Translated by Olivia Yang

Hsinchu is the well-known Windy City with many scenic and cultural landscapes. It houses the lively National Tsing Hua University and National Chiao Tung University, the engineer-packed Hsinchu Science Park, the traditional Japanese style Hsinchu Train Station and the meatball rice noodle soup in front of the City God Temple (城隍廟). But aside from all these, there is another distinctive travel option-the local Hakka culture.


Photo Credit: mingyang su CC BY-ND 2.0

What comes to your mind when speaking of the Hakka culture? Colorful Hakka fabric? Stir-fried pork intestines with ginger? Fragrant pounded tea (lei cha, 擂茶)? These are all elements of the Hakka culture people generally believe, but aren’t enough to represent the true spirit of the Hakka life. Here are some fun facts about the Hsinchu Hakka culture for you to learn as you travel through the city!

First impression of the Hakka culture: the Hakka people know their farming
Hsinchu has many Hakka communities and is one of the largest Hakka strongholds in Taiwan. The impression that Hakka people are good at farming has been passed down for generations, but there is an arduous reclamation story behind this belief.

When the Hakka people first arrived in Taiwan around three hundred years ago, they had a tradition due to the difficult environment: both men and women had to work in the fields to build a better life together. Up to this day, the determined Hakka women in their bamboo hats and un-bound feet (for going into the fields) are still the first impression many people have of the Hakka people.

The Hakka people are good at clearing up the land and doing fieldwork. They tackle the toughest hills and valleys with their sophisticated skills and experience. The “Taiwanese, Hakka and Aboriginal Collaboration" in the early days refers to the Taiwanese, Hakka and the Pingpu indigenous people working together to cultivate the plains and hills of northern Taiwan. The Hakka people would use their skilled hands to fill the rocky valleys and clear up the wasteland so it was suitable for planting crops. Looking out across the green rice fields and the earth full of vitality, one would think the land had been enchanted.

Second impression of the Hakka culture: Hakka food is simple with little delicacies
The Hakka people are honest, so their cuisine reflects their living environment. There was a shortage of materials in the early days and crops in the fields were a steadier source of food. Therefore, vegetables, pickled vegetables, rice, and tofu were the main ingredients Hakka people used to cook. The Hakka people even have a nickname for the cheap tofu, “life bag," for how dearly they treasure the food.

The people also catch freshwater fish in the rivers or ponds when they have some free time away from the fields. But because it is more time-consuming, they don’t often get to enjoy fish. Saltwater fish is even more difficult to come across and the Hakka people only get to enjoy it a few times a year. This leads to the Hakka saying, “The poor doesn’t know any better and has as much rice as they can with their fish." Whenever there is fish on the table, everyone can’t help but have more rice, even if there’s not enough, because the fish is too good.

But also because of the difficult environment, the Hakka people eat whatever they can get. They don’t have a habit of fancy cooking, and do not use complicated techniques to handle the ingredients. Instead, the Hakka people emphasize on local ingredients and authentic flavors, just like what Italy and France have been promoting for the past few years. Other than paying more attention to sautéing when seasoning their food, the Hakka people seldom come up with extravagant names for their cuisine or materials.

Photo Credit: 張嘻嘻 CC BY-ND 2.0

Lard rice, brown sugar (“black sugar" for the Hakka people) rice, stir-fried pork intestines with ginger, shrimp egg (diced shrimp fried with egg), and so on; the flavors are simple, but delicious, and go well with rice. Very few Hakka restaurants can present the authentic flavors of this traditional cuisine, so ask around when you visit the Hakka villages in Hsinchu and you might still get a chance to relish the traditional flavors.

The third impression of the Hakka culture: the Hakka people are very frugal
“Being frugal" is a Hakka virtue and is a strong ethnic characteristic shaped under the harsh environment of the past. In the early days, the Hakka tradition was to use the ingredients to their fullest and refrain from wasting them because food wasn’t easy to obtain. Each October, the farmers would harvest the second crop of rice of the year and start planting crops that grew faster, such as radish and leaf mustard, two or three months before Chinese New Year, so they could harvest again before the holidays.

The crunchy leaf mustard is softened after drying under the sun and is taken to the grain-drying fields in the evening where they are covered with a layer of straw and salt. Adults and children roll up their pants and start stamping hard on the dried vegetable. Afterwards, the leaves are pressed down by stones and stir-fried with minced meat the next day after being washed. This is the famous dish, “pickled potherb mustard (雪裡紅)." The leftover dried vegetable is put into a large jar and pickled for seven to eight days, which is the well-known “Hakka pickle" (also known as sauerkraut). Hakka pickles can be cooked with a lot of things, such as duck, pork stomach, pork tripe, soups and so on. This is because the pickles go well with everything. There is even a Hakka characteristic, “pickled type," meaning a person is easygoing and gets along with anyone.

Photo Credit: P.H–Jack CC BY-ND 2.0

In addition to “pickled type" people, there is another interesting kind, the “taro-leaf style." These people usually run out of money from spending paycheck to paycheck. The description comes from the Hakka people noticing how water doesn’t stay on taro leaves and rolls down instead. This is just like how some people can’t keep their money in their pockets. Going back to Hakka pickles. If the pickles haven’t been finished, the Hakka people would dry the leftovers on bamboo poles for two days and then stuff them into sealed jars placed upside down, just like the people who plank on the streets. The vegetable at this phase is called “planked vegetable(仆菜)" because it’s placed upside down. After it completes fermentation, the sourness of the pickle vanishes, leaving only a sweet fragrance. Taking it out of the jar and leaving it to dry for a few more days and cooking it with minced meat turns it into the famous dish, " pork steamed with pickled mustard cabbage(梅乾扣肉)."

The different stages of the pickles impeccably reflect the frugal sprit of the Hakka people.

Photo Credit: Dear Shy CC BY SA 2.0

Fourth impression of the Hakka culture: use everything to the fullest without wasting a single morsel
In addition to being frugal, the Hakka people have also come up with a lot of ways to make use of everything because of the shortage of materials in the past. Take persimmons, a famous fruit of Hsinchu, for example.

Persimmons are rich in tannin, but taste dry if eaten directly. The intelligent Hakka people pick the persimmons that are almost ripe and dab some lye onto the end of the stem near the fruit and then wrap up the fruit airtight. After a few days, they have sweet and soft persimmons to eat.

Photo Credit: 欣盈 CC BY SA 2.0

Whenever the northeast monsoon starts blowing (also called “winds of September" in the Hsinchu area), the season to make persimmon cakes has arrived. The Hakka people peel the fruit and leave it to dry under the sun. After it turns softer, the people shape the fruit with their hands, flattening the round persimmons. The fruits that have been dried for five to six days are called “persimmon navels (柿臍)," which is the most delicious phase for persimmons. The fruit becomes hard and blackened if continued to dry, and turns into dried persimmons that can be preserved for a long time. A layer of white fruit powder, called “persimmon powder (柿霜)", covers the surface of the fruit in this stage. The Hakka people brush the powder off and use it to treat sore throats, asthma, and coughs, turning it into a very natural and useful medicine.

It seems as if the Hakka people really know how to maximize the value of everything. However, even though the people are prudent to themselves, they are still very generous when it comes to treating others. During the short resting time in the fields each October, Hakka villages entertain one another with banquets. Chicken, pork and so on all make it to dinner tables with people chatting and laughing. This is the warmest picture of the farming life. After the short break, the Hakka farmers start bustling about again, getting ready to plant the final crops before the Chinese New Year. Among the hustle and bustle, years go by just like that.

Take a Hakka cultural trip next time you visit Hsinchu!

Whether it is to visit the Yimin Temple or monuments, tasting the ginger lily flower cuisine or strolling around the old theater at Nei Wen Old Street, reminiscing the old railway tracks of the Qing dynasty in Hukou, gazing at the puzi forest (朴子林) near the coast of Xinfeng, the rich local culture and villages of Hsinchu are all worth spending two or three days taking in and experiencing.

Next stop, Hsinchu! Let’s go anywhere!

【Special Thanks】

Special thanks goes out to Huang Zhuo-quan (黃卓權老師) and Fan Zheng-qin (范正欽老師) for the interviews and providing insights into the Hakka history and culture.