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Fennel tofu soup 茴香豆腐汤

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Fennel 茴香 (huixiang) here means the fragrant lacy fronds of the fennel plant;  not the solid bulb that you are used to seeing in the west. If you've traveled much in China, you have probably met it paired with ground pork in dumplings 茴香猪肉饺子, but in Yunnan it's the prime ingredient of a very tasty soup. Yunnan takes pride in making main dishes out of several items that you are used to thinking of as seasoning or garnish. Mint is one such that we have looked at before. Link to that: Mint soup

 

Today I'll show you how to make an honest, straight-forward soup from fennel and silky tofu. The process couldn't be more simple. My concern, however, is that you might not be able to get fresh fennel fronds overseas. Even though the plant has a long growing season, the fronds are delicate and surely don't travel well. Pretty sure they are usually just discarded, like carrot tops. 

 

Here's the kind of fennel we are talking about. Bought some this morning in the market. Three big handfuls at 1 Yuan each. (Fennel in the middle of the image.) Stopped a few minutes later on "tofu row" for 2.5 Yuan worth of Mrs. Zhang's best small-batch soft tofu (嫩豆腐)。Note how the firm tofu (老豆腐) in the foreground stands up straighter. The soft tofu towards the rear is bulging and leaning over.

 

Please click the photos to enlarge them. 

 

 

1106656338_IMG_20181205_104417-paint25.thumb.jpg.2af70a655db15734dc5f0df5c5ad9527.jpg   1809106655_IMG_20181205_105127-10-enhanced.thumb.jpg.50aa025914f0047bb8dbf9abd77b2884.jpg

   


At home I washed the fennel and chopped it into pieces a couple inches long. Three slices of fresh ginger 生姜 and a piece of aged dry tangerine peel 橙皮, just to kick it up a notch. Don't fret if you don't have aged tangerine peel; it's not essential; just leave it out. In fact it's worth pointing out that this is an extremely flexible recipe: if you want more fennel or less fennel, that's OK; if you want more tofu or less tofu, that's OK too. Make it the way you like it. 

 

1434118462_IMG_6724-60.thumb.jpg.0efc63187848801ea6742739a51c63ec.jpg   1606465625_IMG_6721-62.thumb.jpg.9103dcdd7bd9af51e606b9b5dffec05a.jpg

 

 

 

Give the ginger a sharp whack with the side of your caidao 菜刀 cleaver knife to partly crush it and then put it plus the tangerine peel into about 750 ml of chicken stock. One can make this soup more dilute or more concentrated according to taste. If you're vegetarian, it's fine to use plain water instead of stock. Let these seasoning ingredients simmer about 10 minutes to extract more flavor. (Maybe next time I'll simmer them even longer.) Rinse the block of tofu and cut it into irregular pieces, suitable in size to be picked up easily with chopsticks. 

 

616067959_IMG_6725-60.thumb.jpg.7452957be149ae7ad3ea8420f59e6fc9.jpg   1922689041_IMG_6729-60.thumb.jpg.624fa3ce8b97f3f74befede186b275b6.jpg

 

 

Gently add the tofu to the stock and simmer it a couple minutes with minimal stirring. This makes the tofu more likely to stay intact instead of falling apart. Then lift the tofu out with a strainer so it won't get too fractured and beat up while you cook the fennel. 

 

63505905_IMG_6733-60.thumb.jpg.bff572c470426f639784abae77ccc865.jpg    1865468330_IMG_6739-60.thumb.jpg.ca62f52bb2185bc7096c1c90ddd2eb63.jpg

 

The fennel only takes two minutes or so. You want it to retain some crunch and not be completely soft. When it has reached that point, add back the tofu. Season with a scant teaspoon of salt 食盐, a dash of white pepper 白胡椒粉, and a half teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精 ji jing. This latter seasoning, popular in China, is like granulated chicken bouillon plus a small amount of MSG. 

 

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Let it come back to a simmer, and you're almost done. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed (might need a little more salt, depending on your chicken stock.) Serve it up. As an afterthought, I garnished the dish with a couple of thinly-sliced cherry tomatoes. I'm sure they caught your eye in the market picture up top. Obviously, I had to buy a few. Big tomatoes are not great right now, but these little ones have lots of flavor with a pleasantly tart finish. 

 

1775170400_IMG_6745-65.thumb.jpg.a51903dc80a319438b5218b7d7b8cc9a.jpg   1810680843_IMG_6750-65.thumb.jpg.109dcac2119a732b5b03873afa456a18.jpg

 

Served it with a bowl of left-over chicken rice. It probably would make a nice lunch alongside a grilled pannini sandwich. 

 

 

 

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In case you have some fresh fennel fronds left over from yesterday's soup, it's easy to cook it up the next morning with scrambled eggs. That's exactly what I did today. Let me give you a look at 茴香炒鸡蛋。

 

Look through the fennel and discard any wilted or discolored bits. Cut it in short pieces, less than an inch in length. 

 

1533617483_IMG_6755(2)-20.thumb.jpg.781016d1063ae4e2b02daa970af0e62b.jpg   1939451560_IMG_6757(2)-20.thumb.jpg.7698cc011d5e0e7949e22d8178ea0783.jpg

 

 

Wash it with two or three rinses of water, squeeze out the excess moisture. Crack two eggs into a small bowl ("rice bowl") and mix them with your chopsticks. 

 

436345515_IMG_6759(2)-20.thumb.jpg.6096d9a4d6c34de84ba2c0cb07938a9a.jpg   1966643241_IMG_6762(2)-20.thumb.jpg.83d9160a1fef105f7116c671b083d6cc.jpg

 

 

Pour a tablespoon of neutral-tasting oil (such as corn oil 玉米油) into a non-stick skillet 平地不粘锅 and put in the fennel. Stir it briskly for a half a minute or so; don't let it scorch. Add the eggs and a pinch of salt. Mix well for a few seconds, then turn off the heat so the eggs don't overcook and become tough. 

 

473939116_IMG_6767(2)-20.thumb.jpg.7973eb1bddec3623c4c5b4003958796a.jpg   1834672681_IMG_6769(3)-20.thumb.jpg.1a72c88197ee4e7072488dd65f358fcc.jpg

 

 

Serve it up. 

 

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Footnote: I realize that fresh fennel fronds have a certain "strangeness factor" because they are seldom used as an actual vegetable in the west. The taste is more delicate than that of the fennel bulb, which you might have encountered in French cuisine as fenouil, or in Italian cooking as finocchio. The Mediterranean variety of this plant forms bulbs, but the Chinese cultivar usually doesn't. Furthermore, since the plant is grown here mainly for its feathery fronds, they are harvested young and small, making them fragrant and tender. 

 

If looking for fennel in a Chinese grocery store you might be misdirected to the dry spices aisle, where fennel seeds are also sold. Seeds develop when the fronds are left to flower instead of being cut for market early. These are usually referred to as 小茴香, though at times the nomenclature can be confusing. One look will dispel all doubt. 

 

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Alex_Hart
On 12/5/2018 at 7:25 PM, abcdefg said:

If you're vegetarian, it's fine to use plain water instead of stock.

Any self-respecting vegetarian would use vegetable stock! Or seaweed/dried mushroom stock! Hmph! (By the way, which would you consider more appropriate for this dish? Seems like either might work?)

 

On 12/5/2018 at 7:25 PM, abcdefg said:

The fennel only takes two minutes or so. You want it to retain some crunch and not be completely soft. When it has reached that point, add back the tofu. Season with a scant teaspoon of salt 食盐, a dash of white pepper 白胡椒粉, and a half teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精 ji jing. This latter seasoning, popular in China, is like granulated chicken bouillon plus a small amount of MSG. 

 

Does the 鸡精 add much flavor? I'm wondering if I should use MSG or if a small piece of seaweed would do it. Since I've always understood MSG as really just adding umami, I usually replace it with seaweed, dried mushroom or dried fish (dried anchovy or dried fish flakes). 

 

Two great looking recipes. I love fennel fronds; I used them often in salads back home. I don't think I've ever seen them here, though. I'd love to try this soup so I'll ask around the 农贸市场 tomorrow.

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abcdefg
49 minutes ago, Alex_Hart said:

Any self-respecting vegetarian would use vegetable stock! Or seaweed/dried mushroom stock! Hmph! (By the way, which would you consider more appropriate for this dish? Seems like either might work?)

 

I think any of those would be fine! I don't really have a lot of experience combining fennel with other flavors.

 

49 minutes ago, Alex_Hart said:

Does the 鸡精 add much flavor?

 

I don't think so. At least nothing I could identify. All the recipes I found on-line called for it, so it added some. A couple that I found recommended a teaspoon of tiny dried shrimp 虾皮。(Didn't have any of that on hand.) 

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mungouk

This sounds really great, but I really can't handle the taste of Fennel (due to a Pernod incident in France aged 16, ahem).

 

Would it work similarly with a different ingredient?

 

 

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abcdefg
13 hours ago, mungouk said:

Would it work similarly with a different ingredient?

 

Well...better stay away from fennel. Sounds like you have been scarred for life!

 

But fortunately, all is not lost. In fact, you are in luck. Here's a fine alternative: Wandoujian tofu soup 豌豆尖豆腐汤。It's popular in mom and pop, family-style restaurants throughout most of China and it's a snap to make at home. Recipe here (click the link.)

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mungouk
6 hours ago, abcdefg said:

Wandoujian tofu soup 豌豆尖豆腐汤

 

That looks delicious, thanks!

 

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