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It is with some trepidation that I will try to give you a little background on how tofu is made and consumed here in my part of China (Yunnan, Kunming.) Since it is such a vast topic and I lack expertise, what I did was just walk around my neighborhood wet market and take snapshots of the tofu that was readily available. I'll simply show you the photos and tell you what I can about what they show. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It goes without saying that other types can be found in supermarkets, the result of rigidly standardized large-scale industrial processes. These are nicely wrapped and have ingredients and expiration dates listed on the package. But they often come with flavor enhancers, preservatives, stabilizers, and coloring agents to make them sell better. My 老百姓 neighbors eschew them as "factory food," and find their way to the wet market to buy the "real stuff" instead. It also goes without saying that tofu differs from place to place within China, and even more so when talking about those from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and so on. These often represent the taste preferences of members of the Chinese diaspora who landed and settled there many years ago. These "foreign tofu's" also often reflect changes made to incorporate local ingredients: coconut milk on such and such island, fish sauce in such and such port, and so on. All tofu starts out as soy milk, extracted with heat from soybeans, that has been acidulated to produce curdling or coagulation into a solid form. That basic raw tofu is then strained and pressed into blocks. It can be pressed a little or a lot, making it thin enough to need to be kept in a pot, or a little thicker, sort of like jello, or a lot thicker and firmer like cheese. (I have oversimplified grievously.) Here's a look at some of that basic raw tofu. In the two photos above, you can see a color difference between the tofu in the foreground and that in the background. The "whiter" tofu in back is softer; it is called 嫩豆腐 (nen doufu) or "tender" tofu. That in the front is slightly firmer and is called 老豆腐 (lao doufu) or "tough" tofu, though it isn't very tough at all. Some recipes work best with one, some with the other. Tofu vendors frequently sell other things as well, things that are often paired with tofu or things that can easily be made with the same raw materials. Photo on the left shows soy bean sprouts and mung bean sprouts next to the nice lady who sells them. Bottom left in this photo is a non-tofu item that is often eaten instead of tofu; it's made from bean sprouts that have been processed differently, often with addition of some natural gelatin. Goes by the name 凉粉 (liang fen) around here; in the west, when it can be found, it gets the odd name "grass jelly." In these parts it's usually cut in strips and served cold with a sauce of chilies and scallions. Sometimes the tofu is barely solidified at all, being described as "silken." This extremely soft style is known here as "tofu flowers" 豆花 and is used in making several delicious dishes such as 豆花米线 (tofu flower rice noodles) which is one of Kunming's signature snacks 小吃。Douhua mixian 豆花米线 is shown below right. The food stall offers a meatless version or a version with seasoned ground pork. I'm not vegetarian and I enjoy the kind that has meat, as you see here. It is sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and includes pickled chopped greens 泡菜 and several kinds of herbs to achieve a result that is just this side of Heaven. Often tofu is processed instead of being consumed in it's raw, unadulterated state. One of the most common things that is done to it is to press it, removing some moisture and allowing a concentration of flavors. This process is particularly prized when the water with which the tofu has been made tastes good on its own. This is true of the deep Artesian well water of Jianshui 建水 and Shiping 石屏, both ancient cities in SE Yunnan's Honghe Prefecture 红河州。 Here is some of that on display at the stall where I usually buy it: Not surprisingly, these rectangular sheets of pressed Shiping tofu come in different tastes and textures. You can buy firmer or softer; milder or more flavorful varieties, tailored to your preference or cooking application. Some of this tofu has been allowed to ferment slightly and is formed into small "packets" shown at the rear of both photos above. This tofu is "mildly stinky" 臭豆腐 -- a far cry from the hugely pungent product popular in Taiwan. In the far left of the photo just above, in a white basket, is the notorious "hairy tofu" 毛豆腐, that has a very distinctive look, aroma, and taste. The photo below left shows another vendor's hairy tofu. Some days it's more photogenic than others. Below right you see a snack stall on the edge of the market where the guy is grilling the small briquettes of stinky tofu to serve hot with a spicy dipping sauce. You belly up to the bar facing him, sit on a low stool, and eat your fill. He keeps track of your consumption with small colored beans and and the sharp eye of an experienced casino croupier; you settle your account after eating your fill. Once tofu has been pressed it can be brined and then smoked, as discussed in the recipe posted here yesterday. As you can well imagine, the finished product is affected by the kind of tofu one pressed to start with and then how it was soaked, in what and for how long. Finally, the flavor and texture are further dictated by how it is smoked, over what wood or twigs and for how long. It comes in several shapes, analogous to the way smoked cheese varies: a smoked Edam is not the same as a smoked Provolone. One from this maker may not be exactly like that from his neighbor. Sometimes tofu is deep fried, puffing it up and giving it a golden color. It can then be eaten with a sauce, or served together with dishes that contain lots of gravy, such as red cooked pork 红烧肉。Here below left is some of it coming out fresh from the wok. That's a good time to buy it, instead of later the same day after it has sat around in a plastic bag getting stale. Sometimes tofu-making byproducts are for sale, such as tofu skin that has risen to the top of the pot during processing. It can be air dried or fried, and is usually sold as tofu skin 豆腐皮。(Below right.) Numerous special local wrinkles exist, such as this vendor who only sells tofu made with the water of a prized mountain spring in NE Yunnan's Xuanwei County 宣威县。It sells for a small premium but there is always a line outside his stall, telling me that it's in high demand. I've tried it, but honestly can't tell the difference. One part of my neighborhood wet market is "tofu row" with about 25 vendors near each other. Some have the usual fare, and others have exotica. Some make it completely on the premises and others have workrooms nearby where the rent is cheaper. They resupply throughout the day by motorbike or electric scooter 电动车。 This vendor makes his on the premises and has a workshop behind the sales area. You can see a tall pot on the stove, in the left corner. Probably has more kinds than anyone else. Unfortunately he is not very forthcoming and doesn't like to chat about his wares. You point and he bags it up; you hand over your money and leave. Not even a thank you. What I do from a practical standpoint is buy certain tofu staples over and over from the same one or two vendors. Then from time to time I branch out and try new types or new variations on the old types. I often ask the sellers for their recommendations as to cooking methods. Sometimes I try something in a restaurant that I would like to try to reproduce, or watch something being made on TV. Before moving here a decade ago I seldom ate tofu at all; in fact practically never. Now it's something I have about once a week. Good source of protein without many calories and it is definitely economical. For better or worse, tofu has become part of my China life. Here's a link to the last two tofu recipes: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56990-addictive-smoked-tofu-青椒豆腐干/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56975-sunday-brunch-tofu-and-eggs-豆腐炒鸡蛋/
Smoked tofu 豆腐干 or 香干 is one of those things that I would have given you a funny look about only a few short years ago. Today I can't get enough. It has its own distinctive flavor but also plays well with others. One traditional popular taste combination results from pairing it with slightly spicy tapered green peppers 青椒 or 青尖椒。This is one of those dishes that you can confidently order in any real Chinese kitchen from a simple hole in the wall to a prestigious place sporting a Michelin star. Let me show you how it worked out today, partly as a way to introduce you to yet another kind of tofu. It most often comes in rectangles about 4 by 6 inches and a bit less than half an inch thick. As you can see from these pics however, that is not a hard and fast rule. The ones I bought yesterday cost less than one Yuan each. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) At home I cut mine into thin strips 条。Sometimes I cut them into postage-stamp squares or cubes 丁 instead. Here's the green pepper 青椒, a large spring onion 大葱, and a few mushrooms 香菇。Later I added a red bell pepper 红椒 for enhanced eye appeal. Chopped a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜 and ginger 老姜。These green peppers have very little bite, but if you must have really bland food, substitute a green bell pepper. Got out a jar of Grandma's douchi 老干妈豆豉, a type of spicy fermented soybeans popular here, originally from Sichuan. Sometimes I supplement this with 豆瓣酱, but today I didn't have any on hand. Scooped out one heaping tablespoon of it into a small dish. That's how much I will use, and I wanted to show you what it looks like. Add a tablespoon or two of corn oil 食用油 to a flat-bottom skillet or a wok (both work well for this) and fry the aromatics over medium heat until they begin releasing their aroma 炒出香味。The aromatics here mean the onion, ginger and garlic. These are such a classic combination that in "recipe shorthand" they are written as one word without punctuation: 葱姜蒜。Then add the spicy fermented bean sauce 豆豉 and crush most of the whole beans with the back of a spoon. Add the smoked tofu strips 香干丝 and stir fry using flipping motions 翻炒 with your spatula tool 锅铲 for a minute or two, until everything begins to soften a little. The red pepper goes in last because it takes the least time to cook. It's OK to add a little water if needed to prevent things from burning. Some dishes need to be made dry 干煸, but this isn't one of them. Now sprinkle in a half teaspoon of salt 食用盐 and a quarter teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精。Add about a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and thicken the dish 收紧 with a small splash of corn starch slurry 水淀粉。Presto, you're done. Total time on the flame well under 5 minutes. Plate it up 装盘。Good eats! I've read that it's not difficult to smoke tofu in your back yard over coals, but haven't tried it. Obviously this dish goes well with steamed rice; after all, what doesn't? Easy to make, inexpensive, and tasty. If you live in China I would respectfully suggest that this needs to be part of your week-night arsenal to keep from relying too much on delivered take-out. If you live in the West, it will add some variety to your usual fare without taking much time or busting the budget.