Grocery Ninja: Chinese Cheese
The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.
My housemates get visibly nervous when I offer them food—particularly if I’m bounding towards them, mystery item in hand, with a huge grin on my face. After the (well-intentioned) durian fudge cake of '06 and the Szechuan pepper-in-the-peppermill experiment of ’07, they’ve developed a cautiousness (rather unhealthy, to my mind, and completely un-fun) to the food I bring home.
Which means I’ve had to become increasingly devious when looking for taste-testers—sneaking hawthorne berries into tea, yuba or tofu skin into stews, and konnyaku (devil’s tongue) jelly into dessert. This week’s fu yu, or fermented bean curd, was a cinch to “disguise” though—I simply slipped it onto the cheese board one lazy Friday night of wine, chocolate, and Woody Allen. Also known as "tofu cheese," the quivery, ivory cubes flecked with red chile pepper flakes had been fished out from a jar of rice wine, brine, and sesame oil before being perched next to the triple-cream blue and the Argentinean housemate’s beloved chèvre cheese. There it sat in full view, completely undisguised and smelling no worse than its neighbors.
It was the Russian housemate who dug in first.
"This one’s kind of damp, Ling. What is it?" he asked.
"Oh, just something I picked up from the grocery. It came in a brine-oil bath, that’s why it’s moist…I quite like it!" I say.
"Hmm…it’s really salty, and sharp…but smooth, not curd-like like feta," he says.
The Argentinean housemate nudges a cube with a cracker. "Is this one of your funky foods?" She who loathes tofu with a vengeance ("texture issues!") has yet to forgive me for last week’s tofu quiche.
I wait till they’re both munching contentedly on creamy, fu yu smeared crackers before I let on, and it is to their credit (and testament to how well-mannered their parents have raised them) that they barely raise an eyebrow.
Revelations of this type generally go down well when the food was not once alive and actually yummy, I’ve found.
Since its successful debut, I’ve gone on to pick up fu yu’s older brother, nam yee. With the addition of fermented red rice in the brining solution, nam yee is a vivid maroon, and generally comes packed in heavy, earthenware crocks. Surprisingly, it doesn’t taste much more pungent and to my (amateur) palate; the main difference is a thicker consistency and heavier mouthfeel. However, I’ve noticed that nam yee is used for marinating meats, while fu yu is more commonly served on its own as a side, often with a variety of pickles, soy sauce stewed groundnuts, fried gluten, and crispy, caramelized anchovies to go with plain rice congee or jook.
Nam yee is incredible in a stew with belly pork and taro, and as a marinade for baby back ribs, lamb cutlets, or barbecued chicken wings (with some Shao Hsing wine, sugar, Chinese five-spice, pepper, garlic, and sesame oil tossed in), while fu yu adds an intriguing, salty-creamy dimension to vegetable stir-fries of green beans, water convolvulus, or spinach.
I like to think of them as Chinese blue cheese dressing—certainly not the "bland white stuff" most people associate with tofu.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.