We plan to spend this coming Christmas and New Year in Australia with Claire, Mike, Shane, Shan, Dermot and Shan’s MaMa for a very special Shananigans reunion. For Shan, her MaMa and Dermot it will be their first visit to Australia and the excitement about Christmas in the sun and escaping the bitter cold of a Beijing winter is already mounting. I suspect we each have our own mental picture of Dermot’s first encounter with the beach and the sea. No doubt the reality will be a little different but hopefully just as much fun.
It will be MaMa’s second trip outside China in her lifetime. Last Christmas she was here in Ireland with her extended family for Shane and Shan’s wedding. This time there will be fewer people speaking Chinese around her and my goal is to be able to make her feel welcome and by being able to exchange even a few sentences with her in her own language.
And so I have resumed my Chinese lessons with Wei Wei. It is a painfully slow process for me – individual words for foodstuffs and the like come easily. Stringing together whole sentences, and making them sound intelligible to a Chinese ear, is a much greater challenge. But Wei Wei is a patient and thorough teacher and my weekly reward for two hours of her valiant attempts to drum some new phrases into my head is that she introduces me to a new recipe. I prepare the recipe with her and then, a few days later, I try and reproduce it on my own while the balance of flavours are still in my head.
Last week I asked Wei Weil for a recipe using tofu. I had cooked with tofu once before -the traditional Sichuan dish Ma Po Dou Fu was one of the first recipes I tried on the blog – but I hadn’t come across stuffed tofu. Wei Wei’s recipe blew me away with the tastes and textures exploding from a few simple ingredients. It is a rustic, home-style dish with the tofu absorbing the robust flavours of the tangy sauce. It is light and healthy but surprisingly filling and ideal for those avoiding wheat. Indeed it is said that the nomadic Hakka people of central and southern China developed the recipe as a substitute for jiaozi (dumplings) when they were short of wheat. While niang duo fu is good enough to eat on its own, it is equally delicious served over a bed of steamed rice.
Wei Wei has her own blog – Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen which you will find at mychinesekitchen.com. There you will find many more of her recipes with detailed photos of each stage of preparation and cooking. One day I hope she starts her own cookery school and restaurant.
The recipe below is Wei Wei’s own unique variation of the Hakka classic. You will find her detailed instructions on how to make it here.
Niang Dou Fu
- 500g block of firm Chinese tofu
- Cooking oil
- 1 red chilli
For the stuffing
- 200g minced pork
- 1 large or two to three small dried Chinese mushroom
- 1 thumb of ginger
- 2 spring onions
- 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tbs light soy sauce
- ½ tsp ground Sichuan pepper powder
- ½ tsp Chinese Five Spice powder
- Pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp sesame oil
For the sauce
- 1 ½ tbs light soy sauce
- 1 ½ tbs oyster sauce
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- 1 heaped tsp sugar
- 1 heaped tsp cornflour dissolved in a small amount of water
- ¾ cup of water
- Soak the dried mushroom in warm water for an hour or longer then finely chop, discarding the stalk.
- Finely chop the ginger and spring onion, setting half aside for the sauce.
- Finely slice the chilli.
- Mix the pork, mushroom, half the spring onion and ginger, rice wine, light soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, five spice powder and salt together. Add the egg and, using chopsticks, mix in one direction only until the mix resembles a stiff batter. Beat in a teaspoon of sesame oil, mixing in the same direction.
- Cut the tofu into cubes about 4 cm square. Using a teaspoon, make a deep hole in the tallest side of each tofu cube, being careful not to cut through the base – you are trying to create as much space as possible for your pork stuffing. You can reserve the left over tofu for another use.
- Fill each hole with the pork stuffing, packing it as tightly as possible so that it comes just to the top of the cube. If you have stuffing left over you can form it into little meat balls.
- Mix up the sauce ingredients and set to one side. You can taste test the sauce and if necessary add a little more sugar to get the balance to your taste.
- Heat a wide, flat bottomed frying pan over a high heat with enough cooking oil to thinly coat the base of the pan. When the oil is hot place the tofu cubes in the pan, stuffing side down. Cook them for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the underside is golden brown. The easiest way to check this is to lift one cube gently with a spatula and, when you are satisfied that the pork filling is beginning to turn golden brown, you can flip all of them over stuffing side up. At this stage you can add any left-over meat balls to the pan, turning them frequently until cooked on all sides.
- Continue cooking until the base of each cube is golden brown and then quickly brown the remaining sides. Carefully remove the tofu cubes from the plan and set them aside on a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain.
- Wipe out the pan, add a table spoon of cooking oil and, over a high heat, add the remaining ginger, spring onion and chilli and stir-fry for a few moments to release their aromas. Give your sauce a quick stir and add it to the pan stirring constantly.
- When the sauce bubbles and begins to thicken, gently add back the tofu cubes, stuffing side up, along with any meat balls. The sauce should come about a third of the way up the tofu cubes.
- Cover the pan with a lid and simmer for three to five minutes until the tofu cubes have absorbed some of the sauce. Serve over boiled rice and relish the delicious, comforting flavours.