My Ethnic Hakka Identity and the Cuisine Bǎn (粄)
Through a delicious traditional dish, I connect my ethnic identity and the migration history, and see how much has remained the same after centuries.
China, Eastern Asia
Story by Zhihao Zhong. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on January 25, 2022. Reading time: 5 minutes
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I enjoy eating plain rice. I did not understand why until I learned in biology class that it was tasty because an enzyme from my saliva converted rice to sugar when I was chewing it. However, I suspect that my affinity for rice was actually derived from my favorite Hakka rice cuisine of the Bǎn (粄).
Cuisine and language are two special cultural distinctions of my ethnic group Hakka in southeast China. Among the various Hakka food offerings, ban, my must-eat, is originally a type of steamed rice cake made of rice flour. The recipe was enriched by ingredients such as glutinous rice, wheat, and potatoes, sometimes with fillings such as lotus seed paste, sesame, and radish.
Normally, when I go to other cities in China with a few Hakka folks, people don’t know what ban is. Apparently, the word ban is not even available in the modern Han Chinese dictionary but only in the ancient one. One explanation for this is that the Hakka words and pronunciation have more similarities with ancient Chinese because people preserved the Hakka language by living a secluded life. Migrating from the north, some Hakkas traveled to the southern region where Cantonese people lived. The Hakkas were not welcomed by the Cantonese and were later forced to move to mountainous areas to avoid being attacked. Interaction with the outside world was thus reduced. The old word ‘Bǎn’ therefore reflects the Hakka history of the language and migration.
People in northern China often use flour in cooking because of the proximity of wheat. Different types of baozi, which is similar to ban, but made with wheat flour rather than rice, are made in the north. The similarity between ban and baozi points to the historical migration of the Hakka people originally from the wheat-rich area carried their baozi memory and affinity, which has been translated into a variety of ban.
Coming from the south, I still like many sorts of baozi, but they will never replace ban. Baozi is made all over China, but ban is still popular only in Hakka regions. What makes ban more special is the tradition of eating different ban on different occasions. For example, my favorite Xiban is often served at weddings and in rituals for ancestors and Buddhas. Even though I eat Xiban casually, the image and taste of these Xibans arouses my memories of the special occasions they are for.
In addition to the grand traditions of Hakka people in general, my family also created our own traditions. My aunt always has radish ban ready in fall. Whenever I eat radish ban, I first think of this aunt as well as the scene of her bringing a stockpile of radish ban to the dinner table.
When I went to live in a deep Hakka region surrounded by mountains for two years, I learned more about ban. People there speak a different version of Hakka than mine and have more versions of ban than where I am from. I believe this is partly because I lived much closer to the Cantonese region, but ban was the best connection between my Hakka culture and theirs so we bonded over food. The rich variety of ban also boosted my pride of being part of the Hakka ethnic group and expanded my memory association of each type of ban I have eaten.
The cuisine of ban helps identify Hakkas while carrying notions of the history, language and culture. I have decided to prioritize eating ban on my to-do list for the next time I visit home.
 Rubinstein, Murray A. (2004), "Rethinking Taiwanese and Chinese Identity: Melissa J. Brown's Is Taiwan Chinese?", iir.nccu.edu.tw, Institute of International Relations, 40, pp. 454–458
 The notation in ‘Bǎn’ is a tool to help correctly pronounce the dish. For reading convenience, ‘ban’ will be used in the whole article.
 Rao, Yuansheng (饶原生).粄食 (Bǎn),“中国第五大发明”(China’s fifth great invention) [J].同舟共进,2020(06):83-86.
 Luo, Xin (罗鑫).有关“粄”的历史人类学考察——基于汉字文化圈视野 (The historical anthropological study about ‘Ban’ – based on the Hanzi cultural perspective) [J].汕头大学学报(人文社会科学版),2017,33(08):47-52+96.
 Wang, W.Z. et al. (2020). "Tracing the origins of Hakka and Chaoshanese by mitochondrial DNA analysis". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 141 (1): 124–30.
 Xiban is a sweet type of ban that combines glutinous rice flour and sugar. It often looks red.
 ‘萝卜粄’ in Han Chinese.
 The Cantonese here refers to the ethnic group of Cantonese people and not the administrative region of Guangdong province. Both Hakka people and Cantonese people can be found in the Guangdong province which is also referred to the Cantonese region.
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