Her mother – i.e. The Iron Chef, Kayiu says — ran a family restaurant and cooked alongside her older brother day in and day out.
And while she now works in New York as a graphic and web designer, Kayiu still has a passion for the food of her homeland, and enjoys picking up new skills and testing out new recipes in her own kitchen.
On her blog, The Saucy Spatula, Kayiu writes about Cantonese, Hong Kongese and Hakka food culture, and shares recipes for dishes influenced by these cuisines.
Here, she talks more about her love of food, traditional Hong Kong cuisine and her Hakka ancestry. Read on:
Tell us about the Saucy Spatula. When and why did you start your site?
I created Saucy Spatula about three years ago after being inspired by many great food bloggers through my old job at babble.com. Saucy Spatula is a place where I write about the Cantonese/Hakka/Hong Kongese food culture, and I create dishes that are influenced by their cuisines. Basically, food that I grew up eating in Hong Kong.
What types of posts will we find on your site?
Lots of recipes! I also love to travel and bring my camera to places, and I have some travel posts up on the blog and would like to grow some of that content on Saucy Spatula. Recently, I just did a blog series called Meet My Inspiration, which features some of the food bloggers who I look up to every day, so there’s quite a bit of articles on that content as well.
Your family owned a restaurant where your mom was the chef. What are the most important lessons you learned about food and cooking growing up?
I learned a ton from my mom and my cooking is definitely a reflection of hers. She influenced me to be open-minded with food and not be afraid to use unfamiliar ingredients. What she also inspired in me as a home cook is practice makes perfection. She’s never afraid to fail in the kitchen, and would cook and make changes to recipes as many times as needed. What I think I learned most from her about food and cooking is simply her attitude and work ethics, which gets carried outside of the kitchen as well.
Beyond the business aspect, how has food – cooking it, eating it – shaped you?
Food means a lot to me. It goes beyond just the cooking and eating parts of it. I’ve come to love learning about ingredients and the history behind dishes and such. I believe that to truly appreciate food, one must understand food other than just the taste. And that principle applies to most of the content I put up on the blog. Food is a great vehicle for storytelling.
What flavors inspire you in the kitchen now?
For the past couple of months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Vivian Howard, who’s the chef and owner of Chef and the Farmer down in North Carolina. She also has a PBS show called A Chef’s Life. I’ve been learning so much about Southern cuisine, and I came to realize that the essence of Southern living is very similar to the Hakka’s way of life. I love watching Vivian turn traditional dishes that are rustic into something of her own. What’s been inspiring me in the kitchen is dishes that are simple, fresh, and homey.
You and your family are originally from Hong Kong. Can you tell us a little about the cuisine? What sets it apart from the typical Chinese takeout most Americans are familiar with?
Hong Kong cuisine and the typical Chinese takeout in America aren’t so much alike at all. If you go through any Chinese American menus, I can point out so many dishes that are either created here in America or modified from another culture. Chinese American food like General Tso chicken, crab rangoons, chop suey, and even the fortune cookies are more like American food with Chinese influence.
Hong Kong cuisine mainly hails from Cantonese cuisine with things like whole roast suckling pig, wonton or beef brisket noodle soups, fresh seafood dishes, clay pot rice and dim sum.
However, the Hong Kong cuisine is also about food that has minimal Chinese flavors, and that’s when we’re talking about things that many locals enjoy daily at Cha Chaan Tengs, or tea restaurants/cafes. Some of the iconic Hong Kong fare that has a trace of western influence are things like milk tea, french toasts, egg and beef sandwiches, pineapple buns, spaghetti bolognese, egg waffles, egg tarts, etc. Those are the things that make Hong Kong cuisine special, in my opinion, because they reflect on its culture quite a bit from its British colony past.
When you don’t feel like cooking but are craving the taste of home, where do you like to go out to eat in Brooklyn?
Brooklyn has an amazing array of food choices, but I have not yet hunted down a place that truly offers me the taste of home. Like I’ve mentioned previously, Cantonese cuisine makes up most of what Hong Kong cuisine is about, so finding Cantonese cuisine in any Chinese communities in New York isn’t very difficult. However, what’s harder to find is Hong Kong fare that resembles things that you can get from a Cha Chaan Teng. If I’m really looking for those dishes, I’d take a trip to Manhattan’s Chinatown or out to Flushing as well.
You recently traveled to Hong Kong and Thailand. What were some of the most memorable meals you had while you were traveling?
Oh, there are way too many to mention! Sushi and soup dumplings in Hong Kong, and an authentic Thai cuisine with fresh seafood in Phuket in Southern Thailand where the restaurant was run by a local family.
What precisely is Hakka?
Aaah. This might be a long one to digest, but bear with me! Hakka is a group of people who had lived in Northern China hundreds of years ago, but moved and settled into the Southern regions over the course of 15 centuries. Wars and famine forced the Hakkas to migrate time after time, and they had pretty much become travelers and were seen as outsiders wherever they settled. The term Hakka literally means “guest family,” as they were always guest of the land wherever they lived.
Hakkas are mostly farmers and have a reputation as pioneers, since they are not afraid to go outside of their comfort zones to make a better living for themselves. Throughout the years, Hakkas have made their ways into many corners of the world. There’re currently 40 million Hakkas living in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and another 40 million living in over 50 countries worldwide. The Hakka people’s culture and immigration history is long and rich, and they flourished wherever they could. Much of my knowledge about the Hakka people was learned from Linda Lau Anusasananan, author of The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from around the World. Her book really helped me connect the dots of my curiosity about my ancestry.
What would be considered traditional Hakka cuisine?
Because of the Hakka’s history as travelers and immigrants, it’s hard to define what exactly counts as “traditional” Hakka cuisine as there are many regional adaptations. However, what’s true is that Hakka food is country food where rich, hearty and rustic meals are key along with lots of fresh vegetables.
There are some classic dishes that the Hakka took with them wherever they migrated to, and they were able to modify those dishes using local ingredients. Some of the classic dishes are stuffed tofu, pork belly with preserved mustard greens, salt-baked chicken, wine chicken, salted and pickled mustard greens, savory pounded tea rice, etc. And from most of my childhood watching my grandfather cook in the kitchen, his favorite Hakka dish is the braised pork belly with red fermented bean curd.