You know why Hakkas have such a reputation for being tough?
It maaaaay have something to do with the historical habit of gritting our teeth and keeping our head down and making the best of any situation in all the strange places to which we've drifted (twas curiously delightful to hear a family sitting next to me in transit in the airport in Panama yammering away in Hakka). Hell, we've made human transplating such an art form that it's become our identity -- Hakka literally translates as "the guest people".
But never mind all that.
Personally, I think it's because we eat rat tails for breakfast.
You can imagine how that talk-smack showdown on the school playground goes down.
"I eat kids like you for breakfast!"
"Oh yeah?" *Ornery curl of lip* "I bloody eat rat tails for breakfast. Kids like you, you're just afternoon tea. When I'm dieting."
Actually, I'm talking about rat tail noodles -- lao shu fen in Mandarin, or lo shu pan in Hakka, or mee tai mak among vendors in Singapore and Malaysia. It's also called silver needle noodles in more polite circles, and apparently also called the equivalent of "snot noodles", according to Mei, my Cantonese foodie friend!
Rat tail noodles are made primarily from rice flour and cornstarch. I grew up with the factory-made version of the stuff in Singapore (see below) but its bland, half-hearted gummy-bearish chewiness never really captured my attention, even when it was dressed up in fish broth and fish balls and fish dumplings.
But that all changed in Dabu, when we went to visit my ancestral village in the hilly northeasten corner of Guangdong province this past May.
Here, rat tail noodles are made fresh for breakfast. The rat tail noodle vendor places a wire deckle (see bottom right corner of photo below) over a steaming cauldron of boiling water and scrapes a huge brick of rice-flour dough over the deckle.
Down the rat-tail shaped noodles go, *plop plop plop* into the cauldron. They bubble bubble toil and trouble away for a few minutes, then get hoisted up with a large slotted ladle.
The noodles are then doused with some magical mix of soy sauce and sesame oil and extremely savoury minced pork and chives. It doesn't look like much but MAN does it have personality. The Dabu version of the noodles are much softer than the factory-made version (higher ratio of rice flour to corn starch I suspect), and what looks like just a pinch of seasoning goes a long way. Taken together, I simply cannot get enough of this stuff.
But rat tails are just for starters, it seems.
The same magic mincemeat ragu is used to flavour blanched yellow wheat alkali noodles as well. Also lovely and delicious, much more bitey, but it just doesn't evoke that same comfort food afterglow as the rat tails. Here's some wheat noodling action at a subsequent breakfast.
And to finish, there is pig liver and intestine broth. With some kind of woody-stemmed cress.
If eating at a traditional sidewalk stall, remember to really hunch over your soup to prevent splashage.
After 4 days straight of working through these 3-course breakfasts, the eatery I recommend if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world is Ah Jin Handmande Noodles, on Ren Min Road. (That's as much of the address as I could make out. I hope the photo of the storefront helps.)
Within this compact workshop which serves a full range of rat tails, rice noodles and wheat noodles, Ah Jin's proprietor moves quietly and deftly -- like a ninja! -- but with a lot of obvious loving care for his hand crafted noodles. Look at his poise while draining excess water from the noodles with chopsticks! There's that same lovely mince garnishing, but here at Ah Jin's the vegetable is a lovely bright green kong cai aka kang kong aka water spinach, which I like a lot more than lettuce.
Tuck in! We've got Hakka tulou -- traditional mud mansions -- to go see later today across the border in southwestern Fujian. But hell, I reckon these hearty Hakka breakfasts will sort you out for any big voyage you need to embark on in life.
From left: My Dad, his cousin Ah Pak -- our family link to our clan in Dabu -- and Ah Pak's wife Pak Meh or Auntie Mei Gui (Rose)
Intrigued enough to try some rat tails? Here are a few great leads to start
Malaysia: Pek Kong Cheng, Penang via VKeong; Restoran Law Shi Fun, Ipoh, via Motormouth from Ipoh; Ngau Kee Famous Beef Ball Noodle Stall, Kuala Lumpur via Food.Recentrunes; Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur via We Ate This
Any other leads elsewhere in the world? I'd love to hear from you!