Taste Of Place & Tofu Love

David Huang

We occasionally post about food, notably during stretches where it intersects with our work. Also when someone brings to our attention something fresh in a fun way. Case in point:

America Doesn’t Know Tofu

China has spent millennia exploring the culinary possibilities of soybean curds. The West has barely scratched the surface.

Guiyang didn’t have many restaurants, per se. The metropolis was more of a city-wide night market. Even in the pre-COVID days, streets like Qingyun Road were only half-filled with cars, to leave room for tents and tables that stretched to the horizon, and for smoke and steam that rose into the clouds. Eateries didn’t burden you with 14-page menus, common at Shanghainese or Northeastern restaurants. No — a làoguō 烙锅 shop sold laoguo (think Korean BBQ with more vegetables, cooked over a clay pot dome). A sīwáwa 丝娃娃 shop sold siwawa (shreds of 20-plus varieties of fresh and pickled vegetables that you roll into a thin, rice cake-like taco). And tofu stands sold tofu. But probably not the tofu you’re thinking of.

Pale slabs of bean curd shivered over a sputtering steel grill box. As their tops bathed in the cool summer air, their bottoms tensed and colored. When Auntie flipped over a piece, the tofu’s underside was purplish like a black eye, its thick skin waxy and crackly like a fried egg bottom. And then it started expanding.

The tofu began puffing up, convulsing like a pot of water that couldn’t quite boil. For a minute or two it grew, and grew, and grew, until the tofu had ballooned to double its original size. Finally a ray of hot steam broke through the taut, leathery skin. Out trickled a lazy stream of creamy, off-white liquid.

Auntie furrowed a small hole on one end of the tofu and spooned in her signature sauce: ground fire-roasted chiles, soy sauce, ginger, mint, and a medicinal root prized for its grassy, fishy scent (鱼腥草 yúxīngcǎo). She passed over her creation: liàn’ài dòufuguǒ 恋爱豆腐果. The tofu dumpling of love.

I bit in. Out seeped a viscous, sulfurous liquid, rich as an egg yolk custard but clean as freshly ground soymilk. Firm tofu had sacrificed itself, melting into juice. My tongue refused to believe it. This was tofu?

I had found it painful going vegan in college, giving up most of the foods that I loved. But after spending a summer in China, all that changed. I was now here on the pretense of “study abroad,” but really just crisscrossing the country to find foods that would excite me and other would-be vegans back in Los Angeles. I had to learn about the tofu dumpling of love…

Read the whole essay here.

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