Being a Hakka person in the Han Chinese society, I have always known that our food is similar to but distinct from “Chinese food.” That little bit of difference makes us unique in the Han Chinese group—at least that’s what my father told me. For example, when most Han Chinese people eat glutinous rice during winter, they roll it into small round balls and add them to a sugary soup. We make the same round shapes but prepare them salty instead of sweet, along with greens and onions. This way xian tangyuan (鹹湯圓) becomes a practical, filling meal.
My father and my grandmother must have thought that making savory food to feed the family was more important than making dessert. They often mentioned the difficult times living in Taiwan, when they had neither money nor food. I got the feeling that the way my family prepares food usually represents remnants of hardship. For instance, some of the food is tasty but very salty, because in the past they had no refrigerator, but adding plenty of salt helped preserve the food.
Now we have sweeter food memories in my family, such as before Chinese New Year, when the whole extended family would gather together at my grandparents’ house. I remembered my grandmother preparing the rice ball soup, frying the onions with garlic and ginger. When we were young, if my cousins and I behaved well, we were allowed to help make the rice balls, a fun activity in the wintertime when we were not allowed to play outside.
Now it is harder and harder to gather our family members for a reunion. I have missed all New Year celebration and meals with my parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins since I moved to the United States. Returning to Taiwan for Chinese New Year is a luxury I haven’t had yet. Luckily here in the States, we still cook the rice balls with salty ingredients. Whenever I do, I remember the difficult times and the family reunions. Through our food, we carry on the Hakka spirit wherever we go.
8 oz ready-made glutinous rice balls (or Korean rice cakes)
4 oz chicken or pork (sliced)
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs shallots
1 tbs shrimp
1 small bunch spring onion
2 ½ cups water
Vegetables, such as lettuce, carrots, or mushrooms
1. Heat oil in a frying pan. Stir fry shallots and shrimp. Add greens and spring onion. Wait till they are cooked. Set them aside.
2. Marinate chicken or pork in soy sauce and sugar. Cook thoroughly in an oiled frying pan.
3. Heat water in a pot. Add fried shallots, fried shrimp, vegetables, and meat. When it is boiling, add ready-made rice balls (or rice cakes). Boil for 15 minutes. The salty rice balls along with the soup are ready to serve.
Jufang Tseng is a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings intern originally from Taiwan, with a special love for Hakka food.