Hakka means “guest people” in Chinese, and the name refers to a group of northern Chinese who were driven south in the wake of Tartar invasions in the fourth and ninth centuries and who re-established themselves in the mountainous regions of Canton and Fukien. To this day, the Hakka maintain a dialect, a way of dress, and a style of cooking that sets them apart from their southern neighbors. Hakka cooking, which is gutsier than Cantonese cooking and uses less oil and more pungent condiments, is particularly to my liking. It is for the most part earthy and simple, with a striking, clean taste.
Soak the dried shrimp in very hot tap water to cover until a single shrimp tastes pleasantly salty when you bite down on it, about 15 minutes. Drain, rinse, then discard any bits of clinging shell. Pat the shrimp dry and mince them finely, either in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife or by hand.
In a medium bowl combine the minced shrimp, ginger, scallion, soy, wine, pepper, cornstarch and 1 tablespoon stock, stirring until well blended. Add the pork, then stir lightly in one direction to combine. Pick the pork up in your hand and throw it lightly 6 or 8 times against the side of the bowl to gently compact it. Transfer the pork to a bowl to hold it snugly, press a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the pork to seal it airtight, and refrigerate until use, overnight if desired. Chilled, the stuffing will be easier to handle.
Cut each square of tofu into 4 triangles by cutting crosswise on the diagonal. Place the first triangle flat on your cutting surface, and then with a small sharp knife begin at the freshly cut pointed end (which used to be the center of the square) to cut out a V-shaped wedge to within ½ inch of what used to be the outside edge of the square. Make the wedge about ½ inch thick at the freshly cut pointed end, so that you have a nice open “mouth” ready to be filled with stuffing. Do not cut away too much, however. The idea is to stretch the opening and stuff it, not to throw away most of the tofu.
Once you have cut the tofu, proceed directly to stuff it.
Pick up the first tofu triangle and cradle it in your palm. With your free fingers, scoop up 2–3 teaspoons filling, then gently begin to stuff it in the slit you have cut in the triangle. Work delicately to fill the slit so that the pointed “mouth” yawns wide open and the stuffing bulges gently on the sides, taking care not to stuff the filling in so far that you break the outer “jaw” and cause the triangle to split in two. (If this happens, gently press the triangle together again and fry it with the others. It may be less pretty in the end, but it will still taste fine.) When the mouth is yawning widely, smooth the outer bulge of filling with your finger and put the triangle aside on a plate, tofu side down so the filling is not touching. Repeat the process until all the triangles are stuffed. If you should have a bit of stuffing left over, roll it into tiny meatballs between wet palms and put them aside on the plate to be pan-fried with the tofu.
Once stuffed, the tofu may be refrigerated several hours before cooking, sealed airtight. Bring to room temperature before frying.
Combine the remaining stock and the soy. Blend the cornstarch mixture until smooth and leave the spoon in the bowl. Put all the ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop and put a shallow serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm.
Heat a heavy, 12-inch skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 6 tablespoons oil, swirl to coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one triangle laid meat side down in the pan, quickly arrange all the triangles in the pan, working from the outside of the pan (which will be less hot) to the center (where it is the hottest), placing each of the triangles with one of their meaty sides touching the pan. Adjust the heat to maintain a merry sizzle without scorching the meat, then fry until the meat turns golden-brown, about 2–3 minutes.
When the first side is brown (check a triangle in the center of the pan), loosen the triangles with a small spatula or a spatula-shaped cheese slicer, and quickly turn them over to brown the second meaty side, beginning in the center and working towards the outside. Use your fingers or chopsticks to help turn the triangles over, whichever lets you work most quickly. Continue in the same manner to brown the second side, dribbling in a bit more oil from the side of the pan if needed to keep it lightly oiled.
Once the second side browns, detach the triangles with the spatula and lay them flat in the pan. Pour the stock on top, then raise the heat to bring the liquid to a simmer. Scatter the ginger and scallion threads evenly over the triangles, adjust the heat to maintain a bubbly simmer, then cover the pan and simmer until all but ⅓ of the liquid has been absorbed, about 3–4 minutes.
Turn off the heat, then quickly remove the triangles to the serving platter with the spatula, leaving the liquid behind in the pan. Taste the liquid and adjust with a bit of salt if required, then raise the heat to bring it to a simmer. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, add it to the pan, and stir until the liquid turns glossy and slightly thick, about 15 seconds.
Pour the sauce evenly over the tofu. Garnish the top with several sprigs of coriander, then serve the dish at once.
Leftovers keep 2–3 days, refrigerated and sealed airtight. Steam in a shallow, covered dish over high heat until hot.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.