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Adventures in Tofu Part Two: Making Your Own Tofu

After resounding success making your own soy milk I know you’ll want to crack right on and get to making your own tofu.
Tofu is made of just three ingredients – soy beans, water, and a coagulating agent (more on that below).
It’s way easier than you imagine so let’s get started!
Equipment
  1. Tofu mould – you’ll need a square or rectangular tofu mould, or you can use a strainer, sieve or basket to set your tofu in. See Resources section below for more details.
  2. Muslin or cheesecloth approximately 40cm square, to line your tofu mould
  3. Cloth bag to strain your soy milk
  4. 8 litre stock pot
  5. Coagulating agent of your choice
Coagulating Agents
Tofu is simply curdled soy milk, with watery whey separated from the solid curds, and the curds compressed into blocks. Conventionally, an acid is used to transform the milk into curds and whey.
Although any acid can be used – even acetic acid (vinegar), citric acid (lemon or lime juice), or epsom salts – tofu makers commonly use one of three coagulants:
1. Gypsum – calcium sulphate – a fine white powder with a chalky taste. When used to make tofu it provides an important source of dietary calcium. Most commonly used in China.
2. Nigari – magnesium chloride – a crystalline substance also known as bittern or yánlu 盐卤 – incredibly bitter, it is commonly used by Japanese tofu makers. Available as crystals or as a concentrated liquid.
3. Glucono delta lactone – a very fine white crystalline substance with a slightly sweet taste, derived from fermentation of corn sugar. When added to water it forms gluconic acid. It is used to make silken tofu and tofu pudding.
Which of these coagulating agents you use will probably largely depend on what you can easily buy. Gypsum and nigari make a very similar tofu with no discernible taste attributable to the agent itself. All three agents are inexpensive to buy.
Ingredients
Makes 1000g medium firm tofu
  • 4 litres soy milk, as per this recipe
  • 3 metric teaspoons of gypsum or nigari coagulant, dissolved in one cup (250ml) of water
Method
Allow one hour from start to finish
1. Strain 4 litres of soy milk through a cloth bag (or strainer lined with a cloth) into an 8 litre pot. Squeeze the bag to release all the soy milk.
2. Heat the soy milk on a medium heat until simmering. Continue to simmer for five minutes, stirring to prevent a skin forming.
3. Turn off the heat and wait a couple of minutes for the soy milk to cool slightly
4. Give the soy milk a vigorous stir and immediately add 1/3 cup of the dissolved coagulant. Stop stirring and sprinkle 1/3 cup of the dissolved coagulant onto the surface of the soy milk.
5. Place the lid on the pot and wait for three minutes.
6. Remove the lid and add the final 1/3 cup of the coagulant, sprinkling it across the surface of the soy milk.
7. Replace the lid and wait another five minutes.
8. Remove the lid and you should see that the milk has now separated into curds and whey, with clear liquid around the edges of the pot. If this liquid is still milky you can try one of two things – gently reheat the pot for one to two minutes without stirring, or add another 1 teaspoon of coagulant dissolved in 1/4 cup of water. Often the problem is that the soy milk was not quite hot enough to begin with for the coagulation reaction to occur, so heating a little does the trick.

9. Place the tofu mould in a large baking dish or the sink and line the mould with cheesecloth

10. Spoon the curds gently into the mould using a large spoon. I’m thrilled to finally have a regular use for my antique Christofle ladle bought in a Paris antique market about a hundred years ago.

11. Fold the cheesecloth gently over the top of the curds.

12. Place the lid on the mould and add a weight – I use a ceramic pickle jar weighing 900g. The size of the weight will determine how quickly the curds are compressed. If using two smaller moulds use a 400g tin on each as a weight. This takes approximately ten minutes in my house and with my mould. You’ll need to watch it to learn how quickly it happens with your mould (some recipes say up to 30 minutes).
13. Once the tofu has become compressed to about half its original height, remove the weight and the lid and carefully unwrap the cheesecloth. The surface should look like cream cheese and resist your finger slightly. If the cloth sticks to the curds then a little more compression is needed – wrap it back up, put the lid back on and re-weight. For a denser, firmer tofu you can continue compressing the curds until they are one third of the original height.
14. Once the tofu is compressed, remove the weight. Fill your kitchen sink with cold water and lower the entire mould gently into it. Remove the lid. Remove the sides gently and carefully and allow the tofu to sit, cooling in the water but still in its cloth and sitting on the base of the mould, for about fifteen minutes.
15. Remove the block of tofu from the water, still on its base, and invert it gently onto the lid (the same size as the base) or a wooden board.
16. A word of warning – my first ever tofu turned out almost perfectly, like the one on the left. I jumped around the kitchen with joy and dragged the children in to witness the domestic miracle that had just taken place. So for my second batch, I cut fast and loose with the instructions, and talked on the phone while adding the coagulant. The results, top right, speak for themselves – a fragile tofu filled with holes, with lumpy curds and a very inconsistent texture. Tofu is a tough mistress, but pay attention and treat her right, and she’ll turn out perfectly every time.

17. So there you have it: home made tofu, made by you! It is utterly satisfying to make it yourself and very simple. Keep it one block or cut it into smaller pieces and store in clean fresh water in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Change the water daily if not using it immediately. It lasts for about five days but tastes the best when freshly made.

18. I enjoy it best cool, dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions. So delicious. So soft.

Let me know how your tofu adventures turn out!

Resources

Tofu Moulds
Wooden tofu mould 49rmb ($US8) plus postage on Taobao – comes with its own cloth bag and cheesecloth square
Plastic tofu mould $US9.95 plus postage on Amazon

Tofu Coagulating Agents
Gypsum
NigariNigari from UK
Glucono delta lactone

Books

Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen – my tofu bible, with recipes and detailed directions

Eight Shanghai Hairy Crabs, One Ethical Dilemma.

Today is the day I am going to tackle two things I’ve never done before.
1. I’m planning to cook my own Shanghai hairy crab for lunch, because reader Adeline suggested it and she is a woman full of good ideas.
2. I will tackle my slight phobia about cooking live crustaceans. For good.
This should be interesting.
8.10am. I cycle to the wet market to choose my hairy crabs. We’re in the second half of the annual three month long hairy crab-eating festival here in Shanghai – a magical time of late autumn when the click-clack of little claws can be heard on every pavement as the crabs try to make their unsuccessful escapes from tubs and buckets, having made the pilgrimage to Shanghai from nearby shallow lakes to fulfill every foodie’s dream – a feast of hairy crab.
Last week I dropped by the old-fashioned wet market on the corner of Taiyuan Lu and Jianguo Lu to check out their hairy crabs and ask a few questions ahead of today’s purchase. The crabs certainly looked the business – lovely olive green shells, shiny bright eyes on stalks, nice little furry mittens on their claws, very lively. Having totally given up on the idea of buying the famed Yancheng Lake hairy crabs because there are so many fakes and imposters around, I have opted instead for regular old unmarked, unbranded, un-microchipped hairy crabs, four boys and four girls.

The crab lady helps me choose by easing up the breast plate of each crab to show that the females are full of yolky orange roe, and the males are full of….something. Crab sperm? I nod sagely as she shows me the pale white underbelly. 

Once chosen the eight crabs get a thorough going over with a rough scrubbing brush, an action that has the effect of subduing them sufficiently so they can be concertina folded into a small tight bundle and wrapped with twine, a feat the crab lady achieves by holding one end of the twine between her teeth for tension.
8.56am. I cycle back to the wet market to take photographs of the crabs being tied up. Can’t believe I forgot my camera the first time.
Girls on the left, boys on the right
9.20am. Once back home I put the crabs in the coldest part of the refrigerator to help them have a nice little sleep and go back out buy a winter coat for myself. Today the temperature has suddenly plunged and I know if I don’t get one today they’ll all be gone and I’ll end up with a hideous shiny purple puffa coat. I’ve calculated that by the time I get home in two hours all eight crabs will be snoring away in a sort of crustacean suspended animation, making their subsequent cooking as painless as possible. 
12.40pm. Arrive home, ravenous. Coat purchasing took a lot longer than expected because every other person in Shanghai has had the same idea. Buggers. The thought of ten minutes’ wait for the crabs to cook seems so long! I put the water for the steamer on to boil and pull the crabs, hopefully blissfully unconscious, out of the refrigerator. As I open the bag they make small busy noises and eight pairs of bright little crab eyes open up and poke out at me. They’re wide awake and if they weren’t neatly tied up they would probably have made themselves a cosy home on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator using the butter dish as a sofa. I’m battling life-threatening hunger but I decide this should be done humanely, so I take the pot off the heat, put the crabs into the freezer, and eat a yoghurt.
1.12pm. I google ‘kind and fast ways to kill crabs’
1.13pm. Google replies with thousands of sites about unwanted lice and how to get rid of some garden weed called crabgrass that can apparently invade your lawn. Useless, google! Further down, I see something on the RSPCA website. Surely the RSPCA will know a thing or two about killing crabs kindly! 
It turns out they do, to the tune of a six page document titled ‘Humane electrical stun/killing of crustacea’. It makes for horrific reading and I feel guilty just skimming over it, with its underlying judgmental tones. In fact, I’m probably right now on some international register of crustacea-vores just for downloading the PDF. I bet they’re all vegetarians. 
If you must kill a crustacean, the RSPCA suggests using a Crustastun™ humane shellfish electro-stun/kill machine. That’s its real name too. It looks a little like a sandwich toaster or a panini press, with a lot more voltage.  I go to their website but can’t figure out how much one costs, or whether they deliver to China.
Not having immediate and ready access to a Crustastun™ I read pages four, five and six of the RSPCA document. For those unfortunate enough not to have a Crustastun™in the cupboard next to the sausage machine and the olive pitter, they suggest the ‘mechanical destruction technique’, involving the use of a long sharp knife and a detailed anatomical diagram identifying the crab’s two main nerve centres. They also mention having ‘dedicated trained competent operatives’ perform this task. I decide I am only slightly dedicated and definitely untrained and incompetent, so not up to the task. 
I read on. Lunch is looking further and further away every minute. The RSPCA throws me a small tattered lifeline. As a third, very poor option, the crabs can be rendered ‘insensible’ by freezing them for two hours ‘gradually’ to ‘avoid osmotic shock.’
1.22pm. I put the crabs in the freezer.
2.17pm. I’m very, very hungry and the rest of the family is taunting me with fresh crusty bread and cheese. I resist. I take the crabs back out of the freezer to check for signs of insensibility. They poke their eyes out brightly as if to say ‘godDAMM it’s cold in there! No! Don’t put us back! No!’
I put them back in the freezer.
3pm. I’ve just finished a banana with a TimTam chocolate biscuit chaser. I’m feeling a bit less light-headed and have resolved some of my inner ethical dilemmas so I go to work on the dipping sauce mandatory with hairy crab. I check the crabs again. Only two of the eight fulfil the RSPCAs criteria for ‘insensible’, meaning that when I tap on the shell they don’t move or open their eyes. Bloody Chinese freezers. Bloody RSPCA. Back they go. 
3.46pm. Desperation. I try the crabs one last time. By now they’re probably frozen solid. Certainly all the meat I’ve had to remove from the freezer to make way for the hairy crabs has completely defrosted, so at least I’ll have a back-up plan if the crabs don’t work out.
They look asleep. I tap the shells and one of the eight drowsily pokes his eyes out. Bugger. Back he goes in the freezer, and I crank up the heat on the steamer and put the other seven in the steamer basket, on their backs as advised, on a comfortable bed of ginger slices and scallion leaves, also as advised. I clamp the lid on and worry slightly about their insensible nerve centres as I race to the next room for ten minutes’ respectful silence. Also, the rest of the family have left the house so there’s no-one to talk to.
3.56pm I tentatively lift the lid. The crabs come out of the steamer a deep orange. Wafts of ginger and sweet crab smell. No discernible movement.
I cut the strings off and apart from a small terrifying moment where one claw springs out at me and my inner 10 year old girl screams, while my inner 42 year old says ‘for gawd’s sake it’s DEAD’ they look and smell perfectly cooked. I retrieve the silver hairy crab tools purchased specially for this occasion – a pair of pliers and cutters in one, and an elegant double ended tool for retrieving the tiniest bits of meat.

4.06pm. Lunch. I tie a tea towel around my neck. On my left, a plate with seven hairy crab, four girls, three boys. In front, a dish of sweet vinegar and ginger dipping sauce. I crack open the first crab, revealing the sweet shards of white flesh and the golden, oily, buttery roe. I remove the feathery gills then eat the meat bit by bit. Unbelievably good. The clean fresh crab taste is so perfect I hardly use the dipping sauce at all.

4.41pm. On my left, a pile of detritus. In front, a pile of detritus and a very dirty camera. On my right, a pile of crablegs and claws too small to get anything out of. I can barely move and there are smears of crab roe all over my hands, clothes, and face. I didn’t actually intend to eat all seven hairy crabs but they are really truly quite small. And I only do it once a year…..
Wonder which cupboard I could squeeze that Crustastun™ into??
Tips for cooking hairy crab

  • Unless you want an Annie Hall moment, keep them tied up until after they’re cooked
  • Lay them on their backs during cooking to keep the delcious juices in
  • Steam for ten to thirteen minutes in a bamboo steamer depending on weight
  • Cut the strings and serve while still hot, with a side dish of ginger vinegar dipping sauce and a finger bowl
  • Consider serving the traditional accompaniment to hairy crab – warmed Shaoxing wine
Dipping Sauce for Hairy Crab

Ingredients 

  • 50 ml Zhenjiang vinegar
  • 100ml water
  • 4 tsp sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 2 tablespoons very finely shredded ginger
Method

  • Gently heat ingredients until sugar is dissolved
  • Cool before serving

Osmanthus Scented Panna Cotta: A Recipe

Tiny, golden flowers so small but so intensely perfumed, Shanghai’s osmanthus season lasts only a few short autumn weeks, the last blossoms falling from the trees as November draws in. I returned from the far west to find it was almost over, with just a few of the topmost branches of the trees outside my window still holding flowers.
This year I was inspired to bring the gorgeous perfume of the osmanthus flower into a creamy dessert because osmanthus, Chinese as it is, is destined to be paired with cream. Osmanthus scented cream has a subtle honey floral scent and flavour, like the featherweight orange blossoms with rose petals. It’s incredible. So rather than get too tricky, this panna cotta is nothing but cream and flowers with a touch of vanilla. Sigh…
Osmanthus Scented Panna Cotta
Makes 6
Ingredients
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or half a vanilla bean, cut lengthwise and scraped or 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup fresh osmanthus flowers or 1/4 cup dried osmanthus flowers (available from Chinese tea shops)
  • 2 cups cream
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons gelatine
  • extra osmanthus flowers for garnish
Method
  • Heat milk over low heat without boiling
  • Add sugar and vanilla, stir until dissolved
  • Add osmanthus flowers, stir
  • Remove from heat and allow to steep for one to two hours
  • Strain milk mixture to remove flowers
  • Return milk mixture to heat, heat gently until warmed but do not allow to boil
  • Sprinkle gelatine over water and allow to stand for several minutes until softened
  • Add gelatine to milk mixture and stir until fully dissolved, remove from heat
  • Add cream and stir to combine
  • Pour into lightly oiled ramekins and chill until set, about four hours
  • To serve, tease edge of panncotta gently away from side of ramekin then invert onto a plate
  • Decorate with extra osmanthus flowers and drizzle with honey if desired 
My lovely flowering osmanthus tree. OK, so it’s not my tree, and it’s not even in my garden. But if it’s quite dark who can tell if I’m sneaking around snipping off flowers, right? And the scent….
For extra sweetness, drizzle over some honey just before serving. 


This post is dedicated to RB, a friend back home who has just bought her first osmanthus tree. Fingers crossed it grows well in Australia!

Sweet Almond Jelly

What’s the loveliest thing to eat when it’s hot, steamy and humid outside? Summer is having a final gasp here, even though at times I think I can smell the first breaths of autumn on the early evening breeze.
When the weather’s close and humid like this I love to eat jelly, soft, slippery, cold and sweet. This recipe for Chinese almond jelly, flavoured with sweetened condensed milk, has a fresh and delicate flavour and takes all of five minutes to make. It calls for agar-agar, which you can find easily in Chinese food stores, and almond powder – more difficult to track down but almond essence can be substituted instead.  Once cold cut the jelly into little diamonds, pour over some coconut milk and eat it with fresh fruit and a dainty spoon. 
Sweet Almond Jelly  
Serves 6-8
Ingredients
  • 5g agar-agar strands
  • 500ml water
  • 100g white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon almond powder (substitute 1 tsp almond essence)
  • 4 desertspoons condensed milk
  • sliced fresh fruit and coconut milk to serve

Method
  • heat water and add agar-agar strands, stir until dissolved
  • Add sugar, stir until dissolved
  • Add almond powder and condensed milk, stir to combine
  • Pour into a flat baking tray and refrigerate until firm
  • Slice diagonally into small diamond shapes and gently spoon out into a bowl
  • Serve with coconut cream or water and sliced fruit

A Man, A Terrine, and the Dalai Lama

Many would consider it totally unfair for one man to have so many talents, but I’m not complaining in the least, when the man in question is my friend Roger D’Souza, passionate foodie, and brilliant photographer. Oh, and he happens to be my sister’s partner too….
“Shall I make something to bring to the beach?” he asked last week, as we were preparing to spend a few days at Noosa. I knew better than to say no, because Roger makes ordinary foodies look half-baked. This guy is the business. He smokes his own meats, makes his own char siu pork from his mother’s recipe, and probably cooks roast duck on camping trips. Actually, that last is true, he does cook roast duck when he goes camping, and the cooking equipment takes up more space in the car than the tent and sleeping bags. 
So I knew I’d be very happy with whatever Roger decided to make to bring along, and I wasn’t disappointed. After a long gruelling day creating photographic works of art he came home and slaved away until after midnight to make this incredible chicken terrine from a recipe by Australia’s favourite farm cook Maggie Beer.
The recipe was featured on one of the final episodes of this year’s Masterchef competition where the final four cooks had all tried and failed to produce the delicious savoury terrine in the allotted time. Masterchef, an Australian reality TV invention that has now gone ballistic worldwide, has inspired all of Australia to get back into their kitchens. The Dalai Lama recently appeared as a guest judge in this series, but I’m making no comment or judgement about whether religious leaders should be appearing on reality TV shows. No comment whatsoever. 
All I will say is that where the final four contestants failed, Roger succeeded, and if the Dalai Lama hadn’t been such a committed vegetarian he would have loved the robust country flavours of pork, chicken and herbs cut through with plump sweet rasisins soaked in verjuice. I’m giving it nine and a half out of ten.

Maggie Beer’s Chook and Pork Terrine
original recipe here

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup verjuice
  • 1.8kg free-range chicken
  • 525g skinless pork belly, with a good amount of fat
  • 120g rindless bacon
  • 120g free-range chicken livers, connective tissue removed
  • zest of 2 lemons
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 2 tbsp lemon thyme, leaves stripped and chopped
  • 3 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp rosemary, roughly chopped
  • 100g fresh walnut bread, crumbed
  • 16g sea salt
  • 2 tsp freshly ground white pepper
  • 3 bay leaves
Method
  • Preheat oven to 200C
  • Place raisins and verjuice in small saucepan over medium heat
  • Once verjuice is simmering, remove from heat, and set aside to allow raisins to plump
  • Bone out the chicken – remove wings at the middle joint, then cut all the way down the backbone so chicken is butterflied
  • Remove backbone and ribcage, then continue knife down to remove and cut away the breast and wishbone
  • Chop knuckles from legs, then bone out each leg by removing as many tendons as possible
  • Feel for any bones or gristle that may have been missed and cut these out
  • Carefully remove the skin, taking care not to pierce the skin
  • Dice chicken breast into into 2cm cubes, place into mixing bowl and set aside
  • Dice chicken thigh, leg meat and pork belly into 1cm pieces and place in another bowl
  • Cut bacon into small strips, add to chicken and pork mix along with chicken livers
  • Mix these well together, then blend for 2 minutes in a food processor to create a farce, place back in bowl
  • Add lemom and orange zests, thyme, parley, rosemary, walnut breadcrumbs, verjuice liquid, sea salt, pepper and mix well
  • Grease a one litre terrine mould
  • Place bay leaves on base of mould then line mould with chicken skin
  • On base, layer 1/3 chicken farce, then half diced chicken breast, then 1/2 of the raisins
  • Continue to layer 1/3 farce, remaining chicken breast, remaining raisins
  • Top with remaining 1/3 chicken farce
  • Press gently down to pack contents tightly
  • Fold in both ends of chicken skin, then fold over two sides to create a neat looking parcel
  • Place a sheet of baking paper on top of the terrine then cover with foil and seal well
  • Place a cloth into the base of a hot water bath, place terrine into water bath and cook in preheated oven for 90 minutes, or until the internal temperature has reached 57C
  • Remove from oven and allow terrine to rest in water bath for 15 minutes until internal temperature has reached 65C
  • Pour off any excess juices from terrine
  • Refrigerate overnight in mould with a weight resting on top
  • When ready to serve, carefully turn terrine out onto a board and allow to come to room temperature
  • Serve slices with crusty bread and cornichons

Cooking Chinese in the Countryside: Yangshuo Cooking School

This will be my very last blog post from Guilin. Once again, it’s worked its charm on me and despite the heat and humidity, I wish I didn’t have to leave. Swimming in the clean clear rivers every day, cycling around under the hot sun wearing a broad-brimmed farmer’s hat, eating lots of good food and enjoying the slower pace down south – it’s a heady mix and Shanghai will have to work hard to beat it.

On one of my last days I visited the Yangshuo Cooking School – now an even bigger operation since I last visited a year ago. It’s still held in a rustic little farmhouse, looking out over lush green fields of rice and lotus to the karst mountains in the distance, but the school now holds classes twice every day, with a week-long intensive offered for serious foodies. In a morning or afternoon session you will first enjoy a guided tour of the Yangshuo wet market, then spend two enjoyable hours with fellow food-lovers learning to cook five new Chinese dishes, and then eating them. For 150 yuan per person, it’s something of a bargain. 
I’ve included one of their simple recipes below as a taster.
The kitchen set-up. And yes, those great big gas bottles are perfectly safe.

Steamed Chicken With Ginseng and Red Berries

This recipe, adapted from the Yangshuo Cooking School, is a healthy combination of ingredients designed to give the body maximal benefit through the medicinal components of ginseng root, chinese dates and goji berries. Luckily it’s delicious too!
Ingredients
  • 300g chicken breast or thigh, very finely diced (substitute silken tofu for a vegetarian version)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • dash white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 3 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • 4 shitake mushrooms, finely sliced
  • 10cm piece of ginseng root, finely sliced
  • 1 desertspoon goji berries 
  • 4 dried red dates (jujubes)
  • sesame oil, to serve

Method
  • Mix finely diced chicken with salt, sugar, rice wine and vegetable oil
  • place chicken on a small saucer and shape into a circular patty
  • top chicken with mushrooms, ginseng root, goji berries and red dates and a swirl of sesame oil
  • place inside steamer basket with lid
  • steam over simmering water for 20 minutes or until juices run clear
  • serves 4 as part of a shared meal

In the village after class a communal nap was taking place under the camphor laurel tree. A damn fine idea, and I would have joined them had there been any spare space.
See you all back in Shanghai!

Wood Ear Mushrooms with Pork and Ginger: A Recipe from Dragon’s Backbone

I hang out in a lot of kitchen doorways in China, watching techniques and gleaning cooking secrets, and generally trying to stay a safe distance from the cleavers and boiling cooking oil. By hanging out in the kitchen at Quanjing Lou guesthouse for a protracted period, scribbling notes and asking questions, I can now bring you this delicious recipe courtesy of Farmer Li’s chushi (chef). 
We ate it for dinner the first night on the mountain and the entire plate disappeared in 30 seconds flat, with several self-professed mushroom haters among those who wolfed it down. On the mountain they use fresh wood ear mushrooms when available, but dried mushrooms work equally well. The key is to not soak them for too long, or they absorb a lot of water and become rubbery. Finely sliced and cooked this way, they are soft and delicious.
Dragon’s Backbone Wood Ear Mushrooms with Pork and Ginger

Ingredients
  • 100g lean pork
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 50g dried black wood ear mushrooms
  • small carrot, julienned
  • 1/2 green pepper, julienned
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2cm piece of ginger, finely julienned
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 2 scallions, julienned
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Method
  • finely slice pork into strips
  • combine pork with Shaoxing wine and half of cornflour/water mixture, stir to combine, set aside
  • soak dried mushrooms in cold water for 20 mins, drain, slice finely
  • half-fill wok with water, bring to the boil
  • add mushrooms, carrot and green pepper, cook for 1 minute
  • add pork strips, stirring to separate, for further 1 minute
  • drain into colander
  • heat wok again over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • add ginger, stir-fry 1 minute
  • add cooked pork and vegetables, stir
  • add salt, sugar, light soy sauce and oyster sauce, stir to combine
  • add remaining cornflour/water mixture, stir until sauce thickens slightly
  • add scallions, stir briefly
  • add sesame oil
  • serve immediately
Serves 4 as part of a shared meal, or serves 2 as a complete meal

How to Make Soba Noodles

Lessons for a novice, from a soba chef
Cool, slippery soba noodles dipped in a delicate sauce – the perfect summer food for a hot and steamy Shanghai day.  Now I know buckwheat soba noodles are Japanese, not Chinese, but I’m living in a pretty international city here, with friends from every part of the world. Yesterday my youngest daughter was invited to a soba-making birthday party for a seven year old Japanese boy. I can’t imagine any seven year old Australian boys volunteering to learn the art of soba for a birthday party, but I’m all for it.  
Making my own noodles is something I would never have attempted two years ago, but now I think, why not? How hard can it be? Apparently very difficult if you want to be a Japanese soba master, but for the average noodle lover, like me, the aim is to make something edible vaguely resembling noodles, see the techniques in action, and subsequently learn to respect the noodle art of the true masters. Was I the only mother at the party more interested in soba-making than the kids? Possibly. But at least someone was paying attention..
Soba noodle making requires nothing more than buckwheat flour, wheat flour, water, a rolling pin, and a really, really huge knife. If a seven year old can make soba, I guarantee you can too.
  • Start with buckwheat and wheat flour in a ratio of 4:1
  • 400g buckwheat flour
  • 100g wheat flour
  • Add 200-250ml of cool water a little at a time, mixing first with your fingertips, then incorporating the water into a firm dough
  • (If you don’t an have an exquisite enormous red and black lacquer soba bowl like this one, don’t worry, a regular bowl is A-OK)
  • Now knead your little heart out, because a lot of kneading is required to get the dough to ‘the consistency of a baby’s ear’

  • Press the dough into a disc and place on a floured table
  • Roll into an oval, and then into a large square sheet 2mm thick, dusting with flour as you roll
  • Dust the dough sheet again when finished
  • Fold the sheet of dough in half, again, and again, making a rectangle eight layers thick
  • place the rectangle on a large cutting board, with a second, smaller board on top (the soba chef has a special board with a right-angled lip, but any small wooden board will do)
  • Line up the board along the long edge of your folded dough rectangle, and steady it with the fingertips of one hand

  • Take your wafer-thin, super sharp soba-kiri knife (failing that, any thin, long, sharp-bladed knife will do)
  •  Shift the top board sideways by 2mm and slice through the eight layers of dough, making eight long straight soba noodles
  • Continue, using a slight rocking motion with your knife to shift the board another 2mm before every cut

  • Separate the noodles into bunches and place on a tray
  • Bring a stockpot of unslated water to the boil
  • Have a large bowl of cold water, and another large bowl of iced water at the ready
  • Cook the soba in batches for 60-90 seconds
  • Scoop the noodles from the boiling water using a strainer scoop, and plunge into cold water, ‘washing’ the noodles vigorously (this removes starch from the surface so they have the required slippery texture)
  • Scoop out of the cold water and plunge into iced water, washing again
  • Drain, and serve on a bamboo mat or plate

  • Serve with a small bowl of dashi and soy, with finely sliced scallions, and grated fresh wasabi
  • Plunge your noodles into the sauce mixed with condiments of your choice, and slurp noisily into your mouth!
For a more technical approach, try this soba tutorial.
For a lovely account of meeting a soba master, and some more home-cooking tips, I really enjoyed reading Betty Hallock’s LA Times story, Making Soba Noodles the Easy Way.

A Zongzi Recipe for Dragon Boat Festival

Happy Dragon Boat Festival! Did you know it was the Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 节) today? Here in China we’re having a long weekend thanks to the exploits of long-dead poet and statesman Qu Yuan. After spending years in exile accused of treason, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river, leaving behind beautiful poetry and devastated loyal supporters. Each year on the anniversary of his death, his supporters would throw offerings of rice into the river as a tribute, and to stop fish from eating his body. Zòngzi 粽子 or sticky rice parcels, represent these rice offerings and are filled with a sweet filling (red bean, jujube, favoured in northern China) or savoury filling (pork, mushroom, preferred in southern China) and wrapped in bamboo leaves.

I learned how to make zongzi yesterday, under the watchful eye of Chef Gao at the Chinese Cooking Workshop. They’ve just upgraded from their old opium den on Weihai Lu and moved into a lovely light-filled kitchen on Dongping Lu, not far from my house. Never mind that they don’t usually offer classes in making zongzi, Chef Gao knows how to make everything so I just called them up, rounded up a few friends, and we all spent the afternoon making zongzi. Lovely!
Zongzi – Sticky Rice and Pork Parcels
Ingredients
  • 20 large dried bamboo leaves
  • 400g fatty pork, cubed
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup dark soy sauce (dark soy is for colour, and unsalted – do not substitute normal or light soy)
  • 1/4 cup shaoxing rice wine
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 250g uncooked sticky rice

Method

  • In a bowl mix together 1/4 cup dark soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, ginger and spring onions
  • Add pork pieces and allow to marinade for up to 24 hours, minimum 2 hours
  • Add remaining 1/4 cup dark soy sauce to sticky rice and mix well until grains are well coated
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, immerse bamboo leaves and boil for three minutes until leaves become soft. Drain.
  • Take a bamboo leaf and hold it with the spine facing up
  • Fold the leaf as shown, approximately one third of the way along its length
  • Fold again, this time lengthways as shown, open out the base of the folds to form a cup
  • Fill with 1-2 spoonfuls of coated sticky rice, a piece of marinated pork, then another 1-2 spoonfuls of rice
  • Holding the filled portion in the cup of your hand, fold the long part of the leaf over the top
  • Tuck in both sides of the parcel, then pinch the overhanging leaf together and fold sideways as shown
  • Holding parcel firmly, wrap tightly with string and knot to fasten
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add zongzi so they are fully submerged
  • Simmer for two hours (water will darken due to dark soy sauce), then drain
  • While still hot snip string wth scissors and unwrap
  • Enjoy!
  • (can be frozen, uncooked, for up to one month)

Shanghai’s best location for learning to cook Chinese food:
Chinese Cooking Workshop
2 Dongping Lu, near Hengshan Lu

Mum’s Boiled Fruit Cake

Years ago, working night shifts in the Intensive Care Unit, I looked after an elderly lady who had suffered a massive stroke. Unconscious, paralyzed, and on a ventilator, her outlook appeared very grim. But one night, at about 2 am, she seemed to wake from the coma she had been in for many days, and over the next hour, eyes wide open, she became very agitated. It was clear that she wanted to speak, but was unable to do so while the ventilator tube was in her mouth (the stroke had damaged the breathing part of her brain, and removing it would kill her). She made weak writing motions with her one good hand, but when I held a pen gently in it she was unable to grip and it fell loosely on to the bed. I asked if there was something I could help her write down. She blinked and nodded her head vigorously. I told her I would go through the alphabet, and she could nod when I came to the right letter. A look of relief flooded over her face.

I wondered what this incredibly important message would be – a message of love for her family? A long-held secret? An addendum to her will? The letters came painfully slowly, even once the nurses saw what we were up to and we switched to the Speech Tharapy alphabet, with all the commonly used letters first.

M….U……M….s…

It seemed to be a message for her children.We had a short rest, but she was keen to go on. 

MUMS…..F….R………

Her head rested back on the pillow. I tried to make it easy for her by finishing the word. Frightened? Frustrated?  She shook her head and we went on.

MUMS…….FRU..I..T……..C..A……….K……..E..R..E..C…I…P…E

Her fruit cake recipe. Before she died, she wanted to hand on her secret fruit cake recipe to her children. Over the next two hours we laboriously transcribed, ingredient by ingredient, the entire recipe, and she finaly fell exhausted into a deep sleep. When her family arrived at 7am to see her, I handed them the piece of paper. There were tears of joy all round. Her daughter told me that her mother had promised to pass on the recipe when the time was right. I guess it was the right time at last.

One of the things this experience taught me was how important food is in the history and culture of families, and how mothers are the guardians of family recipes. Mothers! Be sure to write your recipes down! Your children will thank you.

When my own mother visited this month, one of the first things out of her luggage was an entire freshly baked boiled fruit cake. As she unwrapped it, it smelled like it had just come out of the oven. Her boiled fruit cake has sustained me through most of life’s more stressful moments – high school exams, getting into medical school, living in a share house with uni students, graduating from medicine, having children, shift work and sitting my specialist exams. Every new phase of my adult life has been punctuated by the unexpected and extremely welcome arrival of an entire boiled fruit cake.

If you’re looking for the only fruit cake recipe you’ll ever need, here it is. Lightly spiced and abolutely delicious.


Mum‘s Boiled Fruit Cake
from New Idea magazine, 3/10/81

Ingredients
  • 125g butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 500g mixed dried fruit
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sweet sherry
  • 1 flat teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup SR flour
  • 1 cup plain flour

Method
  • Grease and line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper
  • Preheat oven to 170C
  • Place butter, milk, sugar, fruit and spices in a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer with lid on for five minutes
  • Cool a little, then stir in sherry and bicarbonae of soda and allow to cool completely
  • Add beaten eggs and mix well
  • Sift flours together and fold into mixture
  • Spoon into prepared tin
  • Bake for 45 minutes, then test with skewer
  • Cool on a wire rack

(I know you want to know what happened to my patient. Incredibly, and despite her age and the extent of her stroke, she survived, and after weeks in hospital and many more in rehab she went back to live at home. I like to think she spent her last years supervising her daughters making that fruitcake.)