Sunday, October 21, 2012

Red fermented bean curd "cheese" -- at last!

Before I say anything more, let me make one point: this is the most absurdly delicious fermented bean curd (aka tofu cheese) that will ever, Ever, EVER pass your lips.


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
But, if you want to taste something in its natural state that is beyond your wildest imagination, then have I got a gift for you. After 6 months of fermentation, with only occasional tastes along the way, I recently opened up the jar that had waited so patiently for my attentions and discovered ambrosia, so I soon devoured it with singular pleasure and instantly regretted deeply that I hadn't made a couple gallons of this brined wonder last March.

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
But Andrea said one thing in my book that make me perk up my ears. As if throwing a gauntlet on the floor in my general direction, she noted that she had "attempted to make red fermented tofu but to no avail."

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
You will find when your tofu hits the perfect state of moldiness -- what Andrea called the "3S criteria": slime, splotches, and stink -- that the bean curd actually smells pretty good, at least to my nose. There really was more of a bread-like, yeasty bloom in the air, and when I sampled one of the moldy squares (yes, I am insane), it tasted like a soft Camembert. There was nothing disgusting about it, although my husband left the room as he noticed me happily licking my fingertips.

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" 

Nánrŭ  南乳
Northern Fujian
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. 


  1. Hi, I know this is an old post, but I'm confused a bit with the recipe. When do you add the red yeast rice, and do you cook the rice before? Sorry if this a dumb question or I missed something. I saw the description said it had bits of red rice stuck to the bean curd, but didn't see it mentioned in the recipe. I'm really dying to try this! I love the fermented red bean curd that comes in the little sealed clay jars! So delicious! I'm betting homemade MUST be even better!

    1. Perfectly sensible question. Nope, you don't need to cook the red yeast rice since the rice was steamed already (see the recipe link above and here: Besides, if you cook the Red Wine Lees, this will kill the yeast, so just add it to the moldy bean curd to make it ferment.

      The rice is that third ingredient: The Red Wine Lees. You place the Red Wine Lees (a/k/a the solids, the rice grains, etc.) in the bottom of the jar in Step 5.

      And you're right, what you end up with is approximately 10,000 times better than the commercial stuff, although those clay jars are pretty cool...

      Let me know how it turns out!

  2. Hi Carolyn, I am very thankful that I found your recipe. I had wanted a method of making this kind of food for years, I am 63 now and finally here it is, the secrete way to make the best Red Fermented Bean Curd on earth. Question1: Where can I buy Red Wine Lees? Question 2:
    How can I search for your other's recipes? Question 3: What other authentic Chinese cook books you recommend? Lynn Nickels San Diego

    1. You occasionally can find Red Wine Lees in a bigger Chinese supermarket, but the best way is to make it yourself (see the links above on this page).

      You can search for recipes or ingredients in the right column where it says "SEARCH FOR SOMETHING."

      There are lots of great Chinese cookbooks out there; it all depends on what kind of Chinese food you like. Sichuan? Cantonese? Vegetarian? That being said, I always tend to go back to my favorite three writers from the 60's and 70's for inspiration: Florence Lin, Grace Zia Chu, and Virginia Lee, but there are many other modern wonderful writers, too. Check out your library for their books and test their recipes: Fuchsia Dunlop, Grace Young, Ken Hom, Eileen Yin-fei- Lo, Martin Yan... the list is long!

  3. Have you mentioned Bruce Cost's "Asian Ingredients"? That's how I got started cooking real Asian food.

    1. Oh my goodness, yes. He is one of my favorite authorities on Asian ingredients. I mentioned him at the very beginning of this blog in "Shanghai mustard pickles":

  4. Hello

    I wonder, is the above recipe still your best, or have you tweaked and perfected it since?


    1. Hi anyone. I was bought a jar of chilli beancurd and don't know what to do with it. Any recipes would be welcome. I am not a vegetarian, can I use it with meat and fish?

    2. Hi all. Yes, this is still my favorite recipe for nanru, no question. And as for recipes that use spicier beancurd cheese, you can use it instead of red beancurd cheese in braises with chicken (, toss it with water spinach (, add it to cookies (, and even sandwich it in hot steamed bread (, sort of like a Camembert with real zing. Think of it more as cheese than doufu, and the possibilities suddenly seem endless.

  5. Dear Carolyn,
    Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing this wonderful recipe. I made two batches over a year ago and have not looked back. They are marvellous!! You may baulk at me "wastefulness", but I used them to marinade duck before I roast them. One word- heavenly! Thank you once again!

    1. Thank you, Cindy! And that duck sounds amazing! :)

  6. I am trying to make the fermented tofu "cheese" However after2 days most of the tofu has yellow mold but some of it has pink mold also. Should I not use it? if there is ANY color other than yellow should I discard it always?An earlier attempt had some gray mold also so I threw it out. I have tried to keep everything VERY clean. Rather than a glass dish, could you put it on layers of plastic wrap that should be clean? Just want to make sure I am making "safe" tofu.

    1. Your caution is completely correct. Pink mold is dangerous, so throw that out. (

      Do you have any other things fermenting in the house? You might want to try a different brand of bean curd - find something that is pasteurized and vacuum sealed, as that would be the cleanest. Check to see if there is anything in, say, the fridge that's "blooming," since spores can escape and fly around the house. Let me know what happens, and thanks for taking the plunge into this kind of cheese making!

    2. I am using the extra firm tofu as recommended from Trader Joe's. I am making the fermented wine lees and the pickled sweet garlic. Would that have any affect on the tofu? Will try it again soon. The wine lees should be about ready now since I started them at the end of September. Can't wait to try the garlic.

    3. This shouldn't pose a problem at all. The garlic doesn't have any fermentation or molding going on, so you should be good to go. Hope you like them both!

  7. 凱玲, I want to thank you for the etymological hypothesis you proposed in 天下之最 regarding 炸醬麵. I was puzzled during my time in Beijing by the seemingly aberrant tone used for the first character in the name. Everyone in Taiwan, where I learned Mandarin, uses second tone, but the character is always pronounced fourth tone in other contexts. I appear to have jumbled the details, but in any case the swapping out of 雜, with its second tone, would appear to account for both your puzzlement and mine. Nicely done!

    1. You are quite welcome, Purslane. And thanks for the very kind words. Have a great Year of the Rooster!

  8. Hello, thank you so much for this recipe, I am so excited to try it. I became addicted to our local Asian store jars of fermented bean curd and yours sounds even better.

    P.s. I loved your speech about GMO's, preach on!

  9. Carolyn, I make red wine. I'm wondering if I could substitute those red wine lees in this recipe. Also, am looking for a couple of dried / fermented recipes to make: Toe-choi (preserved turnips?), haam-sheen choi (salty-sour but a little sweet pickled greens), chun pei moi (licorice-flavored preserved plums), and dry salted plums. Thank you for your guidance and leads. Love your recipes!

    1. That is a very interesting question. I'm thinking that they might work, since the lees offer color and flavor. The cheese might very well be good. Let me know!

      I'm not sure what toe-choi or haam-sheen choi are. Let me know the Chinese, if you have it. I've never made the two plum recipes, but if I find the directions, I'll let you know. Thanks so much for the compliment!

  10. I would like to buy non gmo dried bean curd sticks and dried beancurd sheets. Where can I find them? China and Taiwan both mostly use GMO soy beans to produce their tofu products. Thanks

    1. Excellent question. Try Hodu Soy, which is based in Oakland. They have a store locator on their website.

    2. Do note that these are all fresh. I don't know of any place that has the dried ones.

  11. Thanks for this recipe! I found that most fermented bean curd sold here (Singapore) are pasteurized. This is a hot and humid area, so no surprise that my toufu gets black, pink and purple mold after on day two. On they one there are still okay. How will it change the favors if I brine after just day one. Thanks in advance! Jaxon.

    1. Sorry, I really don't know the answer to that. I don't think that the mold will have gone down into the bean curd by then, but then again I'm not sure.

      Do you have an oven? If so, try molding the bean curd in there as directed. If possible, first heat up the oven to around 120 C for ten minutes or so to kill any bacteria, then let the oven cool down overnight. That might give you more of a controlled environment. Let me know what happens! (Sorry it took so long to respond. I've been having trouble with comment notification.)