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Monday, 12 November 2007

You Don’t Eat Bean Curd You Say

It is amazing that many Westerners except those who claim they lead a vegetarian lifestyle look at a bean curd and goes blaargh. Well looking at the way bean curd is prepared in their non Eastern inspired recipes, is it any wonder. Can’t fault them though, they have been at it only so long. Even the avowed vegan hater Anthony Bourdain had to admit that the vegetarian meals prepared in India that he had were great on top of all the vegetables dishes he ate in his journeys across Asia. We have had enough time to work with soy beans to turn it into wondrous foods like tempe, miso paste, taucho paste and such so much so what is essentially a poor man’s substitute for meat, in this case specifically the bean curd, has been made into various dishes so palatable that to lead a vegetarian lifestyle is not a hardship existence. Known by variations of the name tow foo in Asia but in the Malay culture as tauhu or tahu in spelling, bean curds have been prepared in various forms from the semi liquid tow foo fah to my personal favourite fried. And these fried caked soy prevalent to the Malay region take the cake in my book, pun notwithstanding. Quite similar in preparation but more amazingly with interchangeable names between regions, they do differ enough in form and preparation to merit different nomenclatures. The sure thing is the origins of these dishes are again lost in time, so for a culture to claim it as exclusively theirs is an exercise in vanity.

Shall we start with the simplest of preparations, the stuffed bean curd or tauhu sumbat in Malay. This simply means frying up the bean curd, preferably the yellow firm variety, before cutting it into triangle halves and holing the middle for the stuffing. The stuffing itself can be as simple as a mix of julienned cucumbers and blanched bean sprouts sufficiently seasoned to more elaborate stuffing that can include carrots, mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Yes tauhu sumbat is quite similar to Nyonya Pie Tee(Top Hats), but you don’t need to make the casings. Nonetheless you can still find some tauhu sumbat being more elaborately prepared that its form can rival the pie tee. This usually originates from Indonesia and the ones served in the Indonesian Sundanese Restaurant chains are called Taupok , which is actually the Chinese name for pre-fried tow foo cakes usually used in curry noodles. It is also called tauhu kipas or fan tauhu though I can’t see why it is called that. Take a look at the picture and tell me where the resemblance to a fan is. This version’s filling is more elaborate and savoury that you do not need a sauce to dip in for me. Yet similar to the pie tee, the killer aspect to enjoy a tauhu sumbat is the dipping sauce and this is usually a chilli vinaigrette, and the best has a balanced hotness, sweetness and sourness taste to it. Nonetheless another nice way to enjoy tauhu sumbat is with a peanut sauce similar to satay sauce, but this needs some amount of preparation that may not commensurate to the preparation of the simple tauhu sumbat, so it is rarely prepared as such. The establishments that I find serves the sauce this way usually serves the sauce as a common sauce for their other offerings like prawn fritters and such, and may also serve the peanut sauce together with the chilli vinaigrette as a double dipping sauce option. The testament of the popularity of this tauhu sumbat that I can offer is that a major food company has even gone to the extend of trying to convince people to use their mayonnaise flavoured with curry powder as a contemporary dip, as I believe that their marketing research must have shown that their bottles of mayonnaise will fly off the shelves if the public takes the bait. I however doubt it will become common practise as the marriage of a creamy sauce with an already creamy bean curd is not really something made in heaven.

The next fried tauhu is actually grilled on a broiler hence its name tauhu bakar or broiled tow foo. However prefried pressed tauhu is used so that it can withstand the heat of the grill as soft tow foo will definitely lose its shape during grilling. The tauhu can be grilled over charcoal embers or an electric broiler as the purpose of grilling is to crispen the skin though charcoal grilling will provide more aroma. Prepared in various ways, this entails stuffing the grilled tauhu again with your choice of julienned vegetables and bean sprouts with a hot soy sauce caramel derived from dark soy sauce, white and brown sugar, crushed chillies, vinegar and prawn paste. The vegetables are either mixed in the caramel and stuffed in the tauhu as per the Chinese method or stuffed into cut up tauhu squares before the caramel sauce is poured on top. In this case the killer ingredient is the crushed fried peanuts that are poured onto the mix, giving a crunchy edge to the flavour. Some peddlers offer a special preparation with an additional ingredient, whereby strips of barbequed calamari strips is sandwiched inside the tauhu. The sweet chewy strips add an extra dimension to the overall taste when you bite into it, much like bacon strips in your typical burger. This surely is a case of an innovative food hawker improving on an already great tasting dish demonstrating that not only chefs know how to make a dish better.

A variation to this where the bean curd is not grilled is tauhu goreng or is also sometimes called rojak tauhu. Similar to a rojak buah or fruit rojak, firm bean curds are fried and cut up into bite sized bits before being again mixed with julienned cucumbers and blanched bean sprouts before a similar caramel soy sauce to those used for the tauhu baker is poured over the combination. The exception is that the caramel sauce is less caramelised in a thinner consistency and the crushed peanuts are already mixed in to the sauce, and may look similar to the petis based sauce used for fruit rojak. However the special ingredient that you rarely find even in fruit rojaks nowadays, that is the special prawn flavoured kueh, will add an extra zing to the dish if you can find it but I doubt any peddler will offer this in their tauhu goreng. But those prepared in my home must have this or the dish will not be complete. The problem is that usually half these prawn flavoured kueh will vanish into the mouth of the household kids while being fried even before the tauhu goreng is prepared. And this included me when I was a kid. And as you may have noticed, tauhu goreng is my most favoured dish amongst the three here. Thus it quite dismays me that this not a so common dish that is sold by food vendors due to its leceh (protracted) preparation, and I only personally know of two who has this dish on their menu. One is at the food court of Great Eastern Mall and the other that I accidentally found to my delight is at the My Mom’s Chicken Rice restaurant chain as it was listed as tauhu bakar but actually prepared as tauhu goreng. This may be due to the fact that most people are more familiar with the name tauhu bakar than tauhu goreng so they decided to use that name in order to attract people to try the dish. The one at the Great Eastern Mall is average tasting while the one at the Chicken Rice chain is a hit and miss affair, with the better prepared at the home restaurant in Ampang Point. Recently I found out from one of the local food blogs tauhu goreng is also available in Jalan Masjid India and looking at the account seems to be the real McCoy. A variation coming out from Singapore that used to be available in KLCC Suria Mall food court before their renovation is served in a tower form but I have not seen other local establishments serving this and it seems to be extinct. This version uses the eggy form of bean curd and tastes more custardy, so that may be the recent why it has not captured the local gourmands taste buds. Not only that, the portion is quite substantial to be eaten as a side dish as one piece is good enough for a personal meal. Whatever it is, there are still so many ways the tow foo is prepared that connoisseurs do not need to feel they are being left wanting.

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