Above: Chikininabuckit, Hakka style, is poached, rubbed with salt, then baked just before serving. Hunting down traditional Hakka dishes such as salt-baked chicken was a big motivator for me to come "home" to Dabu in Guangdong province
After 15 months on the road, I finally came home this past weekend.
Whatever that means.
"Home" is a funny thing. "Home" in terms of this past weekend was London, the city I lived in for about 3 years before Babs and I started off on our honeymoon. "Home", as I write this, is my mother-in-law's place near Birmingham, our basecamp while we figure out what we'll do next. In my parents' and childhood friends' view I'm probably still not "home" yet, because in their minds "home" is sunny food-mad Singapore.
This past May I even managed to come "home" to a place I'd never seen, to family I'd never met.
Accompanied by my Dad, his cousins Ah Pak and Pak Meh (the same Pak Meh who taught me how to make Hakka suan pan zhi), and Babs, I came "home" for the first time to my great grandfather's village. I came "home" to Dabu, in the hilly northeastern corner of Guangdong Province in China -- widely regarded as the Hakka dialect group's capital of the world.
And even then, "home" for the Hakkas can be a somewhat ephemeral concept.
Hakkas, which translates to "the guest people", have been on the move for the last thousand years. Said to have originated from central and northern China, they fled south in waves, upon each onslaught of military conflict. In the last few centuries they clustered in southern mainland China provinces such as Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan and Jiangxi.
The incumbent residents of these southern provinces already occupied the best agricultural flatlands, so Hakkas were often left to eke out a living from more mountainous terrain, or else no terrain at all. By sheer necessity, they emphasized education and exhorted their children to pursue careers in government and military service, or else seek their fortunes abroad. Well known figures such as China's Sun Yatsen and Deng Xiaoping; Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew; UK's Woon Wing Yip, Alan Yau and Jimmy Choo; and the strange phenomenon of "Hakka Noodles" being a staple on many a Chinese eatery menu throughout India, are just a few examplar products of this Hakka alchemy of ethos and circumstance.
My own family's nomadic history is a much humbler one: my Hakka paternal grandfather boarded a small boat from China and headed to Singapore with just the proverbial (but literal) shirt on his back; my Dad made Singapore his home but has undeniably itchy feet. I am still finding my feet in life, but have very obviously inherited itchy ones.
And this past May those itchy feet retraced some of those steps my ancestors had taken.
But not just yet. We're only at Guangzhou Airport, and Dabu is an 8 hour drive away. We've just been met by the Hakka welcome wagon, made up of Ah Pak's brother and sister and their sons, who still live in Dabu. Zhiguang -- the son of Ah Pak's dead brother -- is the chattiest of the lot and has signed up to be our guide for the next few days.
We pile into 2 cars, and AWAY WE GO!
Late that night we arrive at a nondescript streetside eatery in Dabu. The wonderfully authentic kind where the one-wok kitchen -- condiment array, live produce and all -- is out front for all to inspect, while the dining room is in the back.
As I tumble out of the car, bleary eyed, Zhiguang says to me: "Eat first. Eat first. Everything else, later."
Given their nomadic history, Hakkas are sometimes called the Jews of Asia. In which case, Zhiguang's utterance was certainly our shibboleth -- that was the precise moment I knew we came from the same stock.
And so began the first of many mindblowing "home"cooked meals:
Steamed chive dumplings, made fresh by hand (and 1 chopstick) just a few minutes before serving.
Offal in broth with coriander. We were to have a lot of this in the days to come. Especially for breakfast. You really do feel like you can take over the world after eating this. Or you should at least try. Just to burn off the energy.
Fresh-rolled springrolls, stuffed with shredded pork, hard tofu, beansprouts, chopped shitake mushrooms and other bits of bitey goodness.
Alkali wheat noodles with beef. Noodles -- especially the handmade variety -- and beef were going to prove quite the treat throughout our Dabu visit.
I can't believe I took so long to come home for the first time.