Tofu...love it or hate it. In Asian cuisine...especially Chinese, Japanese and Korean, tofu features prominently as a key ingredient. One of my challenges to my European and American friends who proclaim their love for Chinese food is if they like or even love tofu. If they do, they have crossed the threshold of appreciation.
But how is tofu made? Well, there is tofu and there is tofu. Like the eskimos who have perhaps 10 words describing snow, the Chinese have perhaps as many describing tofu. One such variety is the hand made tofu presented in Heng Hwa cuisine as interpreted by Pu Tien Restaurant. I have featured them several times, as I love the pure, clean taste of their cooking (and will feature their Summer menu this Thurs).
I visited Putien's Central Kitchen where meat, produce is received and prepared for the restaurants. The kitchen is exceptionally clean, and each food preparation area is kept seperate to prevent cross contamination...meat and fish are handled in a different room as vegetables, for example. But I was there to see the tofu making...so on we go
What makes their tofu so special? Well, it it totally hand made. Yellow beans are ground and simmered in water till a milk is extracted. This milky liquid, known as tau huey water is the nutrient rich soy milk used as a substitute for cow's milk and is a popular all day drink in Singapore.
To this milk, a saline is added. Chef Larry Li Gongba at Putien tells me that in a commercially available tau huey (smooth bean curd, usually served cold by the likes of Lau Pan in Old Airport Road Food Centre), the process of extracting the curd from the milk is done by adding gypsium and then gelatin added for the smooth texture. But the Pu Tien's version is purer...as only a mild saline solution is added slowly to the milk, till it curds.
Once curded, the curds are dished out...and can already be eaten
The curds are crumbly, and has a very mild taste, only the fragrance of the yellow bean permeates. This curd is ready to eat, but Putien does not serve this.
The curds are put into a wooden container lined with muslin cloth, and the water content pressed out, leaving the solids. This process is similar to making cheese.
And the resultant bean curd is cut into strips and deep fried in vegetable oil at 100C. A higher temperature will brown the curds, and lower will not create the texture needed. Only virgin oil is used. A new batch of oil is used for every wok full of bean curd. Of course, the used oil is not wasted, but as it is bean curd infused, it is used in cooking in the kitchen later.
Virgin oil is needed because if the oil is reused, it will get dark, and impart the colour and flavour to the bean curd.
The lightly fried tofu is delicious. The heat of the oil causes the small air bubbles caught within the tofu to expand, giving a wonderful airy texture. The skin is sligly crisped, and with a bit a sea salt, delicious to eat. This lightly salted, lightly fried tofu is then sent to the restaurant kitchens to be incorporated in to the Pu Tien's dishes.
note: the restaurant name is Putien, while the name of the city in Fujian, where the cuisine comes from is Putian.