I've had an indiscreet love affair with the stuff called nanru for nigh on three decades now, and most of the commercial versions are pretty good when used to make cheesy scarlet sauces for chicken or pork shank. No matter who produces it, these dishes have always turned out perfectly for me. So, if your only desire is for tofu cheese that makes the grade in sauces, then there's really no need to go to the trouble of making a batch at home.
|Newly packed jar of nanru|
The magical transformation that took place in that jar is hard to relate, for bits of the cubes actually sparkled on my tongue! Fermentation was still going on in there, and as I scooped bits of the nanru into my mouth, tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide exploded on my taste buds, and that is one reason why this is the best recipe ever.
The flavor was absolutely incredible, too. Deep wine aromas accompanied each little bite, the red rice clinging to the custardy tofu and tinting it a beautiful scarlet, and each piece was spangled with darker maroon spots that were the inoculant rice causing all of this action in my mouth. I had added bits of sugar to the jar over the months, feeding the yeast, and was rewarded when the nanru was finally ripe enough to enjoy.
My late mother-in-law used to make the white form of fermented bean curd -- doufuru -- when she lived in Taiwan, and the process she relied on was pretty much the same as Andrea Nguyen described in her seminal work, Asian Tofu: squares of fresh, firm tofu are left to mold for a couple of days, tossed in salt and flavorings, and then covered with rice wine. Nature and time takes care of the rest, converting what looks for all the world like it should be avoided like the plague into a food of incomparable texture and flavor.
|Golden yellow spores & blotches|
Hm, I thought, that is a challenge if I ever saw one. The thing is, Andrea probably hadn't yet encountered Fujian's Red Wine Lees, which are the key component of nanru, so her statement is more than understandable. But since I always have a fat jar of red wine lees hiding somewhere in the dank, dark recesses of my fridge, I knew that there was only one thing to do: substitute a healthy scoop of the red lees and a good dollop of its amber liquid in place of plain rice wine.
And it worked. And I'll show you how.
Making any kind of fermented bean curd is nothing less than an act of faith. I mean, look at the mold-covered square to the upper right. It looks dangerous, like it could cause severe gastric distress, if not death. So I appreciate you following me this far down the garden path. Your faith will be rewarded!
|Andrea's "3S" achieved|
Here is the recipe, one that more or less follows Andrea's wonderfully precise directions that she says were influenced by the work by another great lady, Florence Lin's Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook (note: this book is also completely brilliant), as they give the bean curd just the right environment to mold perfectly. The brine, of course, is my own, and is a result of lots of guesswork and good luck and memories of what my mom-in-law told me.
Red fermented bean curd "cheese"
Makes about a pint
1 square (13.5 ounces, or so) extra-firm fresh bean curd (see Tips)
1½ tablespoons sea salt
3 tablespoons Red Wine Lees (the solids)
½ cup wine left over from the Red Wine Lees, or a neutral rice wine (see Tips)
½ cup water
1. Wash your hands and cutting board and everything else so that there is absolutely no oil or contamination.
2. Cut the bean curd in half horizontally and then into pieces that are more or less square. Lay a tea towel (something with a smooth weave, rather than terry cloth) in a clean rimmed pan on your kitchen counter and then place the bean curd squares on top of the towel so that they don't touch. Lay other towel on top of the squares, place a smaller pan on top of that, and the weight the whole thing down with 2 to 3 pounds of cans, pans, or whatever. This will gently squeeze most of the moisture out of the bean curd. The squares will feel relatively dry after a couple of hours.
|A tiny masterpiece|
3. Have a rimmed glass baking pan ready that is (as always) super clean. Place the squares in the pan so that they don't touch each other, as this gives each side more of a chance to grown mold. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and use a toothpick or skewer to punch about 10 holes in the plastic so that the gases can escape.
4. Place the pan in a warm place away from breezes (an unheated oven is handy), and wait about 3 days until the bean curd is covered with yellowish spots, looks very moist, and has a yeasty smell (see Tips).
5. Carefully clean a 1-pint jar and lid, and then rinse them out with boiling water; turn them upside-down and let them air dry; prepare two new bamboo skewers for handling the bean curd. Place the salt in a small bowl and put the Red Wine Lees in the bottom of the jar. One-by-one, lift each cube of the bean curd up with a very clean bamboo skewer, roll it lightly in the salt, and then ever-so-gently place it in the jar so that it lies fairly flat and doesn't break apart (see Tips).
6. When all of the bean curd has been placed in the jar, pour the wine and water into the jar and twist on the lid loosely so that gases can escape as the bean curd ferments. Label the jar with the date and place it in the refrigerator. After about a month, add a tablespoon of sugar to the jar and then lightly reseal and return it to the fridge. After another month, add another tablespoon of sugar. By the third month, take a very clean spoon and taste the sauce; if it still needs a bit more sugar, add it.
7. By month 5 or 6, your fermented bean curd "cheese" will be ready. Always use a very clean spoon to remove the squares, recover the jar, and return it to the fridge. It will keep for a very long time, and the sauce can be used again in your next batch or in some dish that calls for red fermented bean curd, such as the ones mentioned at the top of this page.
Use extra-firm tofu here, not firm or anything softer. The reason for this is that it will become incredibly soft as it molds, and extra-firm has been the only type (in my experience, at least) that keeps its shape relatively easily. Don't worry, though... the fermented result will have the consistency of custard.
I always recommend organic, non-GMO bean curd. Soybeans are one of the most heavily messed-with crops, and the big pesticide companies are turning them into tiny images of Frankenstein's monster. Corn, soy, and anything that is made with them should always be non-GMO (not genetically modified) for your health and for the planet's. End of speech.
If you don't have any of the wine left over from your Red Wine Lees expedition, use a neutral-flavored rice wine like Taiwanese rice wine (mijiu), as Shaoxing's flavor will fight with that of the Fujian lees.
The time it takes for the bean curd to mold perfectly will vary according to your kitchen temperature. Check on it daily, and when it's ready, proceed immediately.
If some of the squares break apart as you pick them up, don't despair. Just place them in the center of the jar where no one will see them. Push your perfect squares up against the glass, though, as shown in the second photo from the top... they look beautiful that way.
How much sugar you use depends on two major things: the flavor of your Red Wine Lees and your own palate. The sugar will also help feed the yeast and form those delightful bubbles, but don't overdo it. When it tastes exactly right, stop.
A final note on how to enjoy this nanru, as a couple of readers asked quite sensibly, "If I'm not supposed to throw it into some pork or chicken dish, how do you want me to eat it?" To which I reply, "Savor it like a great cheese."
Good nanru is most traditionally served as a side dish with congee (rice porridge), and I love it that way. But even better is when a single cube is placed on top of a bowl of freshly steamed rice (get the best you can) or slathered inside of a split mantou (plain steamed bun). You see, just as with soft Western cheeses, nanru benefits from this contrast with starchy sweetness and welcomes a bit of blandness to play against its salty pungency.
Of course, if you are a serious addict like me, you might find yourself nibbling on a spoonful while staring mindlessly out the window, licking bits off of the spoon, letting them dissolve in a shimmer of bubbles on your tongue and lips, and then going back for more until, with little warning, the jar is empty.