Now I know I've already called fermented black beans "the anchovies of Chinese cuisine," but cubes of fermented bean curd run a close second. Actually fermented bean curd is often compared to cheese because it has a certain funk and runny consistency.
How is it made? Cubes of tofu are first fermented, then soaked in brines that contain a number of ingredients: rice wine, vinegar, chili peppers, cinnamon, star anise, and red yeast rice, the last which imparts the deep red hue that you'll see in certain varieties.
In Chinese households, you're likely to find fermented bean curd set out with accoutrements (pickles, meat floss, thousand year eggs) for a breakfast with rice porridge.
One cube is usually enough for the whole family, and the practice is to dab at it with the tip of your chopsticks, then mix it in a little with your porridge. Now, before you think it's too gross a practice, just remember that probably no one ever got sick from sharing a cube of fermented tofu.
But if eating the fermented bean curd straight-up isn't for you, try stir-frying vegetables with it. One or two cubes can flavor a whole stir-fry dish, imparting a salty-sweet depth that's a nice change from soy sauce or oyster sauce. Fleshy and dense vegetables, like cauliflower, take well to its strong flavor.
Still, eating fermented tofu with porridge is my preferred method of consumption. A few briny dabs really appease my almost insatiable penchant for salt. Straight out of the jar, it's a treat not unlike a whole pickle.
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About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.