The Uniquely Chinese Taste 中国特色小吃

Two major varieties of salted bean curd are either eaten as pickles or used in dishes.

only in China(中国Zhōngguó) can you taste dishes that are seasoned with intensely(intense is used to describe something that is very great or extreme in strength or degree) flavored cubes of fermented bean curd. These pickled cheeses are delicious with both meat and vegetables.

My first taste of the little cubes of pure flavor was at my grandfather’s dining table when I was a child. We were having plain white congee, but there was nothing simple about the spread of side dishes that had the table groaning.

In front of every place were little dishes of fried peanuts, salted sweet radish strips and a tiny saucer with a cube of cream-colored curd, speckled with pretty red chili flakes and topped with a heaping teaspoon of sugar.

It was the sugar that attracted my childish palate, of course, but I soon grew addicted to the sharp tangy saltiness of the jiang doufu, or furu(腐乳fǔrǔ). It went perfectly with the blandness of the rice congee(米粥mǐzhōu) and made it easy to gobble up several bowls between little chopstick pinches of the salted bean curd.

Later, I also discovered the red variety, the nanru or southern bean curd.

This is a much feistier version with a deep maroon skin that comes from the addition of red wine yeast. My grandmother used this lovely red seasoning to make a vegetarian dish called luohan zhai, or Arhat’s Vegetarian Special, and served it during the Spring Festival. I remember loving the sauce because it turned my bowl of rice such a lovely pale pink.

Basically, both bean curd cheeses are made by fermenting little tofu squares and then soaking them in concentrated brine, chili flakes and sesame oil for the white variety or red wine must and salt for the red version.

As a result of the pickling, the soy protein hardens into a "cheese-like" state, earning both furu and nanru the nickname "Chinese cheese".

Unlike cheese, however, these are pure blocks of flavoring. The Chinese are known for their great love for economy, and a 2-cm cube of either nanru or furu will happily accompany many bowls of rice at the dinner table.

There are also many recipes taking advantage of the lovely pungency of these "cheeses".

And with the prevalent trend toward vegetarian and micro-biotic diets, tofu and tofu products, such as these, have stolen the limelight.

My grandfather would have been pleased to know that recent studies show that the peptides in the fermented bean curds have lots of amino acids. Japanese research also shows they have anti-oxidants and enzymes useful for preventing hypertension.

For me, the main attraction is still the flavor. Nowher else in the world have I tasted such delicious pungency, and even the best cheese pales in comparison to these fermented tofu cubes. No respectable Chinese housewife would be caught without a bottle or two in her pantry.

Either white or red pickled bean curd will be an instant marinade for meat, and anyone familiar with the stir-fried morning glory shoots so popular in South China would remember the taste.

Chefs are always looking for new ways to use these as seasoning. But, best of all, just a little cube placed on a saucer and sprinkled with a dash of sugar or sesame oil is enough to make a meal. You cannot get better than that.

Here are some very standard fermented bean curd recipes for you to try. You can find these little gems on most supermarket shelves, but depending on wher in China you are, you may have to look for either jiangdoufu, nanru or furu.

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