Fresh tofu skin

I love tofu.

It has a bad rap in the States. Although things are changing, tofu is often seen as hippie fuel (though tempeh is thankfully replacing that status) and a bland, texturally-defiant foodstuff produced in a factory. But we Asians know what good tofu tastes like and how versatile it can be, which leads me to nominate tofu as my favorite food- no joke. As a testament, my embarrassingly juvenile AIM screenname is (and always will be) tofubrain13.

Tofu skin (豆腐皮) is one of my favorite varieties of tofu, next to puffy fried tofu and regular plain silky soft tofu.  Often wrapped around logs of gingery soy sauce-flavored ground pork, I still squeal with delight if my mother announces her plans to make the dish when I find myself at home.

Up until now, I’ve only seen tofu skin of the supermarket variety- dried into flat sheets, sometimes the size of legal paper, not unlike a huge sheet of pasta (think if lasagna pasta came in paper-sized reams).  I finally got to see fresh tofu with my own eyes, and even now this picture wants to make me lick the screen.

Once I get my act together, I’ll provide you with a recipe of my mom’s famous wrapped tofu dish.  But for now, only my profession for the love of the dish must do…

Dumpling surprise

What already seems like ages ago was a trip to Zhongshan and a visit to a Cantonese restaurant specializing in regional dishes like roasted pigeon, horrible meat cookies, and this- tiny balls of ground pork wrapped in thin sheets of fish.

It sounds crazy, I know- like some ultra-modern, Noma-inspired-science of cooking-meets-traditional-with-a-twist type of dish. But it’s not, it’s just plain traditional. Small filets of fish were rolled out using a blunt wooden dowel, pausing only to flour the surface by dabbing a large flour sac onto the increasingly thin filet of fish.  Eventually a paper-thin sheet of what was once a cut of fish (which you can see in the pic above) is producted. The ladies who do this job amazed me in their proficiency at rolling out each filet to the perfect see-through thinness. I imagine if I gave it a try, the result would be a disaster.

After the fish sheet was rolled out, it was sliced into small squares, and then a pork and green onion filling loosely wrapped inside.  These little “dumplings” were then boiled in a clear consomme-like broth, and served as a mild appetizer.  If you hadn’t seen the little fish filet being rolled out, I swear you wouldn’t have known it was just that.  This kind of stuff inspires me, and once I perfect the art of homemade dumpling-making (something on my culinary to-do list), I may venture to try this as a kitchen experiment.

Meat Cookies

The Chinese do a lot of things right- math, gymnastics, fireworks….when it comes to food, there’s no shortage of success in Chinese cuisine, either.  I mean, c’mon, noodles?  Get out of town, there is no competition for hand pulled spicy beef noodle soup!

Like every other country, there are regional specialties within the cuisine.  Given the expanse that is China, there are obviously hundreds of regional delights found in the country.  Southern China in particular, where I am at, is known for its epicurean bravado- something that I’ve consistently thanked since I’ve been here.  It’s been said that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs, except a table, and anything with wings, except a plane.  People eat on the side of the road, they eat at all times of day, they eat not only to satiate their hungers but to sustain their health and to cure their ailments.  Food symbolizes wealth, it symbolizes generosity and hospitality.  The way they do food here is legit.

Growing up with Chinese food (and here I am certainly using the word generally and inclusively) I’d like to say that I am pretty familiar with most tastes and textures of the cuisine, and don’t really get weirded out by most things.  I mean, I love chicken feet, I love sweet red bean soup, I love pigs feet roasted braised in soy and star anise!!!!  So last weekend, when I was in Zhongshan and at a restaurant specializing in Cantonese delights, I was excited at the prospect to try some of the many famed regional specialties- sweet pineapple buns, roasted pigeon, a big ball of fried dough (more on this some other time)….

hollow globe of fried dough, the centerpiece of the table.

…and meat cookies.  I like dim sum.  Rather, I love dim sum.  I’ve eaten meat buns and meat biscuits, so when I was told there was a regional specialty called a meat cookie, I figured it couldn’t be too far from anything I’ve ever eaten.  Now, in chinese, the locals explained this so-called meat cookie literally translates into “chicken (something) biscuit”.  But ironically, no chicken is found anywhere in the biscuit.  Rather, it is a pork mixture topped with a pastry glaze.  A mixture of salty and sweet, I was told.  When this was explained to me, I pictured a juicy, savory meatball covered with a fine phyllo-like pastry brushed with a sweet glaze.  Yum!  Salty and Sweet, just like kettle corn.

Although we tried many things at our table that night, the meat cookie was sadly not one of them.  But fear not fellow foodies!  This restaurant was part restaurant and part foodie delight take-home playland, where you could watch the regional delights being made as well as order them to take home.  The DiploMan and I spent half an hour after dinner and ended up taking home half a dozen meat cookies, along with sticky rice stuffed in bamboo leaves, meat dumplings wrapped in fish skin, and pineapple buns- quite greedy of us, yes.  Regretful?  Never.

meat cookies, fresh out of the oven next to a batch of pineapple buns

The next day for lunch, I toasted these meat cookies- in our American, Black&Decker; toaster oven (some things just cannot be compromised, my friends).  They looked just like they did when they came out of the oven the first time around- warm to the touch, crispy on the outside and slightly browned.  I took a bite, chewed for a bit, chewed some more…..

It was gross.  I spit it out.  The meat part was a super sweet, gelatinous piece of chewy cookie, similar to the taste and texture of a pork flavored jelly belly, if there was one.  The sweetness stayed in your mouth along with an odd, fatty pork feeling and taste.  It was the most confusing bite I’ve ever had.  I stand by my statement that the Chinese do a lot of things right, but the meat cookie is certainly not one of them,

Pineapple Province

As a welcomed surprise to me, the southern part of Zhong Shan is known for producing pineapples!  There, the larger pineapples- unadulterated by any sort of GMO’s- are the size of about two fists.  The smaller ones- ones that I can barely believe produce any meat- that are the size of one small fist.  Both are rounder and more gnarly looking than the Dole variety I am used to seeing at home.

Dim Sum

For my second dim sum meal in the three weeks since I’ve arrived in Guangzhou, I went with a group of locals.  Definitely a plus, since the better restaurants have no english and very few pictures on their menus.  In the States, we’re used to the lady-pushing-cart dim sum style.  Here, there are no ladies and no carts (much to my dismay), so in most cases you order off the menu just like you would any other meal.  Like I said, thank goodness we went with our Local friends!

A few highlights of the meal: Learning that the locals all agreed that Pu’er is their favorite tea- Dark in color, and mildy sweet in flavor, it’s a cleansing option that doesn’t interfere with the flavors of your meal.  They are also big on chicken feet, which I am not scared of thanks to Mom.  Lots of chicken feet on the table.  Steamed in soup, braised in soy and chilies.  My plate was a holocaust of chicken feet remains.  Finally, date jello.  Not what it’s technically called, but that’s essentially what it was.  Not the most amazing thing I’ve had, but it was interesting, and gave me a bit of inspiration to try something similar at home.