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Hakka-Style Halibut

I’d like to raise a virtual glass of bubbly to Linda Lau Anusasananan, whom I’ve known for years since her days as the recipe editor for Sunset magazine.

I’d like to congratulate her on a job well done for finally publishing her “The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from Around the World” (University of California Press), of which I recently received a review copy.

It’s a true labor of love and deliciousness that Lau Anusasananan spent more than five years working on. Her brother, artist Alan Lau, did the lovely illustrations of ingredients in the book.

For Chinese-Americans like myself, we’re all the better for its publication, too, because it includes so many recipes for dishes that we grew up with and still crave to this day.

The Hakka once lived in the plains of the Yellow River near Henan in north-central China, Lau Anusasananan writes. Because of war, famine, droughts and floods, they were forced to migrate south to become minorities without a true home. Because they were landless, they were looked at disparagingly. Often, after being shunned, they would have to pull up stakes and start over on land no one else wanted, usually infertile spots in the remote highlands.

I’m not sure if my family has Hakka roots, though they do hail from southern China. But the dishes in this book definitely speak to me with their strong, rustic flavors. Lau Anusasananan calls Hakka cuisine “nomadic soul food.” It’s home-cooking. It’s comfort food. It’s dishes such as “Steamed Chicken and Chinese Sausage,” “Stir-Fried Cumin Beef,” “Steamed Pork Hash” and “Salt-Baked Chicken.”

As well as “Pan-Fried Fish, Green Onions and Chiles,” which you might know better from Chinese restaurants as salt-and-pepper fish. It’s a seasoned salt-and-pepper mixture used often in restaurants on fried pork riblets, too.

This dish couldn’t be simpler. It’s just halibut chunks wok-tossed after being coated with white pepper, cornstarch, salt and five-spice powder. The latter — a mixture of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel seeds — is like magic fairy dust, enveloping the palate in cozy warmth.

One taste had me smiling over memories of enjoying this exact taste with my family at so many restaurant gatherings in San Francisco.

I miss those times, as my parents are no longer with me. So, thank you, Linda, for providing me a way of recapturing those beloved tastes in my own kitchen now.

Meet Linda Lau Anusasananan: She’ll be signing copies of her cookbook at Eastwind Books in Berkeley, 2:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Oct. 21.  She’ll also be signing copies at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, 6 p.m.-7 p.m. Oct. 24. Both events are free.

Pan-Fried Fish, Green Onions, and Chiles

(Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish or 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal)

For the fish:

1 pound skinless fillet from a firm, white-fleshed fish, such as halibut

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon five-spice powder

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons cornstarch, or as needed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the stir-fry:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 green onions, cut into 3-inch lengths, including green tops

12 thin slices ginger

5 to 8 thin rings from fresh chile (preferably red), such as Fresno or jalapeno, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon five-spice powder

For the fish: Rinse fish and pat dry. Cut fish into sticks 1/2 inch thick and 2 to 3 inches long. On a large plate, mix the salt, five-spice powder, and white pepper. Coat fish with salt mixture. Shortly before frying, sprinkle the cornstarch over the fish to lightly coat; shake off excess.

Set a 12-inch nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add oil and rotate pan to spread. Place fish in a single layer in the pan and cook, turning once, until the fish is browned on the outside and barely opaque in the center of the thickest part (cut to test), 4 to 5 minutes total. With a slotted spatula, transfer fish to a serving dish.

For the stir-fry: Return pan to medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add oil and rotate to spread. Add green onions, ginger, chile, salt and five-spice powder. Stir-fry until green onions begin to wilt, about 30 seconds. Return fish to the pan and stir-fry gently until seasonings coat the fish, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a serving dish.

From “The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from Around the World” by Linda Lau Anusasananan

More Chinese Comfort Food: Andrea Nguyen’s Roast Chicken with Red Fermented Tofu

And: My Mom’s Chicken and Rice

And: My Version of Steamed Pork Hash

And: My Mom’s Tomato Beef Chow Mein

And: Grace Young’s Stir-Fried Bagels with Cabbage and Bacon