Snapshots from Asia: Jellied Bean Curd


Photograph by Shimin Wong

Smooth as a baby's bottom. That's how silken we want our tau foo fa (bean curd blossoms, also known as "jellied bean curd"). So incredibly delicate that a quivering spoonful will slide deliciously down your throat with the barest tilt of your head—no teeth required.

Made of soy milk that's been coagulated with a tiny amount of gypsum powder (calcium sulphate) and cornstarch to form curds, it is, at its most basic, served in a pool of simple syrup. Dressed up for company, it's been known to sport a crown of gingko nuts and lotus seeds, occasionally bobbing in a sweet, gingery broth. And yes, it's essentially sweetened tofu for dessert—and breakfast, and supper, and any time in between really (midday merienda, anyone?).

I remember a friend's bemused expression when roaming an Asian grocery store a while back. He gaped at the candied lotus roots, winter melon strips, and water chestnuts, before asking, "This is candy?"

And then, when he spotted the glazed crabs and cuttlefish strips, he asked, "Do you just add tons of sugar to everything?"

It was hard to keep from laughing, and even harder to keep a straight face in (truthfully) responding: "Well, except for the crabs and cuttlefish, which, yes, we do pop like candy, the rest are usually served in soup—for dessert."

Which brings us back to the Chinese belief that food is medicine—including dessert. Remember the heating and cooling nature of foods? Sweets are said to have a cold and damp nature, which may weaken the spleen if taken in excess. In fact, a craving for sweets is supposedly a tell-tale sign that you aren't regularly "strengthening your spleen" with the natural sweetness of grains as the basis of your diet.

I confess to being fairly addicted to the creamy, pleasantly nutty lightness of tau foo fa, and the way it soothes your throat going down. So it may be that I ought to have my spleen looked at. It probably won't stop me stalking the old Chinese man who hawks it from a giant, ambulatory, metal vat-on-wheels in New York City's Chinatown, though. And I heartily urge you to do the same if you're in the neighborhood.