Among the varieties of regional Chinese cuisine, Hakka is often overlooked in favor of the punchy flavors of Sichuan or the delicate dim sum of Guangdong.
Perhaps it’s because much of Hakka cuisine could be regarded as simple comfort food. It’s meat-heavy, sauce-heavy, and very salty.
But some of the dishes have become so ubiquitous in China that many people don’t even realize they have Hakka origins.
Part of that owes to the Hakka people’s reach. The population, estimated to be around 80 million worldwide, is spread across southern China, from as far east as Taiwan to as far west as Sichuan.
Historically, the Hakka were migrants who moved from northern to southern China over several generations. Because of these migrations, the Hakka people developed different ways to preserve food, applying liberal doses of salt and soy sauce to meat, fish, and vegetables.
As a result, Hakka cuisine is characterized by very simple and pragmatic flavors. But where they lacked in spice, the Hakka made up for in texture. One of their most famous dishes, stewed pork belly, is charred on the outside but soft on the inside, so much so that the meat practically melts in the mouth.
The Hakka also learned to use whatever plants they had in their surroundings—ginger, citrus fruits, and cordia—to create different kinds of sauces.
Here are five iconic Hakka dishes that show how their environment has shaped how they eat.
Stewed pork belly with preserved vegetables 梅干扣肉
The crème de la crème of Hakka food, stewed pork belly is an example of nomadic ingenuity and resourcefulness.
On the outside, the dish is deceptively simple: fatty pork belly covered in soy sauce on top of a healthy heaping of rice and preserved vegetables.
But like most Hakka dishes, the magic is in the texture.
The pork belly is pan-fried before it’s stewed to achieve that textural contrast of hard and soft.
The meat is eaten with sour preserved vegetables to balance out the greasiness of the pork belly.
Salted chicken with kumquat sauce 客家油鸡
The Hakka diet can be described as high in calories, fat, and protein, a result of their traditional farming lifestyle. Salted chicken is one of the hearty dishes that kept Hakka farmers going.
At its core, salted chicken is essentially poached chicken that’s then soaked in a combination of water, sugar, and rice wine to give it that salty taste. The result is a very tender white meat.
But what makes the dish stand out is the accompanying kumquat sauce, a Hakka specialty that complements most meat dishes.
Like sour vegetables, the kumquat sauce was created to balance out the heavy, greasy dishes that characterize Hakka cuisine.
Since kumquat was readily available in many places where the Hakka settled, it became a staple in their diet.
Hakka stir-fry 客家小炒
This is the Hakka equivalent of chop suey, a haphazardly composed stir-fry of whatever was available.
Today, the dish follows a rather standard formula of matchstick-sized slices of pork, beancurd, and cuttlefish. Celery and scallions are thrown in for the aroma, and a dollop of rice wine is added at the end for an extra kick.
Most Hakka dishes were a product of circumstance, and this one is no different. For poor families living in the mountainside, meat was considered a luxury, so when they had it, they made sure to use every part of the animal.
Often, that meant simply throwing it in stir-fry.
Stir-fried betel nut flower 炒槟榔花
The betel nut tree is a palm tree in Taiwan, where many Hakka people settled, and it’s harvested mostly for its psychoactive nut. The flower, however, is just as edible.
In the Hakka community, it’s a popular ingredient in stir-fry, where it’s mixed with pork, chopped mushrooms, scallions, and garlic.
Compared to most Hakka dishes, stir-fried betel nut flower has a lighter and more refreshing taste because it doesn’t use any sauce and involves less oil.
Lei cha 擂茶
To end a meal, Hakka people will usually drink lei cha, an herbal tea made with powdered nuts and seeds.
Many places will serve it in a bowl with all the ingredients laid out—which you then have to grind yourself with a pestle. A typical mix includes raw green tea powder, sesame, peanuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.
During the process of grinding, Hakka people will constantly add hot water into the bowl until the ingredients are evenly melted. The result is an earthy, aromatic tea—the perfect finish to a hearty meal.