Monday, December 28, 2015

A vegan's delicious secret weapon

Soy batons are not that well known in the West, but they should be. Their wonderfully chewy texture never fails to delight me, and as far as taste goes, they are a bit like bean curd in that they offer more of a blank slate, which makes sense, as these too are made out of soy milk.

What happens is this: As big vat of fresh soy milk is simmered, a skin forms on the top, just like with regular milk. This thin layer is periodically removed to form either soy batons – also known as fŭzhú 腐竹 (literally, “bean curd bamboo”) – or soy skins (dòufŭpí 豆腐皮), which are generally used as wrappers of some sort. 

These batons often given any number of English names – like soy sticks, tofu sticks, bean curd sticks, bean batons, and what have you – but I’ve found that “soy batons” is a translation that for me, at least, feels most accurate.
One of only many translations

The first step in making soy batons the traditional way consists of lifting up an edge or corner of the soy skin with a short stick and then using the fingers of the other hand to gently shape the coating into a long, damp clump. Since the skin is fresh and wet, it easily sticks together into a sodden roll that is then draped over a dowel so that it can start to dry. This dowel then is strategically hung over the vat so that the extra milk drips back down and nothing is wasted.

After the dowel has been filled with the soy batons, it is stacked on a frame so that the batons can harden. Finally, the batons are removed from the dowel and arranged on something like a bamboo basket to complete the drying process before they are packaged up.

Soy skins (also known by their Japanese name, yuba) are made in much the same way, except that the entire sheet is carefully lifted out and dried flat so that it ends up like a large, thin sheet or disc.
Dried soy batons

Both of these products are indispensable to Chinese vegetarians, and the carnivores there seem to love them just as much, too. The main charm of soy batons is their texture: springy and tensile, and yet soft enough to chew. 

This texture is created when the skin clumps together, for little spaces form between the layers that prevent the batons from becoming dense and inedible. What you end up with is light and yet full of character, the perfect backdrop for all sorts of creations, as soy batons can be simply soaked until soft and then tossed with an aromatic sauce, as in today's dish, or simmered in something savory, or added to congees or sweet soups, or treated as a type of bean curd in meaty braises. This is therefore one delicious chameleon you should get to know.
Plumped up soy batons

One of the easiest of all these recipes is also the best: soy batons tossed with chile oil, a recipe beloved throughout many areas of China, but particularly in Sichuan and the Central Highlands. If you already have some homemade chile oil and goop ready, this appetizer comes together in no time at all. Simply soak the soy batons in the morning, toss them with the sauce, and chill. They’ll be ready for dinner whenever you are.

That being said, the most important ingredient here turns out to be not the soy batons, but the chile oil, since it is responsible for being the backbone for all of the incredible flavors in this dish. So, be sure and make your own following the recipe here or here so that you get a wonderful range of smokiness, heat, and savoriness along with subtle punches of sweet, tart, garlic, cilantro, onion, and sesame.

Soy batons tossed with chile oil
Easy to make, easy to love
Hónglàyóu bàn fŭzhú 紅辣油拌腐竹
Serves 6 as an appetizer

6 dried soy batons (fuzhu)
Boiling water, as needed
2 tablespoons chile oil, plus 2 to 4 tablespoons of the goop (see the two links above) if you would like the dish highly flavored
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 orange (if you're not using the citrus chile oil), optional
1 tablespoon (or more) regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons black vinegar
4 or so tablespoons scallion oil (or garlic oil or Sichuan peppercorn oil)
1 green onion, trimmed and sliced very thinly on the diagonal
About ½ cup very coarsely chopped cilantro or celery greens (chop the cilantro into pieces about the same length as the broken soy batons) (see Tips)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Discard the compressed folds
1. Break the soy batons into 2-inch (or so) lengths and pile them into a work bowl; while you're doing that, break off and discard the rounded folds in the middle, as these always end up tough. Cover the batons with the boiling water and then let the batons soak for an hour or two, while gently tossing them now and then, until the water is cool and almost all of the batons have swelled up into flimsy white puffs. Drain the batons in a colander set in the sink and rinse them gently with tap water. Shake the colander to get rid of the water and let it continue to drain while you prepare the sauce. Discard any hard, yellow parts that you happen to find on the batons, and tear or cut any of the soft pieces into smaller lengths, if you want.

2. Set a cool wok on the stove. Add the chile oil and goop, as well as the garlic and optional orange zest, and then raise the heat under the wok to medium. Slowly cook the garlic until it is soft but not browned, shaking the wok now and then to mix things around. 

Soy batons resting in the syrupy sauce
3. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar, bring it to a boil, adjust the seasoning, and then add the drained soy batons. Quickly reduce the sauce over high heat while tossing the soy batons until they are slicked with the syrupy mixture. Remove from the heat and scrape the batons and sauce into a bowl and let it come to room temperature. (This dish will be served chilled or at least slightly cold, which means that the flavors will become a bit muted as a result, so season accordingly.)

4. Refrigerate the batons for a couple of hours so that they become infused with the flavors. Just before serving, stir in the seasoned oil. Loosen up the green onions so that you have a pile of thin green rings, and then toss them in with the cilantro and toasted sesame seeds. Serve chilled or at just above room temperature.


Don't get this kind
Soy batons can be found in just about every Chinese market in the dried goods aisle near the beans. Try to find one that is made with non-GMO soybeans, and if it's organic and/or made in the US, feel particularly lucky and go buy a lottery ticket or two to celebrate. Don't get the ones that are machine made in perfect rolls, like the one on the right. These have no texture and open up in the hot water into disappointing wads.

Soy batons crush easily, so expect to find some crumbling going on in the package. If most of the batons are more or less whole, that's great. Use the crumbs in soups or congee, where they lend a nice milkiness and body.

Check the expiration date on the package and smell the batons when you open them up: they should have a fresh, almost nonexistent aroma with not even a suggestion of old oil. Store the unopened package in a dry, dark cupboard. Reseal the package after opening and use it up as soon as possible. 

Both the green onions and cilantro here should be fresh and crunchy, as they will also make or break the dish. I always buy them the same day that I plan to make this dish so that the cilantro in particular has a bright, clean taste and offers a loud crunch.


  1. I love all yuba products and will try this one as part of dinner tonight. Great blog, by the way, and I'm looking forward to your upcoming book releases!

    1. I forgot to respond again to tell you how much I loved this recipe. Excellent with a simple salad and baked sweet potato. I always have stocks of dried yuba products, but mainly have only used the sticks in soups for texture. I'm excited to have found another way to use it! Thank you.

    2. Thanks again, Kip. I'm devising another recipe with some more soy batons that is from the Yangtze area. Hope to have it up soon!