Our daily packaging: mooncakes

You can spot Mid-Autumn Festival from a month away if you follow the glint and sparkle of mooncake packaging.

While I was growing up, my family would buy a box or two of mooncakes (月饼) filled with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks to enjoy during (and before and after) Mid-Autumn Festival. We’d take bite-sized slices of the dense, rich pastry with a strong cup of digestive pu’er tea while commenting on how rich and dense it was or whether this brand was any good.

In China these days, the world of business and officials has adopted the festival as an excuse for elaborate gift-giving and guanxi-strengthening during the fall season. Sweet mooncakes — not to be confused with meat mooncakes, 鲜肉月饼, which are uber-popular in Shanghai — are sold in tins and by the piece in supermarkets everywhere, but among those wishing to impress, a nice tidy tin box of plastic-wrapped traditional mooncakes apparently won’t cut it anymore. Häagen-Dazs and other chilled varieties, as well as fillings of coconut, nuts, chocolate, and red bean paste have become very popular, but it’s the lavish packaging these pastries come in that have taken me aback the last few Mid-Autumns I’ve spent in the country.

These were on display at our local Walmart: oversized gilded cases lined with satin and velvet, likely average-tasting mooncakes encased in tin and shiny paper, royal and gaudy all at once. As with so many aspects of life in this increasingly prosperous country, the reliance on façade to beg respect is almost embarrassingly blatant here.

The over-packaging of mooncakes even became news-worthy two weeks ago after the local Beijing government decided to start taxing employees on mooncakes received from their employers, based on the consideration of mooncakes as a fringe benefit. It seems that people are pissed mostly because the price of mooncakes has been inflated to hundreds of RMB per box due to over-packaging, which reportedly makes up more than half the total price.

I had no idea mooncakes were part of employee compensation here; I wonder if it’s stated in job contracts? It’s not in mine, which is just as well: with the amount of mooncake we’ve been receiving and snacking on as an office these last few weeks, I’m pretty relieved not to have been “gifted” a padded box to take home.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

1 Comment

Filed under buying

Our daily packaging

For some reason I never paid too much attention to food packaging until I got to China and realized, damn, some things here are ridiculously over-packaged (or ill-packaged). Packaging, beyond its purpose to contain/transport/preserve, is essentially a tool for selling things. Often, if brand preference doesn’t come into play, the choice between two otherwise similar (in price, contents) products comes down to packaging: which typeface do I like more? Which bottle will look nicer on the counter? Is paper or plastic more eco-friendly? Do I want the frozen black sesame dumplings with a grinning Jackie Chan on the bag or the ones without? (Sean chose the Jackie Chan, and they all exploded in the pot.) I’ve spent long, long minutes in front of packs of supposedly simple items like salt, sugar, and cornstarch, trying to determine which one looks the most legitimate or least suspect.

We seem to have come to believe that the more — the prettier — the packaging, the better quality the product is, or the more value-for-money it is, or the more face-saving it is (in the case of gift-giving, which is huuuge in China). I’m totally guilty of picking the bottle of olive oil that’s encased a nice box (“I’ll find a use for it!”) over the exact same but non-boxed item, or the [insert product here] that’s wrapped in an extra layer of plastic — ’cause it looks safer, more pristine, like more attention was devoted to making the product just a little bit better than its competitor. Especially in China where people’s trust in products has fallen with each new publicized food scandal, a little more packaging can add much to consumers’ sense of security.

In reality, most of this is a sham, and leads to an incredible amount of waste. But what are we to do as consumers? We’re not in charge of the way things are packaged, but we do have a say, usually, in what we buy. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that if there’s a product I like, I will keep buying, feeling shameful enough about the waste to wish there were a less-packaged alternative, but not guilty enough to not keep buying the product (because I don’t see an alternative on the shelf). For dried goods, there’s always the bulk section — and even zero-packaging stores in the UK and soon Texas — but I’ve seen bugs crawling in the brown rice bin at Trust-Mart (now Walmart, btw) and moth larvae grow out of my bag of bulk black rice, so there goes that option.

I’ve touched on over-packaged
and before, but over the next months will post more instances of remarkable packaging as I come across them — not just to show how ridiculous things are getting/have become, but also, in cases where I’ve actually bought the product, to expose my own not-so-great consumption habits (which I am trying slowly to change, I promise). With any luck, there’ll also be some positive finds along the way.

Stay tuned!

Leave a comment

Filed under buying

Zucchini-egg-wood ear jiaozi with store-bought skins

I got my hands on some premade jiaozi skins at Carrefour the other day (32 skins for 2.3 RMB). Life changing stuff. It cut dumpling-making time by more than half and transformed the activity from a physically demanding to a mentally calming one (as long as I’m not questioning what they put in the dough). The act of wrapping and sealing dumplings lets me block out the world and focus on the task at hand, bringing me back to childhood days of arts and craft, with an added bonus: the anticipation of a good meal to come.

On Thursday (yes, a workweek night), I made a batch containing grated zucchini, egg, and finely chopped wood ear/black fungus (木耳, mùěr). While not as fragrant as Chinese chives, the zucchini had a delightful mild sweetness and crunch, while the tiny bits of scrambled egg mixed with crunchy wood ear formed a texture reminiscent of lean ground pork.

The store-bought skins were slightly more springy/chewy/rubbery than my homemade ones, and more translucent and glossy once cooked. Because they’d been sitting out for at least half a day, they were also a bit drier — but with a fingertip of water, still very workable. Too bad the skins only keep for 1-2 days (according to the guy at Carrefour), or I’d totally stockpile that shiet.

The following night, we made potstickers (锅贴, guōtiē) out of the dozen uncooked dumplings we had left over. Pan-frying dumplings involves quite a bit more work than simple boiling, but the crunchy end result made them even more of a delight to eat.

Zucchini-egg-wood ear jiaozi (角瓜鸡蛋木耳饺子)

500g (~2 small) zucchini, tops and ends removed
3 large pieces wood ear/black fungus (~1/4 cup finely chopped)
3 medium eggs (or 4 small eggs), beaten with 1 tsp of water
1 tbsp sesame oil
2-3 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper

~3 dozen pre-made dumpling skins
Water for sealing
Flour for dusting

Black rice vinegar
Soy sauce to taste
Sesame oil to taste

Filling: Place wood ear pieces in a bowl of water to soak. Peel and grate zucchini. Grab handfuls and squeeze out as much water as possible, then transfer to a colander. Add a small amount of oil to pan and “scramble” eggs on medium heat, breaking them up into very small pieces while cooking. Remove from heat and let cool. Once wood ear is soft and jelly-like, cut off the hard center bit, then chop finely. Transfer grated zucchini into large bowl, add egg, wood ear, and salt, sesame oil, and white pepper and mix thoroughly.

Wrapping: Place a small spoonful of filling onto center of a skin. Dip a finger in water and run wet fingertip around the edge of the entire skin. Fold in half, sealing the center first, then pleat from center outwards — or simply crimp and seal the edges tightly, ensuring there are no holes. Place on a floured clean, flat surface (e.g. chopping board). Dumpling should be plump but not threatening to burst. Repeat for all skins, making sure dumplings are not touching. A pool of liquid from the zucchini may start to form in bottom of bowl; try to keep filling as dry as possible by draining with the spoon as you go.

Boiling: Boil a large pot of water. Gently drop dumplings into water, and cook until they float to the top and skin looks translucent and is not doughy when you bite into it. Dish them out with a slotted spoon or spatula, and serve with vinegar.

Pan-frying (will need to cook in batches): Add about 1 tbsp of oil to a non-stick pan (more oil for other pans). Place dumplings smooth side down in a single layer, then turn on heat and fry for ~3 minutes until the bottoms have browned. Add ~1cm of hot water and cover with a lid. Let cook until most of the water has evaporated. (The crusty side will have turned soggy.) Lift the lid and continue to cook until all water is gone and the bottoms have hardened and crusted again, then use chopsticks to flip to another side, cooking until golden brown. Serve with vinegar.

(If there is filling left over, save and add to your next meal. That stuff will fit right in with any stir-fry or even pasta.)

Where to find:

  • Dumpling skins (饺子皮, jiǎozi pí): Carrefour, 2.3 RMB/32 skins. Find them in the fresh noodles/buns section.

    Filed under buying, eating in

    Dairy-free, eggless, banana-based ice cream

    There’s been a cool, rainy spell in Shanghai lately, but the weather people tell us summer isn’t over yet. As long as I’m still comfortable in shorts, I’m going to keep letting myself indulge in the best part of summer: ice cream. (Which might explain why I’ve disturbingly gained back half the weight I’d lost back in June…)

    So I was super excited to discover, while going through my facebook feed one boring workday, someone’s reposting of a “healthy” ice cream recipe. It called for a whopping — ready? — 3 ingredients: frozen banana chunks, peanut butter, and honey. I’d made mung bean popsicles and PBJ froyo pops earlier this summer, but there’s nothing like the indulgent creaminess of soft ice cream. Since those ingredients are foods we always have around at home, I tried it that very night.

    The first attempt failed as my impatience led me to use banana chunks that weren’t yet quite frozen, but a couple more tries in the following days (executed by Sean, who jumped on the idea in an instant) finally led to success. The result is a cold, creamy, smooth dessert that tastes and feels like soft serve — and is actually good for you!

    I’d known that bananas are often used in lieu of eggs in vegan baked goods, but had no idea they could come out so deliciously creamy when frozen. Even though ripe bananas are used, the banana flavour isn’t overpowering. With no dairy ingredients, this recipe is lactose-intolerant friendly, and vegan-izable if you ditch the honey — which you totally could if the bananas are ripe enough. We spiced ours up with cinnamon and vanilla extract, and plan to try it with some dark chocolate chunks next time.

    [Edit: Tried it with the chocolate tonight, FAIL! Even though we nuked the chocolate for 20 seconds before adding it to the mixture, it solidified right back up upon contact with the frozen banana. We ended up with tiny bland bits of chocolate in the ice cream which killed the texture and did nothing for flavour.]

    We lost our faithful blender of nearly two years on our third ice cream-making attempt. We’d been meaning to replace it for weeks (months) now, as the hardened grime on its sides became impossible to ignore, but it’d been working fine up until that fateful evening when it began to moan and then slow down. For 99 RMB, it couldn’t be beat. RIP.

    Dairy-free banana-peanut butter ice cream

    3 medium very ripe bananas
    1 heaping tbsp peanut butter
    1 tbsp honey (optional)
    2 tsp vanilla (optional)
    1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

    1. Peel bananas, slice each into 10 chunks, and place in freezer for 3+ hours or until frozen.
    2. Remove from freezer and microwave on medium-high for about 1 minute. This will make it easier to process.
    3. Add bananas, peanut butter, and other ingredients to blender/food processor and blend until creamy, like soft serve ice cream. You will need to stop and scrape the sides down several times, or push it down with a spoon as it is blending. Don’t worry if small chunks of banana remain; these are delicious as they have the texture of hard ice cream. Do NOT spend too long on this step as the mixture doesn’t stay solid for long.
    4. Transfer to a bowl or two and enjoy immediately!

    Makes about 2 servings.


    Filed under eating in

    The Freshary: natural-vegan-organic-environmentally friendly desserts?

    I first heard about The Freshary back in March, but only made my way to the environmentally-conscious, all-natural, part-kosher, certified-organic vegan dessert shop on Julu Lu a few weeks ago. It was a sunny, ice-cream-perfect Friday afternoon and I was to meet Sean there for some sweet treats.

    I’d been curious about this place for a while. The organic movement is only just starting to catch on here, environmental issues don’t seem to ring loud in the public’s mind, and vegan — well, that’s a hard sell in most places, let alone the pork-loving city that is Shanghai. Clearly this shop isn’t trying to go mainstream, but it did open its second store within six months of their initial SML Center opening. Who is their market? Mostly westerners with a sweet tooth and dietary restrictions?

    The shop was devoid of customers when I arrived, so I started chatting with one of the servers inside. The first non-meat-eating Chinese I’ve met here, she was friendly and eager to share her favourite restaurants and how-I-became-vegan story (environmental reasons). When asked how she deals with social occasions with non-veggies, she told me that she often brings her own food when dining out with friends. When going for hotpot, she will request a pot of boiling water in lieu of a “meat/bone”-broth — which is brilliant, actually, since I don’t care much for the ubiquitous chemical-laden soup bases either, and much prefer to flavour my hotpot catches with (perhaps equally chemical-ridden) sauces. I wonder if she gets charged for the water, though. She also has a bunch of vegan friends (and boyfriend), which kinda amazed me. The chat was refreshing and gave me a welcome glimpse into the emerging environment-conscious scene in China.

    Anyway, Sean soon arrived and we decided to share a vanilla-black sesame ice cream (you can also get the flavours separately). Their standard soft serve in a regular cone is 25 RMB, but since we were accidentally served a huge portion in a glass and then ordered a chocolate cone on top (which was delicious), it somehow came to 30 RMB.

    The ice cream was closer to the texture of frozen yogurt, substantial and lightly sweet without being heavy or cloying, which made it quite refreshing. I liked the flavour of the black sesame, but wish the vanilla flavour could’ve come out stronger. Some would find it too bland, but this is probably the way ice-cream should be — we’ve all just been spoiled by high fructose corn syrup. Because there are no preservatives, we were told, it melts more quickly than regular ice-cream, so I’m not sure how it would’ve fared outdoors.

    The Freshary’s website says you can get a free “minnie muffin” with the purchase of an ice cream, but it turned out there was no free muffin. Since we were there, though, we decided we might as well try them, and chose the blueberry and the peanut butter-jelly muffins (15 RMB for 2; 23 RMB for chocolate ones) from 8-10 different flavours. They were mini indeed — less than 2 inches in diameter — and tasted… healthy. Like whole grain and real ingredients healthy, the kind of muffin you could eat for breakfast and not feel guilty about — a far cry from City Shop’s sweet, greasy, indulgent cake-like affairs. Which was great, but at the price, the muffins were a little too bite-sized to become my breakfast staple.

    The shop also sells chocolates, pretzels, and other baked goods, which we didn’t try. During the hour that we were there, one other couple (western guy and Chinese woman, surprise) came in and sat down. It seemed to me that with their location off bustling Jing’an on quiet Julu Road, it might take a little more than impressive certifications — a bigger drinks list, perhaps, and slightly lowered prices — to draw a steady in-store clientele. Of course, I was only there on a random Friday afternoon; for all I know the place could be packed on a weekend evening (I hope so!).

    Since I can eat eggs and dairy, the Baker and Spice downstairs from my office will likely remain my go-to for splurging on baked goods. That said, being a fan of The Freshary’s forward-thinking values and practices, the shop’s decor and friendly service, I’ll be back next time I’m in the neighbourhood and craving something healthfully sweet.

    The Freshary

    Julu Road
    907 Julu Lu near Changshu Lu
    (21) 6445-2137

    SML Center
    618 Xujiahui Lu, B2, T-3
    (21) 6093-8282


    Filed under eating out, restaurants - vegetarian

    Rebounding with homemade chive and egg jiaozi

    After ending relations with our neighbourhood jiaozi lady about a month ago, I’d resolved to quickly find another provider of cheap and delicious (meatless) dumplings. All but four days had passed before Sean suggested that I take matters into my own hands… and so I did.

    Making jiaozi is a long-standing Chinese New Year tradition, and seems to be the quintessential culinary activity for anyone wishing to “experience” Chinese culture. And no wonder: jiaozi, with regional variations, are enjoyed by Chinese all over, from Dongbei (Northeast) to Guangdong to Gansu. When I went to Beijing for a two-week Mandarin summer camp in high school, we spent an afternoon making dumplings at a local’s home. Growing up in Canada, I would sometimes help my grandma wrap dumplings, embarrassed by my unpracticed fingers and the awkward, amateur look of “my” batch.

    Up until recently, making dumplings for me has only involved the act of sealing a spoonful of filling that someone else has prepared in a skin that someone else has made. The Chinese phrase for making dumplings is 包饺子 (bao jiaozi), literally to wrap dumplings, which somewhat masks all the other tasks involved in creating a batch of jiaozi from scratch — preparing the filling, making the dough, rolling and cutting it into round skins. Making chive and egg jiaozi that day made me appreciate how much effort really goes into the whole process — and why packaged, frozen dumplings are such a big sell.

    Anyway, it was a success if the minuscule time spent eating:time spent making ratio was any indication! We split about 3 dozen between lunch and dinner, and followed up the following Sunday with a batch of zucchini-egg-wood ear dumplings (sounds weird, but it works). Not only were our tummies satisfied, but our heartbreak and sense of loss soon turned into smug giddiness: so this was what self-love could feel (and taste) like.

    The filling

    We lifted the chive-and-egg idea from our ex-dumpling provider, though this really is just a classic combo. Chinese chives (韭菜) are fragrant, even pungent, and mixed with egg and enough salt and white pepper, pack a pound of flavour in each dumpling.

    The skin

    Even though a basic flour-and-water dough sounds simple enough to make, this was the most time-consuming and labour-intensive part. I won’t hate on home cooks who use store-bought dumpling wrappers, but totally admire those who make their own, as it is a LOT of work… especially when the only rolling pin you can find at the supermarket is a primitive wooden stick, which makes getting the skin sufficiently thin a challenge in itself.

    Wrapping time

    First batch (Sean’s ones remind me of pierogi, mmmm):

    Second batch:

    Ready to eat

    Results of the first batch (lunch):

    The second batch (dinner):

    Not too shabby for my first dumplings in a decade and Sean’s very first, eh? And none of them exploded in the water, which was a plus. Now that we’ve made this stuff from scratch, though, we might holler at some pre-made skins in the future — though they seem fairly hard to come by in these parts.

    Chive and egg jiaozi

    2 cups all-purpose/jiaozi flour
    1/2 cup potable water
    Extra flour for dusting
    1/2 cup lukewarm water for wrapping

    1 lb Chinese chives, washed and drained, browned ends and roots (white parts) removed
    4 eggs, beaten
    2 tsp salt
    1 tsp ground white pepper
    1 tbsp sesame oil

    Dipping sauce
    Black rice vinegar
    Soy sauce to taste
    Sesame oil to taste

    Rolling pin (or a large jar if you have nothing else)
    Glass or tumbler with diameter of 7-8cm (3in) at the mouth

    Dough: Mix flour with water in large mixing bowl until a dough begins to form, then transfer to clean flat surface and knead with hands until dough is soft and pliable (no crumbly or floury parts). Dough will be slightly dry, but resist the urge to add more water unless mixture remains crumbly after a lot of kneading. Separate into two balls, wrap with damp paper towel, and let sit for 20 minutes.

    Filling: Add a small amount of oil to pan and “scramble” eggs on medium heat, breaking them up into very small pieces while cooking. Remove from heat and let cool. Finely chop chives and place in large bowl, then add cooked egg, salt, sesame oil, and white pepper and mix well. Set aside.

    Skin: With dry and floured hands, take a ball of dough and rework until smooth. Lightly dust chopping board or countertop with flour and roll flat (2mm thick). Using a thin-edged tumbler, cut out circles in the dough, dust with flour, then move wrappers onto another floured surface. Gather unused dough and repeat. Repeat for remaining ball(s) of dough. (There are probably faster ways to do this but this is the way I remember from childhood.)

    Wrapping: Put a small spoonful of filling onto center of a skin. Dip finger in water and run wet fingertip along the edge of the skin, stopping halfway. Fold the dry half over and pleat from center outwards, or simply seal the edges tightly, ensuring there are no holes. Dumpling should be plump but not threatening to burst.

    Boil a large pot of water. Gently drop dumplings into water, and cook until they float to the top and skin looks translucent. Dish them out with a slotted spoon or spatula, and serve with vinegar (and soy sauce/sesame oil if desired). Test cook the first few for taste, adjusting seasonings accordingly.

    Yields approx. 3 dozen large or 40+ medium-sized dumplings. Uncooked dumplings can be frozen on trays then transferred into ziploc bags.

    Relevant resources:

  • Recipe for chive and egg dumplings (in Chinese)
  • Where I got the proportions for the skin
  • Youku video on dumpling wrapping
  • 1 Comment

    Filed under eating in

    Vegetarians need not visit Cantonese Uncle (表叔)

    I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: Cantonese and vegetarian don’t mix. Cantonese food, compared with probably all the other regional cuisines in China, is terribly vegetarian-unfriendly. Sure, there are the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, but outside of those you are basically screwed. Tonight, the second time I’ve gone for Cantonese cha canting-style food since going off meat, was a disheartening reminder of that fact.

    It used to be that whenever I was face-to-face with a menu at any Cantonese/Hong Kong style diner, my head would reel with indecision because everything looked so appealing: Char siu on rice? Greasy beef chow fun? Fujian fried rice? Soy sauce chicken? Hainanese chicken? Chicken congee? Curry beef brisket? One of each, please!

    And that boring, overpriced plate of blanched lettuce/kai lan/choi sum that’s kind of a chore to eat but the only green item on the menu? I can go without if you can.

    I grew up with this food (along with non-cha canting Canto cuisine), first as a tot in Hong Kong, then as an immigrant in uber-Cantonesey Vancouver, and then back in HK before I headed to Philadelphia for college, where I was able to get this stuff on the occasional trip to Chinatown (thank you Sang Kee). This food is a taste of home, a reminder of family, a source of comfort. It’s in my blood (perhaps literally).

    I was brought up steeped in the food culture of one of the meat-lovingest regions on the planet, where roast duck and pork are ubiquitous but snake and cat and scorpion are all fair game, and the joy of eating revolves around meat. So it makes me very uneasy that my desire to positively contribute to the environment by rejecting meat necessitates a breaking away from this culture. Tonight at Uncle (表叔), a Guangzhou cha canting chain that recently made it to Shanghai (complete with Cantonese-speaking servers), I was faced with an inner conflict: the rational-ideological, that dutifully reminded me why I stopped eating meat, versus the cultural-emotional, that said HEY! This is home, this is what you love and crave. Are you sure you can give it up forever? Look, don’t these dishes all sound familiar and delicious?

    They sounded familiar alright, but tonight I couldn’t dwell on their pleasurable properties. My eyes did not linger on the chicken and duck hanging by the window. Sean and I first scoured the extensive menu for savoury meatless dishes, which led us to a whopping three items under “Vegetables” and a plain cheung fun with hoisin/sesame suace. Then we looked for dishes we could “turn” vegetarian, and finally settled on a Fujian fried rice and a fried rice noodle, hold the meat. We don’t want meat. Is there shrimp in the rice? Put it on the side. Yes, talk to the cook.

    The vibe at Uncle was casual and comforting, the toy model display of old-school Hong Kong buses and taxis endearing, but the food at this place wasn’t even great. The fried rice noodles, which looked crispy in the picture, was soaked in soy sauce and laden with strips of ham (c’mon, ham?!? if you’re going to ignore my request, at least do it right with shredded pork); the Fujian fried rice was over-salted and overloaded with squid, shrimp, and imitation crab; the pineapple bun was not crunchy or chewy (Tsui Wah still wins); and the greens in broth with preserved and salted egg was bland and one-dimensional — and topped with generic meat bits. The cheung fun was pretty good, though the sauces were watered down. Sean and I picked and danced our way around the meat, which likely made our friend at least slightly uncomfortable.

    I dislike eating with picky eaters, but recently realized, to my horror, that I’ve become one myself. More so now than during any of my temporary diets in the past, I feel torn between my love of food — and the hearty, no-holds-barred meal– and the principles I’ve set up to guide my consumption. If we are what we eat, and eating meatlessly is shaping my current self, then my avoidance of the meat-centric food culture that has long been a part of me has also forged a dent in my identity. How much chipping away at a root before it can no longer hold up the tree?

    Maybe I was just asking for trouble, dining at a Cantonese joint as a vegetarian. Thankfully there are other more veggie-friendly Chinese regional cuisines available in Shanghai, so I’ll let tofu and green beans and shredded potatoes keep me distracted until I visit my parents in Hong Kong this December…

    Uncle (表叔茶餐厅)
    456 Huichuan Lu near Kaixuan Lu
    汇川路456号 近凯旋路
    (21) 5273-6797


    Filed under eating out, food news & issues, restaurants - non-vegetarian

    Crispy tofu cubes with sweet chili dipping sauce

    When my vegan friend from the States came to visit last year, she was in awe of the selection of tofu/related vegetarian products at the supermarket. While soy products have generally remained a vegetarian’s food in the western world, they enjoy such widespread use in China, appreciated even by meat lovers, that you basically can’t have a supermarket or wet market without a dedicated tofu counter (except City Shop, for shame).

    I’ve been cooking with tofu a fair bit in the two years I’ve been in Shanghai, but up until recently have kept to only a handful of familiar douzhipin (豆制品) — products made of soy/mung/other beans that, along with wheat gluten products, are usually displayed in the tofu counter(s). It’s a little embarrassing, actually, that I haven’t gotten to know them all yet, so I’ve resolved to buy them all and try them all at least once — ’cause, really, when or where else am I going to be this spoiled for choice again? Some of these products, like soft tofu and deep-fried tofu puffs, have long been known to and loved by me, while others are new and mysterious and will require some major baidu-ing.

    Firm tofu

    I’ll start this series with a familiar block of firm tofu. You can get this in a sealed, water-filled container or in a plastic baggy and priced by weight. I’m inclined to think the latter is more fresh, but with all the sneaky date relabelling practices these days, who really knows. Called laodoufu (老豆腐, literally old tofu) in Chinese, it is off-white, dense, and springy and (surprise!) firm to the touch. With a lower water content than soft or silken tofu, firm tofu will hold its shape in the pan and is thus a good choice for stir-fries, “steaks” and such.

    I’ve incorporated diced firm tofu into veggie stir-fries before, but had never prepared it as a stand-alone dish. But the other day I stumbled upon a recipe calling for tofu to be coated in cornstarch before frying, and my life was forever changed.

    You see, before, I’d always just put it directly on the pan and wondered why the edges never got crispy. No more! This stuff looked like cubes of chicken breast in the pan, then when I dished them out I started imagining they were pieces of crispy Cantonese roast pork (烧肉) (signs of a deranged vegetarian?). Dipping the cubes in Thai sweet chili sauce, Sean and I polished off the entire plate in a matter of minutes.

    Pan-fried crispy tofu cubes
    The cornstarch coating gives the tofu a crispy exterior without all the oil that goes into deep-frying. (They do start to lose their crisp more quickly than if deep-fried, however.) Great at absorbing surrounding flavours, these tofu cubes are delicious served with a sweet dipping sauce and make a healthy alternative to deep-fried meaty appetizers. Don’t skimp on the salt (unless for health reasons)!

    1 block (extra-)firm tofu, approx. 12x12x8cm
    2 tbsp cornstarch

    1 tsp salt or to taste
    1/2 tsp white pepper or to taste (optional)

    1/4 cup Thai sweet chili sauce

    1. Rinse tofu well and pat dry with clean paper towel. Cut tofu into 2cm cubes and pat dry again. Sprinkle 1/4 of cornstarch in bottom of large bowl and add one layer of tofu, then add rest of cornstarch and tofu alternately. Toss gently to coat without breaking up the tofu.
    2. Heat 2 tbsp oil on a non-stick pan on medium-high heat. Add tofu cubes and spread as a single layer on pan. Let cook undisturbed for 5 minutes, or until bottoms of cubes are golden brown and have hardened into a crust.
    3. Sprinkle salt and white pepper evenly on tofu, then flip onto other side using a spatula (use chopsticks to aid you). Some of the tofu pieces will be stuck together from the cornstarch, but that’s okay — just cut them lose with the spatula. Cook for another few minutes until bottoms are browned and crispy.
    4. Toss tofu gently with the spatula so the other sides have a chance to cook briefly, then transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel.
    5. Serve immediately with a bowl of Thai sweet chili sauce for dipping.


    Filed under buying, eating in, from the tofu counter