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Cooking With ‘Stinky’ Tofu

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Fermented tofu has been called the “blue cheese of Asia”, and it’s not hard to see – or rather, smell – why. This pungent ingredient has earned a reputation as an acquired taste, but if used effectively it can dress up otherwise ordinary dishes.

First, a little fermented tofu 101. The most common type consists of tofu cubes in mould. Fermentation breaks down the protein of the bean curd, leaving it with a softer, creamier and smoother texture.

The cubes are soft and pale yellow in colour  and have a pronounced flavour. Some chefs and home cooks liken the tofu’s taste to Camembert cheese with a touch of anchovy flavour. This kind of tofu is immersed in brine, usually liquor, and used in small quantities.

Interested? Buying fermented tofu is easy. In China, tofu is sold loose, often “freshly” fermented, while in other markets you can usually find it in jars. A little goes a long way and the jars of fermented tofu can be kept for years (provided you store them in the refrigerator once opened). Some manufacturers add other ingredients, such as sugar, caramel and rose wine.

Then there’s the DIY option. If you want to have a go at making the most common variety of fermented tofu, here are some techniques you can follow or even try this recipe, which involves cutting the tofu into cubes, inoculating them with mould and leaving them to incubate for three days. The tofu will then be covered with a cottony-white mycelium, similar to the process of making tempeh.

The mouldy tofu is then brined with rice wine, water and salt (sometimes chillies are added) and then stored for up to six months. The longer you age the tofu, the better it gets, resulting in deeper and more complex flavours.

Although rice wine is generally the brine of choice, other recipes use brandy, plain salt or even soya sauce.

A history of chao dofu, aka ‘stinky’ tofu

Research indicates the earliest mention of fermented tofu in the late 16th century when Chinese scholars literally called it spoilt milk or spoilt bean spoilt milk.

This is interesting because the Chinese were not known for making cheese or milk. As this source points out, their Mongolian neighbours were skilled at making goats cheese, an ingredient the Chinese also once referred to as spoiled milk.

Picking up on this practice, the Chinese learnt how to ferment ingredients, applying the methods to create fermented tofu. Eventually, the name evolved into common references such as chou doufu, which translates as “stinky” or “smelly” tofu.

Later, fermented tofu became popular in Southeast Asia.  In the Philippines, it’s called tahuli, while in Indonesia it’s known as takoa and in Thailand, it’s called tauhu yee. A mellower version known as tofu yo is found on Okinawa  but does not seem to be found anywhere else.

The “Chinese cheese” also spread to Europe  in the 19th century. An early reference can be found in the notes of Shanghai-based French Consul Baron M de Montigny, who observed in a report to the Society for Acclimatization in France that fermented tofu was used as a seasoning prepared with great care and culinary talent.

Today, popular trends such as veganism are turning tofu and its fermented version into a mainstream food product around the world. Fermented tofu’s similarity to cheese makes it a great alternative for food producers to create vegan cheese slices. Those who are lactose-intolerant can appreciate the flavours of “cheese” with these alternatives usually made with coconut or olive oil.

A little goes a long way

When cooking with fermented tofu, a small amount goes a long way. It pairs well with congee, rice or stir-fried greens and leafy vegetables, such as sweet potato leaf and Chinese-style romaine lettuce. In stir-fried dishes, some chefs add bird’s eye chillies, making a delicious spicy combo with the tofu.

Fermented tofu has other uses. You can turn it into a dipping sauce for hot pot dishes or directly serve it on steamed buns and noodles. This chilli sauce recipe uses lemongrass along with fermented tofu and chilli – perfect for dinner parties.

Because of its soft and spreadable texture, the salty and savoury tofu can be used in broths or braised dishes such as this recipe for braised chicken with ginger and fermented tofu.

The fermentation process leaves a rich and creamy flavour that’s suitable for marinating pork, chicken and beef. Protein breakdown in the tofu produces enzymes that aid in tenderising your meat.

Red bean curd or fermented tofu has a more subtle flavour compared to the white version when used in a marinade. You can add more red fermented tofu to your marinade without drastically changing the flavour.

For vegetarians or vegans, or those opting for non-meat dishes, this Vietnamese recipe should satisfy appetites. Originally from Danang, the recipe uses mock duck with fermented tofu, cooked with mushrooms and taro.

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