Once a summer treat, this heat-relieving Hakka dish can now be enjoyed year round

It’s said that there’s no food in Hakka cuisine that can’t be niang (酿, niàng)—stuffed with meat, then braised or steamed. The classic Hakka cooking method was allegedly derived from the itinerant people’s love of jiaozi. However, there was no flour available for making these traditional northern dumplings once the Hakka migrated to southern China.

Instead, they made do by stuffing other things: Today, tofu, eggplant, and bitter melon are the three most niang-ed dishes in Hakka cuisine, and stuffed bitter melon, or niang kugua (酿苦瓜), is particularly renowned for its medicinal properties and refreshing taste in the summer.

It’s also the toughest to get excited about, as the singular flavor of kugua makes it a deeply divisive dish. Bitter melon was first recorded in Jiuhuang Bencao (《救荒本草》), a 15th century manual on herbs and foods to eat during a famine. It was believed to have been brought to China from Southeast Asia in the early Ming dynasty—specifically, some legends say, by naval explorer Zheng He.

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author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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