Chinese Takeout is a bite-sized, biweekly RADII feature that examines Chinese food from the inside out, by disentangling the (hi)stories behind a single dish or restaurant. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.
Every morning at the break of dawn, truckloads of ingredients travel close to 200 kilometers to the seaside city of Xiamen in southeastern China’s Fujian province.
They park outside an almost unnoticeable eatery on a residential lane, where workers swiftly unload minced beef, rice noodles and taro roots.
The eatery is Ban Nian Liang (半年粮), where a young chef strives to chisel out a niche for homegrown Hakka food in the big city.
Over the past two years, Ban Nian Liang has evolved into a popular neighborhood eatery. Local residents, white-collar workers and delivery drivers swarm the modest establishment at lunchtime.
This isn’t what Shen would have predicted when he started business at age 22.
At that time, he’d just moved to Xiamen to open the snack bar of his dreams, as his rural hometown was saturated with seasoned Hakka cooks. He plunged straight into the city’s tourist district, Gulangyu — a car-less island dotted with colonial architecture that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — but could not keep up with transient demand and rocketing rents. His first location closed after just six months.
Shen retreated to a more affordable, residential neighborhood — which, he says, has been a blessing in disguise: “These days, most of our guests are returning customers.”
Shen’s story in many ways parallels that of his people, whose history revolves around migration and survival.
As early as 1,300 years ago, the first Hakkas moved from the turbulent central plains to settle in the mountains of southern China. The term “Hakka”, which literally means “guest people” (客家人) in Chinese, became associated with these Han-ethnic migrants, their dialect, cuisine, and seemingly insular societies.
Many have an exotic perception of Hakkas from their houses: the tulou (土楼). These earthen fortresses are unique to Hakka communities residing in today’s Fujian and Guangzhou provinces and essentially contain entire villages in just one building.
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Shen, a 24th generation Hakka, grew up in one such tulou. Although most younger-generation Hakkas have left the nest in favor of the big city, memories of their spiritual homeland remain.
“I remember plucking fresh banana leaves for my parents, when they made yuzibao [芋子包, a taro bun stuffed with bamboo shoots and tofu],” Shen reminisces with a smile.
Yuzibao (芋子包) at Ban Nian Liang
It became his project to transfer these rural dishes — in their purest forms — onto a modern menu and into the city.
While numerous Hakka restaurants in town sprinkle their dishes with sea urchin and other fancy ingredients, Ban Nian Liang serves a humble set lunch at 18 RMB ($2.68 USD) a pop — and refuses to compromise.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the clear difference between Hakka and other Han Chinese cuisines, though one could say that Hakkas tend to prefer a lighter palate. “Hakka cuisine is about living off the mountain, the livestocks,” Shen says. “We preserve the natural fragrance of the main ingredient, rather than overpower it with condiments.”
This meal perfectly boasts the bounties of his native mountains. Its centerpiece is niuwantang (牛丸汤), a beef meatball made with hammered tenderloin, cassava flour and rock salt, adrift in a clear broth with crisp wild celery stalks.
Niuwantang (牛丸汤), a beef meatball soup
This “lunch” is actually eaten as breakfast by many Hakka people from Shen’s area.
“People know us because of the meatballs,” says Shen, “but I want to convey that there’s more to Hakka cuisine than that.”
Has he succeeded?
“People are ringing me up about franchising.” Shen pauses, then adds thoughtfully, “The old Japanese artisans spend their whole lives mastering one thing. For the time being, I just want to make sure weʼre making classic Hakka dishes as well as we can.”
All photos unless otherwise stated by Mandy Tie
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