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Celery with cured tofu 西芹菜炒豆腐干

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Before moving to Kunming, I mainly thought of celery as something to turn into a salad. But here in China it is more often used as a hearty, medicinal vegetable. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) maintains that it dispels excess internal heat and lowers blood pressure. In addition to that, it boosts the immune system and fights constipation. As if that were not enough, it is also prescribed as a tonic to calm the nerves and fortify one against stress.

 

By now it should not surprise you to learn that China has several kinds of celery, in fact 5 or 6 distinct types. The two main ones that you can find in every fresh market are the thick-stalk western kind 西芹菜that I used in today’s dish and a thin-stalked indigenous kind 本地芹菜that is typically used together with meat as a stuffing for dumplings and steamed buns. My photo, below left, shows the western kind, and the Baidu picture, below right, shows the indigenous kind. (Please click the pictures to enlarge them.)

 

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For stir fry dishes, such as today’s, celery works best when cut on a bias. The feathered ends cook quickly and soak up flavor well. After cleaning and cutting the celery, I blanched it in a pot of boiling unsalted water. When the water returned to a boil, I fished it out and dropped it into a large basin of cold water for a few seconds. This cold shock after blanching helps the celery remain crisp and retain its attractive green color.

 

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Rinse, pat dry and slice the small sections of dry tofu 豆腐干。This tofu product is immensely popular all over China possibly because it has tons of character and flavor. It is light years from boring and bland. The tofu is brined and marinated in interesting spices before being pressed and finally smoked. Works very well as a meat substitute. I'm not vegetarian, but I still enjoy it sometimes in place of meat. 

 

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Ingredients all laid out, time to fire up the wok. As you see, I’ve also thinly sliced a red bell pepper 红甜椒 and minced a small amount of ginger 生姜 and garlic 独蒜。Used a couple tablespoons of corn oil 玉米油, added to a hot wok. Today we will exclusively work over medium-high heat, just shy of smoking. Quickly fry the ginger and garlic, being careful not to burn them. Add the red bell peppers.

 

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After only seconds on high flame, add the celery to the center. All new ingredients start out in the center since it’s the hottest part of the wok. Make room for each addition by pushing partially-cooked ingredients up the sides, where it is cooler.   

 

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After you have added the tofu strips and mixed everything a couple of times, salt it well by sprinkling in a teaspoon or so of coarse salt from 8 or 10 inches up in the air. If you just dump in a teaspoon of salt, it might never get thoroughly mixed. Do the same with a pinch of sugar and MSG 味精 if you use it. (I use a little bit, a pinch -- between 1/8 and ¼ of a teaspoon.) A tablespoon or two of light soy sauce 生抽 goes in next. Pour liquid seasonings onto the back of your spatula and let it splash into the whole dish. Ditto for a tablespoon or two of oyster sauce 蚝油。Last of all, add the chopped scallions. They provide fragrance and touch of contrasting bite.

 

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If your left arm is strong, emulate the professional chefs by using it to shake the wok back and forth as you stir with right. Stir and flip like your life depended on it: this needs to be a fast process; time is not on your side. If you dawdle, the dish will overcook: the tofu will turn to mush and the vegetables will lose their crunch.  You will forfeit your hard-earned Michelin star.

 

Serve it up 装盘。Eat it with a bowl of steamed rice 米饭。Tasty, inexpensive and pretty darned healthy. Raw material cost, enough to serve two people, about one US Dollar. Took under 30 minutes, start to finish. Clean-up not daunting.

 

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Hope you will feel moved to give it a try. Very Chinese, very straight-ahead simple. Phoning for take-out has its place every now and then. But so does do-it-yourself.  

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mungouk

Is it celery "season" right now? 

 

It seems everybody is buying it suddenly in Beijing during this past week.

 

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abcdefg
14 minutes ago, mungouk said:

Is it celery "season" right now? 

 

I'm not really sure @mungouk -- But I'm seeing lots of it in the local farmers market. Lots of these vegetables are grown inside large plastic huts 塑料大棚。They are very sophisticated affairs, farmers roll the walls part of the way up as the day warms and lower them again so the tent is sealed against the cold at night. 

 

People who really know celery (I'm not a celery expert) tell me there are kinds that are grown in one place from tiny seedlings, and another kind that is transplanted after reaching partial maturity. They say it affects the flavor. They urge me to only buy celery that has the roots attached, because that's how one can tell. They advocate for the kind that is grown in one place instead of the kind that is transplanted. It supposedly has longer roots, which enable it to suck up more nutrients. 

 

I asked the main guy from whom I buy greens about it. He said it doesn't make as much difference as the encyclopedia articles claim. He went off on a tangent and became very enthusiastic about organic produce, started talking chemistry and left me behind in the dust. I couldn't follow the whole discussion (or discourse.) He was more animated than I've ever seen him before. Giving this Laowai the True Vegetable Gospel.  

 

 

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ChTTay

The one vegetable I can’t stand is celery unfortunately. Looks good otherwise! 

 

I always found dry tofu very forgiving and extremely hard to overlook.

 

A place in Yinchuan used to fry it in such a way that it was gooey inside and crisp outside. I assume shallow or deep fried but I’ve never had it like that since. 

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9 minutes ago, ChTTay said:

A place in Yinchuan used to fry it in such a way that it was gooey inside and crisp outside.

 

That sounds good! I think that was probably a different kind of tofu. From your description, might have been 包浆豆腐。Made on a griddle. These pieces of tofu like I used today are dry. One could tear them in pieces if so inclined. 

 

So much can be done with tofu. Never ceases to amaze me. 

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ChTTay
8 minutes ago, abcdefg said:

From your description, might have been 包浆

I can see why you might have thought that... as I didn’t really describe it! 

 

It was 韭菜炒豆干 so it was dry tofu in thin strips. Thinner than yours above. 

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abcdefg

Sounds good! Don't think I've ever had it. 

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889

Whenever smoked doufu shows up in a dish I've ordered, I pick it out and don't eat: it leaves an awful after-taste.

 

Is this a characteristic of real smoked doufu, or do restaurants tend to use something that's been "smoked" with artificlal flavour? Certainly tastes chemical.

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ChTTay

Never had that experience in a restaurant or home cooked! Maybe it’s just not for you 

 

I like it. Don’t think I’ve ever had any aftertaste from it 

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10 hours ago, 889 said:

Is this a characteristic of real smoked doufu, or do restaurants tend to use something that's been "smoked" with artificlal flavour? Certainly tastes chemical.

 

Yes, it is characteristic of well-made doufu gan 豆干。Sheets of 老豆腐 an inch or so thick are brined in a soulution that has multiple flavors, including, ginger, scallion, soy sauce, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, salt and MSG. These are then compressed to make them thinner, followed by smoking them over indirect flame for hours or days. The smoking is done in a closed chamber, such that it doesn't have to become very hot. 

 

Small "Mom and Pop" manufacturers often use the interior chamber of a junk refrigerator to do this. This supplies the "smoking chamber." 

 

Usually this marinated, dried and smoked tofu is just sold in bulk by kthe market at that stage, but in the last few years they are often sealed in plastic packages and sold as snacks on the shelves of snack shops and supermarket. It's popular to take some on a long-distance bus ride. 

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Weyland

Instead of MSG you could add some dried soup broth. Also, depending on the type of tofu I've been recommended to cook it for a a minute or so before adding it to the wok, although that might not hold true for 豆腐干.

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13 hours ago, Weyland said:

Also, depending on the type of tofu I've been recommended to cook it for a a minute or so before adding it to the wok, although that might not hold true for 豆腐干.

 

That advice applies to soft tofu blocks, which have a high moisture content. That kind of tofu is referred to as  嫩豆腐。The main reason this blanching is recommended is to "toughen it up" slightly so it doesn't fall apart when it is stirred over heat into the other components of a recipe. An example of this would be in making Grandmother's Tofu 麻婆豆腐。 Here's a link: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/55081-sichuan-fire-mapo-tofu-麻婆豆腐/?tab=comments#comment-424793 

 

13 hours ago, Weyland said:

Instead of MSG you could add some dried soup broth

 

I don't try to avoid MSG in small quantities. I think the evils that have captured popular imagination are hugely exaggerated. It is true that some few people tend to be very sensitive to it. When I'm cooking for them, I of course omit it entirely. 

 

Here's a more general overview of tofu, from a practical standpoint today in Kunming: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/57002-neighborhood-tofu-a-short-practical-tour/?tab=comments#comment-441841

 

And here are two more articles that feature smoked tofu in particular, It is extremely popular here. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56990-addictive-smoked-tofu-青椒豆腐干/?tab=comments#comment-441718

 

https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/55295-smoked-tofu-and-peppers-青红辣椒炒香干/?tab=comments#comment-426133

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Weyland

In this situation "班门弄斧" is rather apt.
 

Quote

班门弄斧 (bānmén-nòngfǔ);  show off one's skill with the axe before Lu Ban (鲁班) the master carpenter—display one's slight skill before an expert; teach one's grandma (how) to suck eggs

 

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abcdefg

@Weyland -- I recall your mentioning a couple weeks back that you were making Chinese food to feed some elderly local friends. You had inquired about a supplemental burner to heat your wok better. I'll bet this is a dish those people would like. It's a traditional simple "home-style" dish. Doesn't assume a love of spicy food, is easy to chew, digest, and so on. One of the TCM attributes of celery is that it is a mild diuretic. Helps old folks get rid of edema. So it's popular here with that demographic. 

 

Usually when I make this I don't use a separate pot to blanch the cut celery. Just do it in the wok first thing. This means only one pan to cleanup at the end. 

 

Also, lots of Chinese people make this with scrambled eggs supplying the protein instead of using tofu. Therefore if smoked tofu is difficult to find where you live, that is a viable option. Scramble/gently fry 2 or 3 eggs at the beginning, using low heat and keeping them soft instead of letting them get hard. Turn them out into a bowl and set aside. Proceed with the rest of the recipe and fold them back in at the end. 

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Weyland
10 hours ago, abcdefg said:

I'll bet this is a dish those people would like.


They're kind of anti-tofu. Sweet Cantonese cuisine does find them well though. When it comes to anything foreign old people can be really picky. 

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abcdefg

I misunderstood. Had thought these old people were Chinese or of Chinese descent. Figured you were able to use the occasion for language practice. 

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