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!

 

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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.

The case (or lack thereof) for authenticity

As I stood gazing at the smorgasbord of options beckoning me from underneath garishly-lit lights (Lord, that sounds like the red light district of Amsterdam) a few weeks ago in the charmingly semi-outdated food court of Sherway Gardens in Etobicoke, something happened in me. Something that hasn’t happened for a while but I knew to be inevitable from time to time.

I had a craving for Manchu Wok.

I don’t know what it is about sweetly glazed fried chicken and oversteamed broccoli bits sauteed with beef in black pepper sauce (along with heaping mounds of fried rice) that appeals to me in such a periodic way. I generally am not too big a fan of this American-Canadian-Chinese food type, but once in a while a little switch is flicked inside my head, and I am compelled to head to the nearest Manchu Wok (or any of its equivalent) and chomp down some orange chicken.

Digressing a little, could you imagine if I could actually find out whose mystical finger flicked that switch to the ‘on’ position? It’d be a marketer’s paradise. Manchu Wok would give me millions. Panda Express would hunt my services down.

Anyway. As I proceeded to wolf down my meal (with WW looking at me, bemused that I could crave such monstrosities), I remembered what I’ve heard many people say about this establishment and others like it. “It’s not authentic Chinese food”, “How could they call THAT Chinese food”, or even “I’m Chinese so I’d be embarassed to be caught eating that stuff”. I then started to wonder, soy sauce slowly dribbling down my chin, why that is the case.

Some people even have said to me, knowing I’m a food blogger, something along the lines of “It’s not real”. Oh, well I guess I must’ve imagined that neon red sweet and sour sauce then. I guess that MAKES SENSE 😛

This is all a figment of your imagination, apparently.

Simply put: Why all the hate? Sure, these so-called Chinese food served in these places are practically unknown in China. And yes, it’s sad that the prevalence of this cuisine has reduced Chinese food in the eyes of many uninformed Westerners to fried stuff with sauce and rice. But it’s still GOOD. It’s not good FOOD, it’s not good FOR YOU, but it’s still good COMFORT food, in an Asianesque junky kind of way.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with proclaiming that you enjoy something that’s not authentic. Hell, most sushi restaurants in the GTA are made by Koreans and Hong Kong people. Does that make it unauthentic? Or how about the fact that almost every single person who knows how to make a half-decent Pad Thai claim that their restaurant serve Thai food?

As long as you don’t delude yourself into thinking that that big greasy plate of lemon chicken is authentically Chinese (FROM CHINA), there’s nothing to be ashamed of in liking it. Hell, Chinese food is, in my opinion, the single most ‘fused’ cuisine in the world. We have Indonesian-Chinese food, Singaporean-Chinese food, even Indian-Chinese food. And who could forget Chifa, the not-so-well-known-but-well-loved Peruvian-Chinese food. These are all legitimate cultural cuisines in their own right. So in a way, Manchu Wok, Panda Express, and the likes can be argued to be representatives of the North American equivalent of these cooking styles. It may not be authentic Chinese cuisine, but it’s authentic in an American/Canadian-Chinese cuisine perspective.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, kids.

Now gimme my fried seafood rangoons. Those things are scrumptious.