These Umami-Packed Tofu Cubes Are Vegetables' Best Friends
The Chinese pantry is packed with umami-building morsels. From brittle preserved seafood like dried baby shrimp and squid floss to salt-cured, dried radish bits and whole fermented soybeans, these can transform humble foods—like leftover rice or a plain omelet—into a tasty and satisfying meal.
One that stands alone to me for its pungency has always been the Chinese fermented tofu known as fu ru or jiang dou fu. Packed in jars with their brine, these dice-sized cubes are excitingly potent and capable of disappearing into your dish, like a stealthy magic weapon that goes a long way.
Growing up, a jar of these was always in the back of the refrigerator—sometimes, two jars. Fu ru comes in a few varieties, one in which the brining liquid is deep red from the addition of fermented red rice yeast (hong fu ru). This is the kind of fermented tofu that my dad would pull out a couple times a year to add to the braising liquids in a Cantonese-style red-braised ngau nam, or rough beef flanken, stew. (You can add it to many long-simmered red-braised Chinese stews, too.) The jar of off-white fu ru, swimming in a brine seasoned sesame oil and sometimes chili flakes, was my mother's. It was sometimes included in a battalion of condiments to serve with a bowl of morning congee, a typical breakfast in her native Taiwan. (Here's an example of the hong fu ru and the white fu ru, for reference.)
With both types of fermented tofu, the cubes are creamy-textured and spreadable, with a salty and funky taste that will draw comparisons to feta or blue cheese. These varieties and others may vary greatly in seasonings—in addition to red rice yeast, sesame oil and chile flakes, these might include rice wine, sugar, and star anise. But rinse the brine from each piece, and most of the flavor comes from the fermented tofu itself.
While it can be eaten straight-up from the jar—and often is, such as with breakfast congee—these powerful blocks of flavor make a great addition to sauces and dips. I've made a vegan "blue cheese" dressing that was little more than silken tofu pureed with a small amount of fermented tofu. Chef Trigg Brown of the Taiwanese-American restaurant in Brooklyn, Win Son, takes a similar approach to a mayonnaise-based dressing that's slathered on the bun of the restaurant's trademark fried chicken sandwich, the Big Chicken Bun. Blended up, it may be invisible in appearance and texture, but it adds that extra something special to the sauce.
But my favorite way to enjoy fu ru is to add it to a simple, sautéed green vegetable. A juicy leafy green with crisp, hollow stems, water spinach is a classic prepared this way in China and Taiwan—there's a recipe for this in my cookbook, The Food of Taiwan. The fu ru dissolves in some water that's added to the greens as they wilt, and turn a cloudy jade-green. But any leafy green will work just the same—like big leaves and stems of hardy winter spinach, or Swiss chard with their sturdy stems, too. Add some sliced garlic and maybe a final drizzle of sesame oil, and suddenly a big pile of greens becomes a dazzling highlight of the meal. You'll want to snatch more and more of it to eat with your rice, and finish every last cloudy jade sauce-covered grain.
A recent test run with kale proved that the formula can't go wrong: A hint of fu ru softened the green's slight bitterness, and its deep-green braising "sauce" was a great accompaniment for its somewhat rough texture. I went in an even more bitter direction next with escarole, easing up on the water as the soft leaves take no time to wilt. And with big bok choy and its crunchy stems, again the fu ru worked like a ninja to imbue it with a familiar depth of flavor.
Use as little or as much as you like. See if you prefer the red one or white. Make it your secret weapon for inspired dishes and sauces and a staple for fridge. A little goes a long way, but don't worry—this fermented tofu will keep for years, and some say even improve as it ages.