Saturday, September 8, 2012

The stuffed bean curd balls of Guangxi's Zhuang people

When a country is as old and huge as China definitely is, the people who live around the edges are almost inevitably going to be ethnically different from the majority in the more central areas. 

The Han Chinese, who trace their origins to the lands around the Yellow River in North China, outnumber their minority peoples by a ratio of over nine to one. Even so, the impact these various cultures have had on the nation of has been immeasurable. 

That is one of the reasons why, even though just about every Chinese cookbook gives minority foods short shrift, these areas always fascinate me. And so I've been spending some time lately trying to figure out what the minority people in south-central China eat, and why.

My own personal theory is that who a people are, how they live, and what they value is reflected most clearly in what they eat and how they eat. 
Smash up the bean curd,

We've seen that even on this blog when we've looked at the foods of Chinese Muslims and Manchurians. Those two groups are nothing short of huge when it comes to both the size of the area they inhabit and their influence. The Muslims range all across northern China, from Beijing in the east all the way out to Central Asia, and Manchuria not only encompasses all of the northeast, but its people conquered the nation in 1644 and installed a dynasty (the Qing) that lasted for almost 300 years. 

They thus have enormous cuisines to match, with brilliant approaches to food that show whether they live in the desert or in the cold northern reaches, whether they are accustomed to bounty or famine, whether they are nomads or are used to settled cities, whether they are on ancient spice highways or in remote terrain, whether they are near rivers or oceans, whether green vegetables are rarities or everyday food, and even what foods their religions dictate.

In addition to these two, China has 53 other recognized minority groups, most of which tend to be overlooked. 

I am aiming to rectify that just a bit.
then squeeze out the moisture

Today we are going to take a visit to one of the less well-known people who live in the remote mountainous regions of southern China along the edge of Southeast Asia: the Zhuang minority. Calling them a minority is sort of misleading, since they are a huge ethnic group with more than 16 million people, most of whom live in the same place that they and their ancestors were born: Guangxi. 

But then again, we're talking about China, which has a population of way over a billion people, 92 percent of them ethnic Hans.

The Zhuang were the earliest settlers in this area of south-central China. The land of Guangxi and the Zhuang people are so inextricably intertwined that the proper name for this province is actually the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

What has fascinated me about these folks, though, is their food. Finding out about what they eat and then locating items that can be reproduced here on the other side of the planet has been challenging, to say the least. However, I'm proud to report that today's dish is nothing short of amazing.

Tofu nest for the meatball
Much like Hakka stuffed tofu triangles, the Zhuang people have a singular stuffed bean curd dish that is both highly inventive and utterly delicious. Instead of using solid blocks of curd, though, Zhuang cooks mash up the squares and then squeeze out most of the moisture. This is then used as a wrapper for a ground pork mixture that is then formed into balls that are fried, poached, steamed, and finally sauced.

That is one very sophisticated approach to food, let me tell you.

But it is not all that difficult, requiring a little more time than usual to shape the balls, of course, but there are no terribly difficult skills involved, so anyone should feel comfortable in making this dish.

As with a number of the other Zhuang foods I've been studying, this provides a clever way to stretch expensive meat. Little marbles of seasoned pork flavor the dish, but they are padded with jackets of mashed tofu that make each meatball taste and feel like something very luxurious and even meaty.

The foods in Guangxi share many of the flavors of the rest of China -- ginger, garlic, green onions, pork, and so forth -- but in the mountainous areas I've noticed a greater reliance on salt as a seasoning, with soy sauce added in relatively small dribbles, perhaps because it is imported to the area. 

Hand-chopped pork chop

Even so, this dish is so refined that it could easily be served at a banquet. In fact, it is traditionally made by the Zhuang to celebrate the Spring Festival, as well as to welcome guests. And so, because it is considered feast food, this is a very subtle dish with absolutely no harsh notes, like those of chilies and fresh garlic. Rather, ginger and green onions scintillate in the background, with black mushrooms adding extra oomph and stretching that bit of meat even farther.

In fact, there is such a small amount of meat in here that vegans probably could get away with something else like seitan instead of the pork; the cornstarch in the filling would be sufficient to hold everything together, too.

I've tweaked the seasoning a bit, adding more ginger and some rice wine to the mix, but the main difference with the traditional recipe is the cornstarch that the balls are tossed in before frying. This helps keep the tofu from sticking to the pan, so that they come out fluffy and round. It's a small thing, I admit, but it's one of those little tips that spell the difference between a beautiful dish and a raggedy pile of tofu.

Zhuang style stuffed bean curd balls 
Zhuangjia niang doufu 壯家酿豆腐 
Makes about 45 balls serving 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

Bean curd:
Bouncy balls of deliciousness
1½ blocks of regular organic bean curd (tofu), or about 30 ounces
½ teaspoon sea salt

8 ounces lean pork (either ground or a boneless pork chop)
4 fresh black mushrooms
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Sprinkle of sea salt (a quarter teaspoon or so)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons rendered pork, duck, or chicken fat
Ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cornstarch

For frying:
Itty bitty meatball.
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
Cornstarch, as needed

1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 cup filtered water
1 teaspoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon rendered pork, duck, or chicken fat
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
1½ teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1½ teaspoons filtered water
Chopped green onions and cilantro to garnish

1. Wet a fine piece of muslin or cheesecloth and place it in a colander in the sink. Put the bean curd in the cloth and break it apart with your fingers before squeezing it into a fine mush. Do your best to break up even the tiny lumps, as you want this to be as smooth as possible. Sprinkle the salt over the bean curd, toss it around, and then let the bean curd drain while you work on the meatballs.

The "tiger's mouth"
2. If your pork isn't ground, then chop it finely by hand. (Chill the meat, cut off any tendons or silver skin, and then thinly slice it before chopping it with a sharp cleaver.) Place the meat in a medium work bowl. Stem the mushrooms and finely chop the caps. Add them to the meat along with the rest of the meatball ingredients. Stir the mixture in one direction until it is bouncy. 

3. Roll the mixture into tiny marbles about half an inch in diameter. The best way to form these meatballs is via the Chinese method called hukou, or "tiger's mouth."  To do this, grab a fistful of the meat mixture and then squeeze out through a hole formed by your forefinger and thumb (i.e., the hukou; see the photo on the right... it's sort of like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube). When you have a piece that looks about half an inch all around, scoop it off and place in on a plate or cookie sheet. After you have these all portioned off, roll them between your palms to form the round meatballs. You should end up with 45 little balls (don't worry if it is more or less than this); keep them in a cool place.

Roll the coated meatballs
4. After that, it's time to wrap them in the mashed tofu, which is a lot easier than it sounds, since the bean curd actually behaves pretty well if it has been properly squeezed and drained; it should feel sort of like mashed potatoes at this point. Take a tablespoon or so, flatten it in one palm as shown near the top of this page, and then form a little nest. Place a meatball in the nest and scoot the tofu around the meat until it completely covers the pork. (Add a bit more bean curd or take some off, depending on what is needed; you'll soon get used to exactly how much is perfect.) Then, lightly roll the ball between your palms to smooth out the surface (see the photo on the right). And that's it. Place the coated meatball on a clean plate or cookie sheet and do the rest the same way. 

5. Once the tofu balls are finished, heat about a half an inch of oil in a wok over medium-high heat until the oil starts to shimmer; a chopstick placed in the oil should immediately be covered in bubbles. Place about a cup of cornstarch in a small work bowl and coat each ball just before you fry it. (If you coat them ahead of time, the starch will suck all of the moisture out of the bean curd and cause that layer to crack.) Gently place the balls in the hot oil; don't crowd the balls, as they need room between them so that they don't stick, so fry these in as many batches as needed. Shake the wok once the bottoms are fried until the balls are a golden brown all over. Remove the fried balls to a clean plate and repeat with the rest of the balls until all have been fried. (You can prepare this dish up to this point; just let the balls come to room temperature, then store in a covered container in the refrigerator.)
Frying the bean curd balls

6. About 15 minutes before you want to serve this dish, make the sauce by boiling the ginger, water, soy sauce, rice wine, fat, and soy sauce together in a medium pan or wok. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add the fried balls to the sauce, bring the sauce to a boil again, and then lower the heat to a simmer. 

7. After 5 minutes, drain the balls (reserve the sauce) and place them in a heatproof rimmed serving plate or bowl that fits easily in your steamer. Steam the balls over high heat for around 10 minutes; they will puff up a little. While they are steaming, heat the reserved sauce in a pan and stir in the cornstarch slurry; bring the sauce to a boil and then lower to a simmer. Stir the sauce occasionally to keep it smooth; taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed. Remove the steamed bean curd balls from the steamer, pour as much of the sauce over them as you wish, and sprinkle with the chopped green onions and cilantro. Serve immediately.


If you have a little bit of tofu left over when you've formed the coated balls, just pat it on any skimpy looking ones. If you end up with extra meatballs, just fry them with the coated balls and enjoy them as a snack.

Be sure to coat the tofu balls just before you fry them.

Fat is necessary to this dish since it otherwise is so lean. A creamy, tasty fat like duck is fantastic here. Vegans could use peanut oil instead in both places.

Any scrappy looking fried tofu balls should be placed at the bottom of the serving dish, with the pretty ones piled on top; that way no one will notice.

Garnish as desired. If you prefer, you could stir-fry some spinach and form it into a ring around the bean curd balls; it will look like a bird's nest. If this is for a fancy dinner, why not go all out?

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