This is the first in a new series of stories exploring typical Hong Kong ingredients. Read to the end for a recipe!
If there is one magical plant, it has to be the soya bean. Ferment this large, round, off-white bean and you’ll get soy sauce. Soak the beans in water before grinding them and you’ll get soy milk, which in turn produces all sorts of tofu, with a seemingly infinite variety of textures and flavours. One of the most intriguing types, in terms of flavour profile, use and levels of umami, is fu6 jyu5 (腐乳), often known by its Mandarin-derived name, fu ru, which literally means “fermented milk.” It comes mostly as small cubes covered in an alcoholic brine and packed in glass jars.
There are two main types, both of which start off as firm tofu. One is white, with a very creamy interior, covered by a more gelatinous, fluffy skin, and a pungent odour that may remind you of strong cheese. These come simply in a rice wine brine, or with the addition of chilli flakes, that make the little fermented cube spicier and pinker, or even with the addition of chilli flakes and chilli oil, resulting in a rather hot concoction.
Then there is a dark red variety, called red fu ru or hung4 fu6 jyu5 (紅腐乳), although in Hong Kong it is often called naam4 jyu5 (南乳), meaning something like “southern milk,” a nod to its origins in Chaozhou. This type of preserved tofu has a deep red appearance and is fermented with the addition of red koji, which is produced by soaking and steaming rice, then inoculating it with spores of the mould Monascus Purpureus before letting it ferment for around a month. The resulting koji is added to the tofu brine, made of sesame oil, rice wine, salt and water, and the whole thing is left to ferment for a few months.
There are subtle changes to the main brine recipe, with regional variations and manufacturers’ secrets. Across East Asia one can find many variations of this fermented food. Along with fu ru, the best known types are in Vietnam, where it is called đậu phụ nhự; in the Philippines, where it is called tahuri, and in Okinawa, where it is tofuyo and is fermented in awamori, a powerful millet wine produced on the island.
A word of caution for the uninitiated: none of these types of fermented tofu should be confused with what is normally called “stinky tofu” – also a fermented derivative of the mighty soybean, with a number of regional variations, but which is consumed in much larger squares that are first fried and then doused in different types of sauces, and is a typical street-food snack.
Fu ru, on the other hand, is a condiment. It has the kind of assertive taste that can quickly become addictive, and it adds a delightful kick to steamed rice or congee. When used as an accompaniment for rice, people will use the tip of their chopsticks to take off little bits of tofu at a time, mixing it with the plain rice, which they repeat until the end of the meal. Others like to eat it with steamed bread, again mixing a very complex flavour with a bland one, but it can also be eaten spread on hot toast – including one connoisseur who likes to eat it on dark bread with a sprinkle of sugar on top, the better to enjoy all the contrasting flavours.
Fu ru adds an indescribable depth to most vegetables, and it can be added to them whether they are being stir-fried or braised. Food writer Fuchsia Dunlop once described it as an ingredient that “every vegan should know about” because of the entirely plant-based complexity it adds to any dish. In Hong Kong, the red type is most commonly braised in a clay pot to prepare a vegan stew with mushrooms, dried tofu, rice vermicelli and other vegetables, particularly popular over the lunar new year.
The simplest way to use the white fu ru is to add it as an aromatic when stir-frying vegetables. In Hong Kong, people like to pair it with morning glory (water spinach), but these are not in season now, so it can also be made with Chinese lettuce, spinach, or any other leafy green. It even works well with broccoli, cauliflower and aubergine. With a little practice, you can make it work with nearly every vegetable.
Recipe: Chinese lettuce with fu ru
- 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
- 1 small piece of fresh ginger, julienned
- 1 fresh red chilli, roughly chopped
- 2 cubes of fu ru
- About 3 spoons of vegetable oil
- 2 heads of Chinese lettuce, washed, half dried, leaves separated but left whole.
- Salt to taste, but go sparingly – fu ru is quite salty
Heat a wok, and then add the vegetable oil. Once it is hot, add the garlic, ginger and chilli. Stir, coating the aromatics in oil, for about two minutes. Add the fu ru and mash it with your spatula, and mix again. Add the greens and a little pinch of salt. After about two minutes, start stirring the greens, which will have shed the water they still had on the leaves. There should be a pale brown creamy broth on the bottom of the wok. Continue stirring until all the leaves are well wilted and cooked—they should still have a bit of bite—and coated with the sauce.
Enjoy with rice and another dish – preferably vegan!