Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pork & bean curd & some articles on these...

I sometimes think I have one of the best jobs in the world: eating and writing about great food. And another great perk is that I occasionally get stuff published in fine places.

Take this month, for example. This very day, to be exact, Pork Memoirs published one of my articles, one called "The Decrepit Pork Palace." 

It's a story about a favorite food memory from my years in Taiwan, the ramshackle hole-in-the-wall that served Shanghainese style pork chops and pork omelets and little else. 
Pork Memoirs for "a complicated meat"

The place was a dump. And that is putting an extremely nice spin on it. But the food was extraordinary. In fact, they served what was most likely the most divinely perfect pork chops that have ever passed my lips.

Crispy caramelization contrasted with juicy meat, and sweet and salty sauce napped each bite. No wonder that we turned a blind eye to the filthy surroundings and the decidedly crotchety old soldiers who manned the place. I don't think I would have been deterred even if the entire Mos Eisley Cantina contingent had been seated there. Nope, not a chance.

Zester Daily is one of my usual stomping grounds, and it is set for a complete relaunch this coming week. In advance of that, here are two articles that I recently published there, both featuring the other end of the Chinese food spectrum: bean curd, or tofu, or doufu.

If you can have only one book on this subject, make it this one: Asian Tofu by the remarkably talented Andrea Nguyen. 

Andrea's newest masterwork
As I wrote in Zester, "Tofu has to be one of the most misunderstood ingredients around. But with Andrea Nguyen's masterwork, Asian Tofu, humble bean curd finally gets its moment in the sun.

"This is a book that takes tofu seriously. Readers will find impeccably detailed and illustrated guides to making just about every kind of beany incarnation, from basic soy milk all the way through block and pressed tofu. Superb photography by Maren Caruso and others makes this beautiful enough to be a coffee-table book for those strong enough to resist the wonderful recipes contained between its covers...." (Read more here.)

Reviewing this book was a joy, especially since I received it just after sending in an article to Zester on the many different forms that bean curd takes in Chinese cuisine. It was a case of happy coincidence. Or perhaps having tofu on the mind causes strange things to happen.

One of them was the following recipe. I created this recipe as a way to make a vegan version of a delicious Taiwanese street snack called yansu ji. Bite-sized pieces of chicken are marinated in garlic and all sorts of good things before being tossed in sweet potato flour and deep fried. Then, they are scooped into little paper cones for munching on as you stroll down the street. And they are superb.

But I also knew that the main attraction of these was not the meat... it was the fantastic batter. So, after a bit of experimenting, this was the result. And it is worthy of a nice, chilled bottle of Taiwanese pilsner. Put on Eat Drink Man Woman and make it an extra-special night of Taiwanese pleasures!

Crispy bean curd nuggets  
Yansu doufu 鹽酥豆腐  
Twist on Taiwanese
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer or cocktail snack

1 block (1 pound) very fresh firm bean curd (see Tips)
2 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and finely chopped
1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped
1½ teaspoons peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
½ teaspoon five spice powder
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
½ cup Taiwanese sweet potato flour (see Tips)
2 teaspoons five spice powder
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil (see Tips)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt or fleur de sel

1. Pat the bean curd dry with a towel and slice it horizontally into two halves. Then, cut down and across the block four times each way to form a total of 32 small cubes. Place the cubes in a clean towel set in a bowl or colander. Cover the bean curd with the top of the towel and lightly press down to sponge off some of the water. Let the bean curd sit in the towel for about an hour to remove most of the excess water.

2. Mix the garlic, green onion, ginger, ½ teaspoon five spice powder, black pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and sugar in a bowl to mix, and then add the cubed bean curd. Toss them together and then add the rice wine and soy sauce before tossing again. Cover the bowl, refrigerate and let the bean curd marinate from 1 to 3 hours.

Ready for the fryer
3. Drain off all of the liquid, but leave the chopped bits in with the bean curd. Sprinkle the sweet potato flour and the rest of the five spice powder over the bean curd, and use your fingers to toss the bean curd so that each cube is coated with the flour. (This dish may be prepared ahead of time up to this point.)

4. Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan over medium high until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil immediately bubbles all over. Place a dry colander or Chinese spider on top of a work bowl next to the stove. Add a handful of the coated bean curd carefully to the hot oil. As soon as they have browned on one side, use a spatula to turn them over. When all of the cubes are an even golden brown, remove them to the colander or spider to drain. Return the oil to the original heat (see Tips) and add another handful of the coated bean curd. When all of it has been fried, plate the fried bean curd, sprinkle with the rest of the salt and serve immediately while it is still hot and crunchy. 


Good bean curd is becoming more and more popular in the West, with the result that even non-Asian supermarkets carry it. Be on the lookout for ones that are labeled “natural” and “organic,” as soybeans are often subjected to genetic modification and heavy pummeling with pesticides.

Keep fresh bean curd covered with cool water, cover, and refrigerate. If you are not using it immediately, change the water every day.

Sweet potato flour, called diguafen or fanshufen in Chinese, can be found in most well-stocked Chinese groceries. It yields a wonderfully crunchy texture with just a hint of chewiness. If unavailable, use cornstarch instead.

Fresh or slightly used oil is fine here; just be sure that any used oil is still fresh-smelling and has no overpowering smells, like fish. Strain the oil after you have fried the bean curd and refrigerate it in a closed container.

Deep-fry foods in small batches so that the oil stays at a high, constant temperature. This also reduces the creation of steam, which makes the coating soggy rather than crispy. After a handful of bean curd has been fried, remove it from the oil and then return the oil to the same temperature as at the beginning before adding a new batch of bean curd; this too ensures crunchier surfaces and consistent results.

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