[Singapore] Hakka dinner at Plum Village Restaurant

Throwback to a family dinner at Plum Village Restaurant on Upper Thomson Road last January.

Plum Village is the last remaining Hakka restaurant in Singapore. It was set up in 1984 by Mr Lai Fak Nian, 72, the Hakka owner-chef who’s very passionate about his Hakka culinary heritage, and has travelled to his family’s ancestral hometown, Meizhou in Guangdong, China, to collect Hakka street food recipes for his restaurant.

The Hakka people’s ancestors originated from Northern China, but were driven southwards because of wars ever since the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). Since then, the Hakkas are known as the gypsies of China. Labelled in Mandarin as “ke jia ren” (客家人) or the “Guest Families People”, the Hakkas do not have a home province of their own ever since their exodus from the north, but lived as minorities in other provinces, with especially large numbers in Guangdong and Fujian, whilst preserving the integrity of their language and culture. The Hakkas also migrated in large numbers throughout South-east Asia and as far as India, founding the Chinatown in Kolkata, India’s oldest. The Hakka diaspora is estimated to be upwards of 120 million-strong!

Hakka cuisine is pretty rustic, as it reflects their nomadic lifestyle. Our family dinner this evening:

  1. Sohn Pan Tzai (算盘子) - “Abacus beads”, made from yam flour, cut into shape of abacus beads, then cooked with minced pork, dried shrimps, cubed tofu & mushrooms.

  2. Dung Gong Yam Guk Gai (東江鹽焗雞) - Salt baked chicken.

  3. Kiu nyuk (扣肉) - Braised pork belly with preserved mui choy.

  4. Ngiong Tew Foo (釀豆腐) - Hakka tofu stuffed with minced pork & fish paste, then braised in brown sauce.

  5. Chicken red wine soup - this is more Foochow than Hakka, which has its own chicken in yellow wine soup. I didn’t ask them about this dish’s peculiarity.

  6. Stir-fried choy sum

  7. Sweet potato in brown sugar and ginger soup.

I really wanted to like Plum Village - after all, the founder of modern Singapore and its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was a Hakka himself. It’s unthinkable for Singapore not to have a Hakka restaurant, among its plethora of thousands of Chinese restaurants in the city: spanning from Cantonese to Chiuchow (Teochew), Shanghainese, Sichuanese, Hokkien and many more.

But the standard of cooking here at Plum Village seemed to have eroded, as we found out on this most recent visit. I remembered really liking its food back in the 1990s, and even in the early 2010s. The restaurant still packed in quite a crowd - probably regulars or old-timers who patronise it out of familiarity.

Address
Plum Village Restaurant
16 Jalan Leban, off Upper Thomson Road
Singapore 577554
Tel: +65 6458 9005
Opening hours: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6pm to 10pm

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The 2 Chinese cuisines I like the most are Hakka and Sichuan. It’s painful to realise I most probably never visit China again.

I have always wanted to look up Hakka recipes and make them but haven’t got around to even starting. There must be Hakka cookery books in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan etc. Where there are a big concentration of Hakkas, really. Or do they only pass on the recipes by teaching younger generations in the families? I’m guessing resources written in English is scarce, if they exist at all. Please, if possible, can you find out for me if they exist in Malaysia or Singapore? I must remember to look for it next time I go to Taiwan.

My lunch in Meizhou one day in 2008, at a “mid-range” restaurant: salt-baked chicken, stuffed tofu, and bamboo shoots. I even made a photo of the receipt and their business card. And check out the prices, 48 yuan for the chicken.

And a bonus: a huge plaque inside our hotel.

Official public announcements in Taiwan are also in Hakka language. Next time you are in Taiwan, especially the northern part of the island, remember to listen to them when you catch a (long-distance) train or MTR.

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Your suspicion is correct - Hakka cooking seemed to be very family-based, and is usually passed down by the older members of the family to their immediate family members from the next generation. I’ve been looking out for a proper Hakka cookbook for decades, and the only specialised one in English that I’ve found is Linda Lau Anusasananan’s The Hakka Cookbook:

More about Linda Lau here:
https://thehakkacookbook.com/about-the-author/

One of my sisters is married to a Hakka, and I got her a copy of this book, which she said had recipes that varied somewhat from those taught to her by her Hakka mother-in-law. An example is their family’s abacus beads, which is almost soupy, compared to the stir-fried version which seemed to be de rigeur in most commercial Hakka eateries.

You can see my sister’s family version of the abacus beads dish in their Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner spread here, which was wholly Hakka - I’d gate-crashed their last one as I’d always wanted to try a “different” Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner spread from our own (which is Hokkien-Nyonya).

For comparison’s sake, this is how my own family’s Hokkien-Nyonya Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner spread look like:

I can’t speak Hakka at all, but can recognise the sound of their language - I’ll keep an ear out for what you said when I visit Taiwan next time. Like Taiwan, the second-largest Chinese dialect group in Malaysia, after the Hokkiens/Fujianese, are the Hakkas. Majority of the Hakkas in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Singapore are from Dabu County in Guangdong. Many towns in Malaysia, e.g. Kajang and Seremban, near KL, have almost wholly-Hakka Chinese populace, so that’s the dialect you hear all the time there.

On Penang island, where I stay, Hokkien/Fujianese is the overwhelming majority, but in the town of Balik Pulau which was established by the British East India Company in1794, the Hakkas are the majority. It’s only a half-hour’s drive from George Town, so we’d go there for Hakka meals.

If you travel across the South China Sea to East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, the Chinese there are almost 80% Hakka. The city you should visit there, if you’re ever in this neighbourhood, is Kuching, where you’ll find great Hakka cuisine a-plenty.

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Thank you! I shall look into that book. But it’s still best to travel to places where there’s a large population of Hakkas to eat the real thing :smiley:

Your Nyonya-Hokkien meal is more red. More spices and chillies. But the Hakka feast looks awesome, too. Wouldn’t say no to either.

Same dishes sometimes look or taste a little different from family to family but it’s not “unauthentic”.

Looks like we have to return to Penang in the future. Might need to say in Balik Pulau so we can eat Hakka food every.day.!

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Balik Pulau’s best-known Hakka restaurant, Lao Hakka, has actually expanded into George Town proper, and now runs the Chinese restaurants at the prestigious Penang Chinese Recreation Club on Victoria Green, and at the Penang Chinese Swimming Club in Tanjung Bungah. I’d posted on the latter branch previously:

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Peter, any recommendations for great Hakka places in KL?

My favourite Hakka restaurant in KL is Yap Chong (叶昭茶室) at
16-18, Old Pudu Ulu, Batu 3 1/2, off Jalan Cheras,
55300 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +603 9284 9649

KL’s Hakka diaspora seemed to be very much assimilated into the larger Cantonese community, so much so that in 80% of the so-called Cantonese restaurants, and especially “dai chow” places, you can pick out the obvious Hakka dishes offered there, e.g. braised pork belly and yam, yong tau fu platters, etc. They are very likely Hakka-owned & -run. But specialised Hakka restaurants are very hard to find, as they would simply project themselves as “Chinese” restaurants, with Cantonese and local Chinese-Malaysian dishes like the ubiquitous fish-head curry, or the “Four Heavenly Kings” (aubergines, long beans. wing beans and stink-beans in sambal belachan).

The Hakka Restaurant in town is anything but that. It was a different animal altogether back in the 1980s when it offered typical Hakka dishes like “kiu nyuk” and “ngiang tiew fu”. These days, it’s a seafood restaurant targeted at the corporate clients with expense accounts and tourists. Interesting to see how it fares in the COVID-19 era.

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Peter, I hear “dai chow” thrown around a lot here.

For a novice, what does it mean?

A style of cooking? A specific meal time? A set of dishes one should expect?

also thanks for the rec, looks great!!!

It’s always a bit of a struggle to convert romanized Chinese to English for me, but I think he’s talking about carryout places - literally “take away”. Or as my family refers to them (apologies for the terrible romanization) jap sui po (which are not exclusively takeaway though).

Literally, it translates to “Big Fry-up”, but in KL’s Cantonese street slang, it refers to a type of casual eatery where a diner can order any type of dish (besides those listed on the eatery’s standard menu or day’s specials on the board) by specifying what meats or vegetables, and type of cooking to be applied to it. Normally, the diner and waiter would have a brief discussion, and agree upon the dishes to be prepared.

In Singapore, the equivalent is called a “tze char”:

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We used to go to a restaurant in Tenerife like that. No menu but the conversation, usually in a mix of English and Spanish, would go something like:

“What do you want to eat, meat or fish?”
“Meat”
“Goat, beef or chicken?”
“Goat”
“Vegetables or salad?”
“Vegetables”

There would be a similar discussion over a starter, although the waiter would usually suggest something. And, in due course, food would arrive. It used to be a great evening. We still go there every trip, even though they now have a menu - but it isnt as good.

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Yes, very much along those lines! :grin:

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Back when Indian restaurants were just gaining a trendy toehold here, a colleague was very enthusiastic about a lamb curry dish at the most successful of those pioneering beaneries. Once after another of his frequent meals he complained to us that the latest iteration of his go-to dish was noticeably short in the lamb department. Ever the loyal customer, his following report was that he returned, ordered “lamb curry with lamb”, and was met with a blank stare.

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:joy::joy::joy:

Ok, I think I’ve experienced this in HK, in those alleyway restaurants where they stir fry basically anything and it always tastes amazing. Thanks for the clarification. I was also going to ask about ‘ze char’ so it sounds like they are similar…

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Ah, interesting - I’m illiterate in Chinese so the the romanization is all I’ve got to go off of, and it’s more of a feeling out process

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The HK equivalent is the “dai pai dong” - exactly the same concept. So’s Singapore’s “tze char”. :grin::+1:

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Market stall in Lima
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