How to make amazing Hakka food at home, according to the founders of Yueh Tung

We tap the Toronto restaurant owners for their tips — and their beloved chili chicken recipe too.

We tap the Toronto restaurant owners for their tips — and their beloved chili chicken recipe too

(Photo: Yueh Tung restaurant)

Michael Liu and Mei Wang moved to Canada from India in the 1970s and, through familial connections, ended up taking over the operations of a Cantonese restaurant in downtown Toronto in 1986: Yueh Tung. The husband-and-wife duo had never run a restaurant before, although Liu's grandmother used to own one in Kolkata that was well-known for its noodles and pork belly dishes, Wang told us. 

Soon, the couple started offering dishes that reflected their Hakka heritage (the Hakka people hail from Northern China, but have migrated within China and around the world over many centuries). "There was no Hakka food in Toronto at that time," said Wang. "It wasn't well known then…. Nobody even [knew where] Hakka people are from." Dishes such as chili chicken and too cham, a stir-fried dish made with pork intestine and rice wine, began appearing on the menu. "It did take a … year or two to really pick up, and then we brought in a lot of Hakka [food]," said Wang. 

Left: (L-R) Jey, Core and Jo, Liu and Wang's children, at the restaurant in 1998; right: Liu and Wang, centre, flanked by daughters Jo (left) and Jey in a recent picture at the restaurant which has been updated. (Submitted by Liu and Wang; art: CBC Life)

Today, there are dozens of Hakka restaurants in Toronto alone, serving variations of the cuisine ranging from Hakka Indian dishes to those inspired by the Hakka diaspora in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. (It's estimated there are about 80 million Hakka worldwide and some 35,000 in Canada).

And Yueh Tung has been adapting to the challenges of the pandemic and has launched a line of sauces called Vooka ("home" in Hakka). So far, the range includes chili chicken, Manchurian and sweet and sour sauces. 

Given the popularity of their chili chicken dish in particular, we asked Liu and Wang to share their (formerly) top-secret recipe, along with their tips for cooking great Hakka food at home. 

Embrace wok hei 

"Hakka people love the wok hei ... the wok flavour. You have to really stir it to make that flavour come out," said Wang, adding the heat and smell of the wok make a big difference in cooking dishes like chili chicken and stir-fried rice noodles. "Turn the heat high, but don't burn it," said Liu. "You have to lift the wok ... to not let it burn."

At home, you may not be able to get the same temperature and depth of flavour on your stovetop, but you can come close. (The New York Times explored the topic in detail earlier this year.) And even if you don't own a wok, a non-stick frying pan would work, said Wang. 

Source fresh Indian spices   

Hakka food has adapted with migration; local ingredients have been incorporated into traditional recipes, changing flavours and evolving the cuisine over time, said Wang. But flavourful Indian spices remain an important part of Hakka cuisine, noted Liu, making the cuisine distinct from, say, Cantonese flavours. 

Perfect your chili chicken

When it comes to recreating their famous chili chicken dish at home, Wang and Liu have a few tips. First, they recommend using thighs instead of breasts, which can be dry. "Different people have different [preferences], but I would say the thigh definitely tastes better [here]," said Wang. 

Then, make sure you cut the chicken into evenly sized pieces, and consider frying it twice before stir-frying it with the sauce. "At the restaurant, the heat is high; at home, what you should do is … double-fry [the chicken]," Wang said. 

Yueh Tung's Chili Chicken Recipe

(Photo: Michael Jacob and Warren Lowe, submitted by Michael Liu and Mei Wang)

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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