Tapu Hakka specialties

Stuffed beancurd in soya bean soup
Armed with their grandfather’s recipes, the Ho cousins are cooking up a storm at the Ke Ren Lai cafe, writes PEGGY LOH

THE first time I heard the phrase, Ke Ren Lai, it was in a popular Mandarin children’s song about a guest visiting a child’s father but he was not in.

Ke ren is the Mandarin word for hakka which means “guest”. Hakka people are well known for their cuisine. I like Hakka dishes such as hum cha (or lui cha fun — thunder tea rice), yong tau fu (stuffed beancurd) and kau yok (sliced pork with preserved vegetables).

Winnie, my Hakka friend, introduced me to Ke Ren Lai, a cafe serving Hakka food and I have made repeat visits to savour my favourites. As I got better acquainted with the cafe, I realised that Ke Ren Lai was a clever play on words and a very catchy name for a cafe!

The Hakka is one of the main dialect groups of Chinese in the country and Hakka communities can be found in the western parts of the peninsula and in north Borneo.  In Sabah, Hakka is the main Chinese dialect spoken and in Johor, the Chinese in the Kulaijaya and Kluang districts are predominantly Hakka.

Cousins in food

Cousins Ho Yih Keong and Bryan Ho grew up enjoying Hakka food at home, so when they ventured into the food business, they naturally decided to serve Hakka cuisine.  The Ho cousins offer Hakka food from China’s Tapu district in the Guangdong province, where their grandfather originated from.

Yih Keong, who has a wealth of kitchen experience, is involved with the operations while Bryan applies his marketing skills to the business. The first outlet opened in Taman Pelangi in 2002 and since then, two more branches of Ke Ren Lai opened in Johor Baru City Square and Sutera Mall, serving Hakka specialties made from recipes that had been handed down through the generations.

Noodles and abacus beads

“This is the correct way to eat the noodles,” says Bryan as he shows me how to eat the Tapu Hakka minced meat noodles. Most people eat the noodles and meat separately but that’s not the right way to appreciate the full flavour of this dish.

Hakka yam abacus beads
Bryan explains that the minced meat is stir fried until dry to let it absorb all the sauces. To enjoy the right balance of taste, he says, this flavourful minced meat should be eaten together with the noodles.

Abacus Beads is a must-try Hakka specialty. Using my chopsticks, I pick up a piece of dough that’s made with a blend of tapioca and yam. This dish is so named because the dough is cut into the shape of abacus beads. This is stir fried with minced meat, dried shrimp, sliced mushroom and seasoned with light soya sauce and a dash of rice wine or vinegar.

Hakka Thunder Tea rice set or Hum Cha
I can feel the spongy bounce of the dough with my chopsticks and it feels rather chewy to the bite. But it’s surprisingly good. After a while, I lose count of how many abacus beads I’ve popped into my mouth!

Thunder tea rice, a dish synonymous with the Hakka, is an acquired taste because not many people can appreciate eating rice with a green tea brew.

Traditionally, ingredients for the green tea (such as toasted peanut and sesame seed, mint, basil, sweet potato leaf and tea leaf) are ground together in an earthen bowl with a stick pestle made from the guava tree.

A bowl of rice, fragranced with garlic and shallots and topped with a variety of chopped green vegetables, dried tofu and pickled radish, is served with a bowl of this strong green tea. I prefer to eat the rice and vegetables and drink the soup separately but the Hakka way is to drown the rice with the tea and slurp it all up!

Soup and specialties

Pig stomach and chicken pepper soup
“It’s not the same if we substitute pork with another meat,” Bryan explains when I observe that the menu has a lot of pork dishes. It’s interesting that many Hakka dishes use pork belly with pickled vegetables or fermented beancurd.

Some typical Hakka specialties include stewed pork trotters, cha yok (braised pork belly with black fungus) and mui choi kau yok (sliced pork with yam and preserved vegetables).

Another favourite is deep-fried slices of pork belly marinated in nam yee (fermented red beancurd).

Ke Ren Lai has a range of noodle dishes served with a typical Hakka specialty, yong tau fu or stuffed beancurd in clear soup.

Tofu triangles and a variety of vegetables such as eggplant, bittergourd and mushrooms are stuffed with a blend of minced pork and fish, dried prawn and salted fish. Traditionally, the stuffed tofu and vegetables are served in soup but they can also be served fried or braised.

Ice tofu with minced century egg
“This is very good!” says Yih Keong as he passes me a bowl of piping hot pepper soup cooked with pork stomach and small pieces of chicken.

“We use free-range chicken,” he adds. In the cool air-conditioned cafe, the peppery soup tastes warm and lovely as it trickles down my throat. I privately compared it to the home-cooked brew I’m familiar with and must agree that it’s just as good.

Of the many dishes that use tofu in its various forms, I best like the chilled tofu with century egg sauce. The brick of white tofu is topped with a contrasting black sauce of minced jelly-like century egg.  It looks both interesting and intriguing.

When I spoon a wobbly portion into my mouth, my eyes snap open wide at the explosion of flavours from the iced tofu and the exotic taste of century eggs. Yum!

Fast facts

Check out the menu for more Hakka specialties — drunken chicken and soup such as black beans with pork and lotus root with pork. There’s also a range of traditional desserts like barley beancurd sheet soup with ginkgo nuts, guilin gao (Chinese herbal pudding) and brewed herbal tea. The menu at each outlet varies slightly and convenient set lunches are available in the City Square outlet.

Ke Ren Lai
6 Jalan Pingai, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, Tel: 07-331 2430.
It has branches at:
Johor Baru City Square , Tel: 07-278 2788
The Sutera Mall, Tel: 07-5588 388.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 31 March 2011

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