Friday, May 27, 2011

Guangdong's stir-fried water spinach with bean curd "cheese" and chilies

Milk has only made a small incursion into Chinese cuisine, so you won't find many traditional dishes based on butter or milk. 

There are, of course, a few exceptions like yak butter tea in Tibet, the dried milk "fans" that are incorporated into a few luscious Yunnan dishes, and the delicious "fried milk" concoctions on Guangdong's Pearl Delta area, but all in all, soybeans have almost always taken the place of the noble cow, providing China with a vegan type of milk, as well as both fresh bean curd (called doufu or tofu) and the cheesier version known as doufuru, literally "bean curd milk."

But doufuru neither looks nor smells like milk, and I can't figure out why anybody would give it that name. It looks sort of like feta cheese and generally has a similar tang from the brine it is soaked in. 

What it tastes like, though, depends where it was made. Fujian province has a gorgeous ruby doufuru that is made with its local red wine yeast. Taiwan has a creamy, sweetly savory version from Sanxia that has whole soybeans and rice grains gracing the sauce. Guangdong has a couple of very funky versions, as well as some others spiked with chili or made rather mild. You get the point. They are all good in their own way as long as you think of them as cheese rather than bean curd.

Stalks of water spinach
So how do they make doufuru? My late mother-in-law said that she cut fresh bean curd into cubes and then set them out where they could mold. (Much like cheese, doufuru needs mold to perform the necessary alchemy.) After the cubes were nice and hairy, they were packed in jars and both  Shaoxing rice wine and a brine flavored with Sichuan peppercorns were poured over them to stop the decay and start the process of turning the bean curd into a cheese of sorts. 

Doufuru can be used as a condiment with congee or spread on fresh steamed bread (where it tastes particularly cheesy), or it can be used in a sauce. The absolutely most divine recipe comes from Shanghai and turns a boneless pork hock (front upper leg) into a trembling pyramid that is not in the least bit fatty, but rather is meaty and soft and buttery and, yes, cheesy. I'll post that recipe, too, before long.

But today I want to provide a recipe for my vegetarian friends and for those of you who want to try a really good vegetable dish. This one comes from Guangdong, down on the southeast coast of China, where Hong Kong dangles like a beautiful earring. 

Where kongxincai got its name
The vegetable is an exotic one called "water spinach" that some markets label as "ong choy," but which the Chinese call "hollow vegetable" (kongxincai). One look at the photo on the right and you'll understand the source of its name. It is a member of the morning glory family, and when allowed to flower, its blooms are white with deep purple throats that would be good enough reason to grow them even if the plant wasn't so tasty.

Water spinach can be found in most Chinese groceries during the warm months, and it has a very pleasant flavor that isn't quite like spinach. The stems are always eaten along with the leaves, but they need to be cooked a bit longer than the leaves. The best way to do this is to rinse the water spinach carefully, trim off the stem ends and any stems that feel tough, and then cut across the bunch where the leaves start to grow more thickly, because the stems at that point will be pretty tender. Then, cut the stems into 2-inch lengths and fry them first until they turn a bright green, and then add the leaves - which have also been cut into 2-inch lengths - to the wok for a quick fry until they barely wilt.

This recipe calls for chilies, but if you'd rather have garlic in there, go right ahead. There's no set rules, and the flavor will need to be adjusted depending upon what you like, what you are serving this with, and what kind of doufuru you are using. Think of this more as a general template rather than a set-in-stone recipe...

Stir-fried water spinach with bean curd "cheese" and chilies 
Furu kongxincai  腐乳空心菜 
Your ingredients
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

20 ounces water spinach (around 3 fistfuls)
2 to 3 cubes doufuru, plus a few spoonfuls of the brine
3 tablespoon fresh peanut or vegetable oil
10 thin slices of peeled fresh ginger, minced finely
1 chili pepper, diced
Splash of rice wine
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
Sugar, light soy sauce, or more doufuru, if needed
1. Wash the water spinach carefully and trim off the ends, as well as any tough stems. Cut the bunch in half where the leaves start to grow more thickly and the stems are tender. 

2. Cut the stems into 2-inch pieces and put into one pile; cut the leafy stalks into 2-inch pieces and set in another pile. Place the doufuru in a small bowl with the brine and mash it with a fork.

Separate the stems from the leaves
3. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the ginger to the oil and quickly stir-fry it until it begins to brown. Add the diced chili and toss in the water spinach stems in the hot oil until they turn a brilliant green, and then add the leafy stalks; stir-fry the leaves quickly until they barely wilt. Pour the mashed doufuru into the wok and use the rice wine to rinse out the bowl into the wok. Quickly toss everything together and taste, adjusting the flavor with more doufuru or a dash of sugar or soy sauce if needed. Sprinkle the sesame oil over the vegetables and serve hot.

Note: Water spinach is best on the day it is cooked, so try to finish it up at this meal.  Leftovers can be sneaked into fried noodles, omelets, and fried rice, but it's still at its crunchy best right after it is cooked.


  1. I love this dish. I posted about it last month in fact (and have just added a link to your post).

    BTW I also love your blog — I found it via eGullet a few weeks ago and have been eagerly devouring the archives. I really appreciate you including the Chinese names for things.

  2. How wonderful of you to say so, kake, and thank you so much for linking your blog to mine. Your blog is a terrific way for folks to learn how to order from the Chinese side of the menu (where all of the good stuff is usually hidden!). Brilliant idea. And highly recommended!

  3. You're welcome, and thanks for your kind words on my efforts!

    I just remembered that I also have a blogroll of sorts, so have linked you from there too. I mention this in case you're not familiar with some of the other blogs I list (though I see we have Eating Asia in common).

  4. Thank you so much, and I should add most of the rest on your list to mine. Excellent ideas!

  5. Wow, what a web site! I start reading, and links within lead to more reading and I look up and notice it's nearly 4 AM. Thank you so much for the wonderful content and the exhaustive detail; I appreciate your work tremendously.

    This is one of my favourite recipes, but the selection/quality of doufuru I can get in a small regional Australian city is limited.

    Do you have a recipe for a 'funky' doufuru? Should I instead attempt to make your mother in law's version, can you give me a rough guide to the proportions of the wine and brine, and what strength of brine she used?


    1. Why sure, I'd be happy to post a recipe for funky doufuru. Coming up soon...

      Thanks for the lovely comments, too!

  6. Thank you, I look forward to it!