Why Hakka does NOT exclusively mean Indian-Chinese

There’s something that I’ve wanted to put forth for a long time, and for some stupid reason have never had the opportunity to. Sometimes, when I have so many things to say about a particular subject,  my stupid brain locks up and goes into a 404 PAGE NOT FOUND mode, which may be entertaining for a comedy show, but is really lousy for someone who’s supposed to be the model of erudition (at least when it comes to food)

The point that has bugged me for a very long time is simply this: in Toronto, the term “Hakka” is used ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY when referring to a type of cuisine cooked by Chinese people who came from India. This is incorrect, and I will explain why below.

"So sit yo 'ass down!" (note: this may or may not look like me) -- from englishharmony.com

“So sit yo ‘ass down!” (note: this may or may not look like me) — from englishharmony.com

I’m not going to waste your time giving a long explanation about the history of how a large group of Chinese settlers ended up in India (Wikipedia does it so much better here). But what I want to tackle is the usage of the term “Hakka” when referring to the type of food that they cook. You see, the Chinese population in India ended up adapting their cuisine to local tastes, using local spices and herbs (the most notable one being garam masala), with the result being a beautiful fusion cuisine of the complex flavours of Chinese cooking and the punch and flavour of Indian cuisine. And who were the Chinese settlers in India? Hakka people. That is to say, a subgroup of the ethnic Han Chinese.

Well then, I hear you say (I sometimes hear voices, humour me), what’s so incorrect about calling the Indian-Chinese fusion cuisine as Hakka cuisine? The answer lies in that ACTUAL authentic Hakka cuisine is a million miles away from the interesting dishes you see in an Indian-Chinese restaurant. Real, traditional food of the Hakka people (which is therefore called “Hakka cuisine”, I know eh, what a concept) look much more like, surprise surprise, traditional Chinese food. Case in point, the salt baked chicken.

 

Damn! Where's the cornstarch and gravy? -- from wikipedia.org

WHAT! Where’s the cornstarch and gravy? — from wikipedia.org

Moreover, the Hakka people migrate all over the world, and not just India. The majority of Chinese people in Central America and the Caribbean, for example, are Hakkas (major example: Chinese Jamaicans). A crapload of Hakkas also immigrated to Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, the place where I was born and once lived. So to say that Indian-Chinese food is “Hakka” food is to unintentionally but completely discount two things: A) actual, authentic Hakka cuisine (that most people have never heard of) and B) OTHER Hakka fusion cuisines that Hakka people all around the world have created (such as Jamaican-Chinese fusion food – you never hear them called “Hakka”). It doesn’t help that the Indian-Chinese restaurants call themselves Hakka as well. While it’s not TECHNICALLY incorrect (the people who open these restaurants are, after all, Hakka people), it’s not exactly accurate either.

As some of you know, I’m not a traditionalist or purist when it comes to food. Hell, I’ve professed my love for Manchu goddamn Wok publicly, and insist that the oft-mocked American/Canadian-Chinese food is a legitimate type of cuisine in and of itself. So believe me when I say that I’m not trying to be pedantic just for the sake of being a pain in the ass. I’m just a bit tired of people asking me what’s my favourite cuisine, and having answered “perhaps Indian-Chinese food”, be faced with the reply “oooh, you mean Hakka food?”. Actually, no I do not.

So why does it bug me? Well, because I’m Hakka Chinese. And I have had many different kinds of Chinese cuisine cooked by wonderful Hakka cooks. Indian-Chinese dishes are just one wonderful part of the Hakka cuisine spectrum, but it is far and away only a small slice of it.

At the end of the day, I guess you can call it whatever you want, but let me ask you a question. To grab a random example, if you were a Quebecois Canadian, and your whole family emigrated to Japan, and your entire family opened a chain of restaurants that primarily serve sushi-poutine with wasabi, would you still call that Quebecois cuisine? Of course not. It’s become a beautiful Quebecois-Japanese fusion cuisine. A new cuisine in it’s own right. And THAT is what the so-called “Hakka cuisine” is in Toronto. It is, and always will be, Indian-Chinese food for me. And I will always love it.

Now gimme SOME MOAR Chicken Manchurian and pakoras!

 

A note of thanks!

Given my limited culinary preparation skills, I’m fully cognizant that I’ve been blessed by many people around me that have cooked for me. People like my parents, my in-laws, and my fiancee are HUGE, HUGE contributors to this list, and contribute to it so many times that I lost count. But sometimes there are individuals that, totally unexpectedly and out of the blue, prepare food for you just ‘coz they can. And that’s why I want to send a special shoutout to Michelle LeBlanc for her delicious chicken alfredo lasagna and lasagna roll-ups. Delicious, delicious things which I’ve never tasted before and hope to (soon) sample again.

I’m also aware that you probably don’t want too much attention to this so I will remove this post in the near future. So please consider this a small limited-time thank you article that’s made especially for you in recognition of your fine cooking skills. And may they ever continue. ONWARD with the MAKAN!

Please accept this micro pig picture as a sign of thanks. THANKS! --- from www.deathandtaxesmag.com

Please accept this micro pig picture as a sign of thanks. THANKS! — from http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com

Where to get cheap and delicious Thai food in Copenhagen…(Gal OnTrip feat. DKLo)

So if you’ve been reading my blogs (and really, why wouldn’t you? Please read them. Please. I’ll be your best friend), you’ll notice that I mention my cousin in one of my articles, someone that I need to thank for many of the lovely pictures you see there. But our collaboration efforts go beyond that. I’ve been fortunate to guest write an article for her wildly popular (at least definitely more so than mine) blog: Gal On Trip. While my blog normally focuses on food-related tidbits, hers is one of the wonders of travel and its related joys. So when we went with our respective families on a trip to the Scandinavian countries together, what better way than to have a collaboration about a cute little restaurant in one of those exotic destinations?

And to think I didn't see a single Danish butter cookie while I was there

And to think I didn’t see a single Danish butter cookie while I was there.

The result is this article. A little exposition about a little (and very affordable) Thai restaurant in the corner of one of the most expensive places to eat in Copenhagen. Never had such a cramped, hot, and uncomfortable restaurant provided me with so much joy. The food was great and the payment process didn’t necessitate getting two loans from the bank, as most restaurants in Nyhavn usually require.

This is my first collaboration (always wanted to be  a guest rapper, guess this is the next best thing) and I hope there will be many more in the future. And while you’re at it, follow her blog too; she’s nice, a good writer, an excellent photographer, and won’t bite (most of the time).

Salut!

Something interesting: DKLoMakan’s Word Cloud

So I stumbled across something interesting today, as shown by one of my coworkers. Apparently you can create interesting-looking word clouds to see what words are most frequently used in your site/blog/what have you, and arrange it in a picturesque way. There are several of these sites out there, but my favourite so far is Tagxedo. It really gives you an idea just what is the most popular terms that are present on your site. And mine is…well perhaps unsurprisingly, “restaurant”. Also, the words “Chinese” and “Toronto” shos up extremely often too. I guess being a Chinese who lives in Toronto and eats at restaurants will do that to you. Huh, what a surprise.

This design reminds me of Nando's Chicken, somehow. Oh wait, the word "chicken" shows up often too :P

This design reminds me of Nando’s Chicken, somehow.  Oh wait, that’s another word that often shows up.

Have a look see and do it for your own site! It’s a lot of fun. And it gives you some positive insight to your work as well.

Why courtesy should ALWAYS matter: A commentary on the service quality in Chinese restaurants in the GTA

Confession time: I need to vent.

I visit an awful lot of Chinese restaurants. And by these I actually don’t mean the Manchu Wok kind (though as you can see here, there’s nothing wrong with that). I mean the ones owned and operated by Chinese people, serving authentic Chinese food, aimed at the Chinese audience. Living in Markham, Chinese restaurants are about as numerous as 14-year old girls in a One Direction concert.

On the other hand, I also visit a fair bit of Western restaurants. Some of these places are ones that I frequent and love. You will have to beat me up severely before I’ll let you have my remaining Montana’s pork ribs, for example.

And there’s really ONE big thing that separates the first group from the second. No, it’s not the fact that you can’t get Hainanese Chicken Rice at Swiss Chalet.

It’s the service. The average authentic Chinese restaurant here has no concept of what this is. Which is really sad considering Chinese restaurants in Indonesia seem to be just fine with the concept of politeness.

Even my dad, who’s probably the most Chinese person on the planet (yes, even more so than the entire population of China combined), even sighed once and said “This (the service) is why I don’t like going to Chinese restaurants”. It’s like if the Pope said that he doesn’t really like Sunday mass.

Walk into most traditional Chinese restaurants in Toronto (but ESPECIALLY north of Steeles Avenue- which I guess no longer makes it Toronto), and chances are you’ll be greeted by a Chinese person who only speaks halting English, if any, and if you look anything REMOTELY Asian then they will automatically assume you can speak Chinese – usually insisting that you MUST speak Cantonese, and pretty much treat you with indifference, if not outright contempt at the very fact that they need to serve you. The nerve of you, really.

Note that there are quite a few notable exceptions. A lot of the newer Chinese establishments (the Phoenix Restaurant chain being a notable example) have displayed much better service than the ones I mentioned above. By the word “traditional” I mean old-fashioned and well-established Cantonese restaurants that have been in operation for at least 15 years (guilty parties: Sam Woo, Ming’s, Golden Court, just to name a few).  I only picked the number 15 because that’s how long I’ve been in Canada for, and trust me when I say that going into almost any Chinese restaurant circa 1998 was akin to preparing yourself for a contest of hate.

Anyway. In these very well-established restaurants, you’re usually expected to speak Cantonese (never mind that the national language of China is Mandarin) and God help you if you want to ask your server anything or are unclear about the day’s specials. If you look non-Asian, you’re actually in a better position, because at least they won’t expect you to speak their language. But look anything like me, and you BETTER be conversant in Cantonese. Otherwise be prepared for a long and awkward night.

As an example, I very recently got into a huge argument at Ming’s Noodle, a very popular noodle joint on Kennedy just south of Steeles, where the server’s curt attitude and unwillingness to clarify our instructions lead to us getting the wrong order. When we told her about it, she was only too happy to argue and lecture us for not clarifying in the first place. All of this happened while the owner was watching us contentedly behind the cash register, not moving a muscle and not giving a damn. While this incident is, I admit, a rather extreme example, it is very symptomatic of the irrelevance with which the notion of service is regarded in these establishments.

You said RICE! Not FRIES! -just add an Asian waitress and it's pretty accurate.

You said RICE! Not FRIES! -just add an Asian waitress and it’s pretty accurate.

More worrying is the fact that not all of the newer restaurants are immune to this problem too. While a great deal of these modern joints have passable, and sometimes even friendly, service, there are still new cases like the large and new Dayali Restaurant (on Warden north of Steeles) featuring management that clearly views the patrons as nothing more than an inconvenience.

And you know what the worst part is? All of these places stay in operation and make money.

Then I started to notice something. People I know started telling me that I shouldn’t expect good service at a Chinese establishment. As far as Chinese restaurants are concerned, the category of “service” should apparently be labelled “Not Applicable”. So being treated like a sub-human should be expected, apparently.

There may be truth to this. Most Chinese restaurants that are operated by Chinese but are aimed at a more Western audience do NOT suffer from poor service. But more than 50% of Chinese restaurants that are both owned by AND aimed at Chinese people will have  surly waitresses that have a Ph.D in not giving a damn. So it’s almost EXPECTED that Chinese people here are going to be OK with crappy service.

I bluntly refuse to follow this suggestion. I admit that I lower my expectations for service at a Chinese restaurant, in the interest of my own sanity. But I can never buy the notion that treating people with contempt is ever acceptable.

Look at your daily life. How would you feel if everyone greeted you in a manner which basically tells you to go fuck yourself and that your very existence is a burden on their lives? I’m guessing it would suck HARD. Then why should we expect any less from our servers? Especially since (no matter how trivial the amount may be) they’re getting PAID to talk to us. That middle-aged lady on the corner of the street may give me a contemptuous look as if I was going to vomit in her handbag, but at least I’m not PAYING her for that privilege. But in a restaurant environment, I actually am.

So that’s my beef. And that’s my long-winded rationale that I will never, ever tolerate rudeness in my service. I’m not even asking for the sort of “let’s be BFFs” service you routinely get at Montana’s, The Keg, or any other similar establishment. Some adequate level of English proficiency (just know the goddamn numbers on the menu, that’s all I ask) and a rudimentary grasp of the concept of courtesy is all I’m expecting.

And if we all, especially those of us who frequent Chinese restaurants, start demanding good service and less passively resgining ourselves that crappy services are acceptable, maybe slowly things will change (they kind of already are, to be honest, as 50% is already pretty good compared to 1998). If a restaurant gives you shitty service, don’t go there again, no matter how good the food is. It’s as simple as that.

Either that, or I’m just going to open a small Chinese restaurant where I yell at you, slam the wrong order on your table, spill your water everywhere, and kick you when you leave. I will expect to retire rich before 40 because clearly people don’t mind it if the food is halfway decent.

PS: I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment! Maybe I’m delusional and maybe I’m the only one who notices these things, or the only one nuts enough to care.

More of DKLo…on Yelp!

In case some of you here don’t know, I’ve been a regular contributor for Yelp, an online community that provide advice and reviews of various businesses in cities across the world. So far, I’ve written just under 70 reviews, most of them food-related (duh), and most of them around the GTA (double duh).

Thanks for keepin’ it real Yelp. We cool.

So why am I telling you this? Well, in case you can’t get enough of DKLo (since the reason you’re reading my blogs is CLEARLY because of me and not because of the food–mmmphhsorry can’t keep a straight face there), then I’d encourage you to check out my Yelp page.And for those who want it spelled out in text, it’s dklo.yelp.ca. Pretty easy to remember right?

Actually, I would highly recommend for you to go check it out regardless of how high or low your desire is to see more of yours truly, because Yelp is a really awesome site where you can see a collection of reviewers talk about everyday places that you go to /are planning to visit. It’s all highly subjective, but hey, that’s the nature of the business.

So to sum up: My full reviews, with pictures and such, will go on this blog while my shorter reviews (quickies, as I’d like to think of them – teehee) will go on Yelp. I can go more in-depth in my own blog, but I can cover much more ground quickly on Yelp. It’s a nice combination and I think you’ll get to see the best of both worlds. I certainly don’t get paid to write anything there (or here, for that matter), it’s all just about sharing my passion of food with you all.

Because I like you.

Now don’t take that the wrong way.

In addition, much like bonus content on a DVD, my Yelp site has rather interesting and atypical reviews. There, I’ve written about malls, hair salons, and a few businesses in the US and Denmark. Yep, Denmark, the land of butter cookies and Vikings.

I’ve also reached Yelp’s Elite status for 2012, which is really useful when I try to impress people (though WW still fails to be moved by it and guffaws everytime I say I’m a celebrity), and I’ve been featured a few times on Yelp’s Review of the Day 🙂 New update: I’ve also recently been certified Yelp Elite 2013 too!

In fact, I’ll provide shortcut links to those special reviews here (Bulgogi Brothers) and here (Keung’s Delight).  But please do take the time to go around and peruse my other Yelp articles, as well as others. You’ll find content that I write nowhere else, plus there’s tons of great contributors there, some of them having amassed ridiculous amounts of reviews. Not to mention many of these places may actually be useful for you trying to find reasonably-priced good food.

Hope you guys enjoy, and as usual, MARI MAKAN!

On the variability of spice

I started this post with the original intention of simply linking my old BlogTO post about places where you can eat Singaporean-Malaysian Chinese food in the GTA. As I wrote, however, I decided to go on a different tack: I wish to explain, in greater detail, the concept of “spicy” in Asian, specifically Southeast Asian, cuisine and how it differs from how North Americans generally view this concept.

Other than thinking about sultry vixens like Megan Fox, when most people in North American think of words like “hot” or “spicy”, the predominant thing that comes to mind is a sharp searing heat (which could come gradually) that burns your tongue when eating a meal. The heat is strong, pronounced, and noticeably distinct from the other flavours in the dish. This is why, even though I proclaim to love spicy foods, I always refrain from eating spicy chicken wings, even though I heart wings in a way that no grown man really should.

Uh nope. I don’t, actually.

When I order something like “suicide wings” in the local wing joint, be it All Stars or Wild Wing, all I get is 100% burn on my tongue, with a side of tart (which makes sense considering most chillies grown in the Americas have that slight lime twang -think Frank’s Red Hot or Tabasco) before they proceed to eviscerate your tastebuds. But the heat is so overpowering that it blocks out whatever other taste there may be in the actual chicken meat. Now I can go into another rant about how a lot of North American restaurants don’t properly season/marinate their meat, but that’s very much another story.

In other words, the spice is pretty much a flat blast of heat.

This is very much UNlike Southeast Asian food. This cuisine, in contrast, tends to define “spicy” NOT in the stereotypical hot sauce fashion that is rampant in Western food, but rather in a way that is rich and complex.

Spice in Southeast Asia comes not from a straightforward addition of chilli peppers to an existing dish, but mostly from a combination of herbs, spices, and seasonings such as garlic, coriander, various kinds of chili, sugar, salt, tomato, and God knows what else. The heat is not a standalone ka-POW, but rather blended into the flavours of the dish itself.

In other words, the spice in Southeast Asian cuisine is complex and vibrant. One hot dish would have a different taste than another, the type of heat is different, and they generally work WITH the food and its seasonings, not distinctly beside (or even worse, overpower) them.

If you want a clear example of what I’m talking about, go to any wings place and order their top-level hot offering. It’s usually called “suicide”, or “homicide”, or any other slightly inappropriate term. Then go to Gourmet Malaysia on Sheppard and Brimley and try their spicy laksa.

Another example would be to go and buy a “Western” hot sauce like Frank’s Red Hot Sauce and an “Eastern” equivalent like the Indonesian Sambal ABC from your local T&T Supermarket. Take two pieces of plain white bread. Pour a bit of Frank’s Red Hot on one, and a bit of sambal on the other one.

It loves me back, I think.

Go on, I’ll wait.

(Now drink some water if you need to :P)

Feel the difference? (I sure hope so, otherwise this whole article’s been pointless)

So when people ask me why I don’t ever order any explicitly hot foods in most Western restaurants despite boasting that I love spicy foods, THAT’s why. it’s just so different. Still, there’s nothing wrong about liking one over the other. I just happen to like the Asian variety a whole lot more. I simply wanted to bring your attention to the fact that not all “hot foods” are created alike, or even remotely similar. It would be like saying that I look like the guy from the Mentalist TV show just because we’re both adult male human beings.

Then again…

In any case, here’s that BlogTO article that I originally wanted to link to. Keep in mind that Coconut Island and Villa Malaysia are no longer in business. I’m a bit sad for the first, but elated for the second. The article will explain a bit more why.

http://bit.ly/wBEniI

Gourmet Malaysia’s in there too by the way. A bit chaotic, but the food is wonderful.

Mari makan!