Visiting China is such a unique experience. Having the opportunity to travel there again has given me such a deep appreciation for a country and culture so unlike my own.
素人记素食馆 素人记素食馆 – VEGAN in Chinese
On my last visit I chose to do all of the touristy things. While that’s not a bad thing to do, I didn’t experience a lot of local culture or appreciation for day-to-day life. There’s lots I could share about this recent trip but today this is all about TOFU.
The tofu trail throughout China is as interwoven as the silk road. It is as old as history and as part of their cuisine as rice. For some reason, tofu gets such a bad rap in many places. Why isn’t it more main stream in places like Canada, US or my current residence of Germany? Is it because meat is the norm? After experiencing tofu in many forms I want to share my recent tofu trail with you!
Our hotel featured breakfast foods from all over the world but nothing could’ve been more intimidating than the baskets of steaming buns, hand-pinched dumplings, proliferation of noodles, or the wooden vat of soft custardy tofu with so many toppings. How did the locals eat this food? I had to find out. I wanted to experience a real Chinese breakfast and set out to tickle my tastebuds.
After a crazy, bumper-to-bumper drive during morning rush hour traffic, I was delivered to a verrrrry local restaurant with just a few choices on the menu. The name translated into English is “Yao Soybean Milk” located near Guanqian Street. I half expected starched white linens, clay tea pots and Mandarin music but instead found benches and tables filled with local workers.When I walked in they all stopped to look at me. One of the ladies came to touch my clothes and my blond hair. You can’t hide being different! The smells coming from the old open kitchen were making me hungry. I was watching long pieces of dough being stretched and pulled, dumplings hand-filled and wondering what the heck to order – I opted for the traditional breakfast soup. It was thick and luscious with chunks of soft homemade tofu, topped with a thick bean curd milk and pieces of long fried dough.
Sometimes food tastes so good I can’t eat fast enough. Thus was the case at breakfast. Next followed another tofu dish called ‘tofu custard’ or ‘doufu’. As strange as it might sound it tasted incredible. Soft, silky tofu with soft swollen raisins and shredded seaweed. Yes, you read that right.
It was absolutely heavenly! Because the restaurant was well-known for their tofu, we included a warm bean curd milk to finish the meal. It was a perfect way to start the day. (As an aside, most restaurants serve hot water in a glass – not a glass filled with ice and ice cold water.)
Even the grocery stores had refrigerated shelves with different tofu meats like duck, chicken and fish. At the checkout I spotted some small packages of sliced tofu to take as a snack.
A well-known vegan restaurant was recommended. It was decorated with ancient Chinese decor. It was very quiet and peaceful, located on a lake outside of the city. All I could hear was the slurping of noodles from the other tables. Very long, luscious, thick, homemade noodles. My tea that day was made with ginger and mushrooms. Yes you read that right – it was fantastic!
When tofu is made it develops a skin on the top. Much like cow milk that’s been heated. The tofu skins are dried then added to different stews, soups or stuffed.
Below is a stew made with tofu skins and thin mushrooms, and on the right side of the plate you’ll see tofu skins rolled sushi style. The dish also had slices of tofu. Sounds like a lot of tofu doesn’t it? The plate was perfect for sharing. I found the dishes were typically thickened with corn starch. Corn starch makes a clear sauce vs using a roux. The difference between the two is a corn starch thickened sauce does not reheat well, while a roux can be reheated and keeps it’s thickening properties.
A surprise find was a restaurant called Wu Guan Tang in Suzhou’s Industrial Park (SIP). The food is not oily and it’s MSG fee. They make an incredible tea with honeydew and oranges. All the dishes were served for sharing. Below is the sweet and sour (homemade) tofu made with fresh pineapple and pitaya – also known as dragonfruit.
Spicy tofu with Szechuan sauce …. I like the simple plate garnish
I can’t think of a name for the dish below – it was kind of a strudel filled with shredded dried tofu, full of unami with a crispy texture. The server brought a bowl of toasted white sesame seeds. Before setting it on the table she pounded them with a mortar and pestle. The seeds and sauces were perfect with the dish. The red sauce was a spicy chili sauce, the middle was homemade mustard, and the bottom was black vinegar.
I really like finding the local farmer’s markets. This one twisted and turned down alley ways and seemed to go for miles. This is Suzhou’s “Fengmen Market” 葑门横街.
There I discovered two young sisters making tofu. It was all done completely by hand with large wooden vats. They sold at least a dozen different varieties, all with different flavours and shapes.
Below was my lunch that day. Thinly sliced, rolled smoked tofu with sesame oil and cilantro. Street foods are such an interesting way to discover local flavours!!
There was so much to experience and appreciate about the Chinese culture. It wasn’t just about the food! If you have a chance to travel to a new place make sure to try the local cuisine. You never know what you might discover AND enjoy!!
Ciao for now!