Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bean curd fit for an emperor

This cooking method called guota (“to collapse in a wok”) is native to Shandong and describes ingredients like fish, meat, vegetables, and bean curd are layered up into small packets.

A charming idea such as this stood little chance of remaining a local secret, and although it most likely was created in the capital city of Jinan back during the Ming dynasty, it gradually made its way to Shanghai, Tianjin, and Beijing, where it appeared on the Qianlong emperor’s table in the mid-Qing dynasty.

A recipe that has been around as long as this one has will naturally have many variations. We have had this served to us in Muslim-style restaurants as a sort of omelet with slices of tofu suspended inside, for example, and these are a lot like dishes of comfort food.

To my mind, though, nothing can beat this version, which tastes like a touch of the great seaports of Shanghai or Tianjin thanks to the dried shrimp roe
Speckled with roe and scallions

Also, the bean curd slices are fried in simple yolk robes that turn crispy and light, but which are then simmered in stock and rice wine into luxurious pillows, making them look and taste like just the thing an emperor would want set before him.

Pan-fried bean curd
Guōtā dòufu  鍋塌豆腐
Serves 4 to 6

1 block firm bean curd
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (or so) peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons regular flour
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten with 2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons dried shrimp roe
2 green onions, trimmed
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
½ cup chicken stock, salted or unsalted
Fresh firm bean curd
Sea salt to taste
4 leaves romaine or other crispy lettuce, optional

1. Cut the bean curd in half lengthwise and then cut it into 8 even slices, which will give you a total of 16 slices. Lay the slices flat on a dry tea towel and sprinkle them with the salt. Give the bean curd about 30 minutes (and up to 2 hours in a cool kitchen) to release most of its moisture. Pat the tops of the slices dry before you proceed.

2. Pour enough oil in a wide skillet to completely cover the bottom to a depth of about ¼ inch. Place the skillet on medium heat. While the oil is slowly heating up, pat the flour on all sides of the bean curd slices and then dip them completely in the egg yolks before gently laying them down in the hot oil so that they do not touch (you probably will have to do this in two batches); the oil should immediately bubble up around the slices and the egg batter should puff up without browning too quickly, so adjust the heat accordingly. When they are golden brown on the bottom, flip them over gently and let them brown on the other side. Remove them to a rimmed plate.

Fried & crispy
3. Pour all of the oil out of the skillet, wipe it clean with a paper towel, and add the fresh oil. Over medium heat, sprinkle in the shrimp roe and move it around in the oil until it starts to bubble and darken, at which point add the green onions and ginger. Stir these together for a few seconds to release their fragrance, and then pour in the rice wine and stock. As soon as the sauce boils, arrange the fried bean curd slices in the sauce, preferably in a single layer. Turn the slices over once.

4. While the bean curd is simmering in the sauce, clean and wipe the platter. If you are having company over for dinner, slice the lettuce in a thin chiffonade (very thin pieces) and place these on the platter; a home-style meal can omit the lettuce. As soon as the sauce has been almost completely absorbed, arrange the bean curd slices attractively on top of the lettuce. Scrape any sauce and aromatics on top of the slices and serve.


Of course, if you are vegetarian, just omit the shrimp roe and adjust the salt levels to compensate.


  1. So, uh, that cookbook is coming out soon, right? This looks awesome.

    1. McSweeney's is cracking the whip as we speak, with a publishing date set for Fall 2014. Thanks!