throughout the world.
As the most diasporic among the Chinese community groups, the worldwide population of Hakkas (including in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) is about 80 million to 120 million. The Hakkas moved from Central China into Southern China at a time when the earlier Han Chinese settlers who already lived there had developed distinctive cultural identities and languages from Hakkas.
The Hakkas have been frequently subjected to hatred and discrimination by other Chinese ethnic groups which they have interacted with throughout history. The expressions of such prejudices by other ethnic groups have ranged from hurling minor verbal insults to committing genocidal campaigns against the Hakkas over several centuries.
During the Imperial era, in retaliation for capturing the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, the Huxiang military killed 30,000 Hakkas every day during the height of the anti-Hakka mass-killing operation. Government officials mobilized officers and men to kill the Hakkas, regained the Guanghai villages (a region of Taishan city (臺山市) of Guangdong province) which was occupied by the Hakkas and massacred Hakkas indiscriminately.
The number of Hakkas killed was tens of thousands in the Dalongdong area of Guanghai alone. In retaliation for killing three Hunanese officers, the Hunanese forces exterminated the entire Hakka population of Wukeng and Chixi during military counter-attacks on the Hakkas in the year 1888. The Xiang army also massacred tens of thousands of other Hakkas in Guanghai.
The Cantonese Red Turban rebels carried out a genocidal campaign against the Hakkas during a revolt against the Qing dynasty. The Cantonese Red Turbans killed 13 Hakka village chiefs and 7,630 other Hakkas while on their way to Heshan where they killed another 1,320 Hakkas after conquering it. The bloody Punti-Hakka Clan Wars, which eventually killed some 500,000 Hakkas (or quite possibly even more), saw large-scale massacres against the Hakkas by Cantonese forces.
Government officials mobilized officers and men from the local Cantonese peasants to kill the Hakkas, regained the Guanghai villages which was occupied by the Hakkas, and massacred the Hakkas. The number of Hakkas killed was tens of thousands in the Dalongdong area of Guanghai alone.
Assuredly as a result of their persecution during the Imperial era, the Hakka people have been a source of many government and military leaders in the Communist Party — for example, in 1984, over half of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo were Hakka!
Hakka cuisine is known for the use of preserved meats and tofu as well as stewed and braised dishes. Some of the popular dishes are Yong Tau Foo and Lei Cha. Yong Tau Foo is a Hakka Chinese food consisting primarily of tofu that has been filled with either a ground meat mixture or fish paste (surimi). Lei cha (Chinese: 擂茶; pinyin: léi chá; lit. ‘pounded tea’ or ground tea is a traditional Southern Chinese tea-based beverage or gruel that forms a part of Hakka cuisine.
Hakka cuisine is the cooking style of the Hakka people, and it may also be found in parts of Taiwan and in countries with significant overseas Hakka communities. There are numerous restaurants in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Thailand serving Hakka cuisine. Hakka cuisine was listed in 2014 on the first Hong Kong Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Hakka people have a marked cuisine and style of Chinese cooking which is little known outside the Hakka home. It concentrates on the texture of food – the hallmark of Hakka cuisine. Whereas preserved meats feature in Hakka delicacy, stewed, braised, roast meats – ‘texturized’ contributions to the Hakka palate – have a central place in their repertoire.
Preserved vegetables (梅菜) are commonly used for steamed and braised dishes such as steamed minced pork with preserved vegetables and braised pork with salted vegetables. In fact, the raw materials for Hakka food are no different from raw materials for any other type of regional Chinese cuisine where what is cooked depends on what is available in the market. Hakka cuisine may be described as outwardly simple but tasty.
The skill in Hakka cuisine lies in the ability to cook meat thoroughly without hardening it, and to naturally bring out the umami taste of meat. The Hakka who settled in the harbor and port areas of Hong Kong placed great emphasis on seafood cuisine. Hakka cuisine in Hong Kong is less dominated by expensive meats; instead, emphasis is placed on an abundance of vegetables. Pragmatic and simple, Hakka cuisine is garnished lightly with sparse or little flavoring.
Modern Hakka cooking in Hong Kong favors offal, an example being deep-fried intestines (炸大腸; zhá dà cháng). Others include tofu with preservatives, along with their signature dish, salt baked chicken (鹽焗雞; yán jú jī). Another specialty is the poon choi (盆菜; pén cài). While it may be difficult to prove these were the actual diets of the old Hakka community, it is at present a commonly accepted view.
Besides meat as source of protein, there is a unique vegan dish called lei cha (擂茶; léi chá). It comprises combinations of vegetables and beans. Although not specifically unique for all Hakka people but are definitely famous among the Hakka-Hopo families. This vegetable-based rice tea dish is gaining momentum in some multicultural countries like Malaysia. Cooking of this dish requires the help from other family members to complete all eight combinations. It helps foster the relationship between family members in return.
Steamed buns (茶果) are a popular snack for Hakka people. They are predominately made from glutinous rice and are available in sweet or salty options. The sweet version consists of sweetened black-eyed pea pastes or peanuts, while the salty version consists of preserved radish…
…and then there is fun guo!!!
These dim sum mainstays are typically filled with chopped peanuts, garlic chives, ground pork, dried shrimp, dried radish and shiitake mushrooms. Other filling ingredients may include cilantro, jicama, or dried daikon. The filling is wrapped in a translucent dumpling wrapper made from a mixture of flours or plant starches mixed together with boiling water.
Although the recipe for the wrapper dough may vary somewhat, it typically consists of de-glutenized wheat flour (澄面), tapioca flour (菱粉), and corn or potato starch (生粉). The dumplings are usually served with a small dish of chili oil. Teochew fun guo is also known as “E’jie’s fun guo” because, as legend has it, they were invented by a maid named E’jie!
The story goes that during the 1920’s or 30’s, a government official in the Xiguan area of Guangzhou had E’jie make several dim sum dishes for a dinner party. After much consideration, E’jie made a dough with boiling water and flour. She then made a filling with fried pork, shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms, and then wrapped them up in the dough and steamed them.
The finished dim sum dish was shaped like the core of an olive. It had white, translucent skin, and it was smooth and moist. E’jie called them “fun guo”. Everybody who sampled the new dish called it a triumph and said it tasted amazing. When the owner of the nearby Fragrant Teahouse heard about this new dim sum dish, he spent a lot of money to hire E’jie.
He also built a glass partition in his restaurant so that patrons could not only enjoy the taste of fun guo, but they could watch E’jie make them as well. The addition of E’jie and her fun guo was great for business, and fun guo continued to grow in popularity to this very day!
You will noticed that this particular recipe calls for many dried and preserved ingredients. This is not just a hallmark of Hakka cuisine – it was a necessity due to the long sea voyages Hakka traders had to make to different countries to earn their living. Those ingredients had to LAST the entirety of the voyage and the Hakka people as a whole embraced these unique ingredient types into their everyday diet as husbands and sons returned home from their distant voyages.
It is also the reason why fun guo (and many other Hakka recipes) use so-called “foreign” ingredients like jicama, cilantro, and more! These were all tastes acquired overseas and as a result, Hakka cooking can resemble Vietnamese more than Chinese in many ways! Fun guo are a revelation on the dim sum cart and My recipe is simply unmatched in the hoary annals of gastronomic indulgence! 😉
My version of the recipe – which for those who care is gluten-free! – uses three different starches to achieve the signature translucent and chewy skin of the fun guo dumpling. These include wheat starch (which has no gluten), tapioca starch for chewiness and corn starch – you can easily purchase these ingredients (and any other unusual ones I am about to cite) at their respective links.
The filling is complex, both from a flavor and textural standpoint, which is just one of many reasons I dearly love this particular dim sum. I will not claim that making these is easy – it is not. It’s easier to simply buy them and eat them without cooking hassle or working with difficult-to-handle doughs and buying unusual ingredients…but what’s the fun in THAT?! Plus, My recipe is better than any fun guo you’ll find outside of a top-line dim sum palace in Hong Kong (I know, I’ve eaten them there).
Amongst other items, you will need salty (NOT SWEET!) preserved radish (this is the right kind), super-firm compressed tofu, top-quality sun-dried baby shrimp, dried shiitake mushrooms, the best fish sauce, oyster sauce (I strongly prefer this Thai brand), Chaoshan satay sauce (it’s nothing like what you are imagining, trust me – don’t substitute this!), lap cheong sausage, sesame oil, sweetened black vinegar and chili paste with garlic.
My glorious Citizens – fun guo truly is a unique recipe that I hope you have the courage and fortitude to attempt! It truly is magnificent and will wow any and all diners fortunate enough to be at your table!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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