You would be forgiven if you thought you were just eating chicken. At first glance, the Hakka Blossom Chicken at Hakka Cuisine looks like a flattened, deboned bird cut into rectangles with crackling brown skin on top, two wings flanking its sides, and a head as a souvenir. But bite into a piece, and suddenly you’re eating shrimp, bouncy and flecked with creamy cubes of taro. There’s an audible crust of fried mei fun — rice vermicelli — on the bottom. It’s a beautiful mindfuck: Just because it looks like a chicken doesn’t mean it is.
Hakka Cuisine, which opened on Division Street last September, is the first restaurant of its kind in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Owner Wade Li, who grew up in Huizhou just north of Hong Kong, says he wanted a restaurant that reminded him of home. Hakka, which means “guest families” in Cantonese, refers to the history of multiple forced mass migrations that pushed the Hakka people out of the central plains southward toward the coastline. As a result, most Hakka live in Guangdong, and Hakkanese food has intertwined with Cantonese food while maintaining its own identity over the years. The itinerant nature of Hakka history is in the food. Many preserved ingredients — salted duck eggs, dehydrated greens, dried seafood — give the dishes heft and salt. “I have always appreciated Hakka cuisine because it’s so down-to-earth and humble,” says Grace Young, the cookbook author, who hosted a dinner at the restaurant the other week. “A lot of the food is very soulful, rustic, and hearty.”
And yet the cooking on display by Chef Ming Huang is playful and technically dazzling, iterating on Cantonese and Hakkanese classics. The Blossom Chicken is a spin on the Jiangnan hundred-flowers chicken — a dish that became popular in Guangzhou in the 1920s — that was braised in chrysanthemum-infused broth (hence the name). Huang became known for his version at Asian Jewels Seafood, a dim sum restaurant in Flushing, before coming to Hakka Cuisine. His recipe takes two days to make — the skin is removed in a single sheet and pinned to a bamboo mat before it’s air-dried overnight to achieve that righteous tan. Layers of shrimp paste, taro, and fried vermicelli come together to create an elaborate surf-and-turf that’s then fried together in a wok and cut into the size of tea sandwiches. Business has picked up enough now that they can prep a half-dozen servings daily, but anyone has the option to preorder one for $69, as well, to guarantee it will be waiting when they arrive.
The “chicken” is a collection of tiny sandwiches.
Photo: Scott Semler
There’s a keen attention to texture throughout the entire menu: Lobster sticky rice has both steamed and deep-fried rice, like the golden crust at the bottom of a stone pot. Fried kabocha squash has the slight grain of salted egg yolks; sweet-and-sour pork arrives on crushed ice so that the cold seals the nuggets into a tight lacquer. There are Hakkanese specialties like squares of tofu with divots filled with pork meatballs and shredded dried scallops on top for a briny umami. Another is a stir fry of silverfish (technical name: lancelet) with yellow and green chives and onions just barely smoking from the high heat of a wok. One of the hallmarks of Hakka cooking, often referred to as Chinese soul food, is also one of their signatures: pork belly with rehydrated mustard greens has been braised in a stew of soy sauce, fermented soybeans, spices, and rock sugar. It’s tender without being greasy, and has a sweet and salty stickiness with hints of licorice.