Monday, September 26, 2016

Totally homey, totally amazing

The homey dishes of China – those things that people make day after day when they want to treat their families very well – really define comfort food to me. No one could (or should) eat high on the hog very often, and it’s always nice to sit down to something that offers simple pleasures.

One such dish is this. There really is not all that much to it, and it certainly does not demand much in terms of time or money, but I always look forward to diving into a hot bowl of Honeycomb Bean Curd Soup just the same.

First, I get my hands on some good bean curd. If you have a shop in the area that offers the really fresh, homemade stuff, go buy that. Otherwise, search out an organic brand. Trader Joe’s, surprisingly enough, has some great bean curd I’m always happy to eat right out of the box, it’s that good. Don’t get extra firm or soft doufu (i.e., tofu) here, as the texture just won’t work.

Surprisingly amazing
I tend to think about making this whenever I have some stock simmering away on the stove. We had a roast chicken the other day, so all the bones and skin were tossed into the pot with a bit of ginger and rice wine. You can use mushroom stock if you want to go meatless, or even plain water for a super down-to-earth meal. Not too many rules apply here, so use what you have.

One thing I would insist on are dried black mushrooms for flavor and texture and color, as well as that ginger and rice wine. I mean you can go all Spartan here, but really, what’s the point. Even the simplest meal should be a reason for celebration.

This is called “honeycomb” because the bean curd is simmered in a couple of changes of water, which rinses out any chemicals in there (like the coagulants - plaster or salt water), leaving behind only the soy proteins. The doufu changes its character quite a bit in the process, with bigger and bigger holes running through it as the bean curd tightens up. This turns the white squares into perfect sponges for all of those vibrant flavors – mushrooms, ginger, and rice wine – which is another reason why they are so important here.

Don’t confuse this, though, with frozen bean curd, as that is quite resilient in texture, very chewy, and so able to withstand being boiled and swished around in a hotpot. This, rather, is more meaty and subtle.

The honeycomb forming
In fact, the texture here is utterly amazing: the bean curd "blooms" when it simmers this long, giving it an otherworldly mouthfeel and ridding it of any extraneous flavors. What's left is really rapturous - in fact, if you are an adventurous eater, you will immediately be reminded of lambs' brains. (If you're a vegan, sorry about that.) But when you are a meatless diner, you are always on the lookout for some new twist you can make on doufu or gluten because you need to have more than a tad of protein in your diet. So, study this clever way of making something new out of the same-old same-old.

As the days turn cool, this is the sort of thing that ought to start gracing your table with delicious regularity.

Honeycomb bean curd soup
Fēngcháo dòufŭ  蜂巢豆腐
Serves 4 to 6
Fresh regular bean curd

4 large dried black mushrooms
Water, as needed
Around 1 pound / 450 g regular bean curd, preferably organic and non-GMO
1 quart / 1 liter chicken or mushroom stock, or water
¼ cup / 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup / 15 g thinly sliced fresh ginger
2 green onions, whites only, kept whole
Mushroom powder or sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup / 40 g frozen baby peas (or baby fava beans or thinly shredded snow peas)
1 green onion, greens only, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Start this the night before you want to serve it by rinsing the mushrooms, placing them in a bowl, and covering them by at least an inch with cool water. Let them plump up overnight. The next morning, strain the liquid into a 2-quart / 2-liter saucepan; rinse the mushrooms, remove the stems, and cut the caps on the diagonal into thin slices before adding them to the soaking liquid.

Simmer the bean curd three times
2. Drain the bean curd and cut it crosswise into ½ inch / 1 cm slices. (Or, you can cut it into as many pieces as there are diners so it's easy to serve - just don't make these less than ½ inch / 1 cm thick.) Place these in a second saucepan, cover with water, and bring the pan to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the bean curd for around 15 minutes. Drain the bean curd, cover it again with water, and simmer it again for 15 minutes. Repeat this for a total of three times. Drain the bean curd carefully using a lid, since it becomes more and more tender as it cooks, and then gently transfer it to the saucepan with the mushrooms. You will see the holes in the bean curd increasing and enlarging as it cooks.

Honeycomb writ large
3. Add the stock or water to the saucepan with the rice wine, ginger, and whites of the green onions. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat and add mushroom powder or salt to taste, as well as a couple grinds of black pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer the bean curd over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the slices are speckled with even more pretty holes. Remove and discard the ginger and green onions. The soup can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and then reheated just before serving.

4. Add the peas and bring the stock to a boil again. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the soup into a serving bowl or individual bowls, sprinkle on the green onions and sesame oil, and serve.  


  1. What do you think about using bleached patent flour such as Thorobread Patent Flour
    for the mantou or baozi? When you mentioned using AP flour, would there be a difference between using bleach versus unbleached?

    1. It would work just fine. Not as nutritious, but certainly tasty.