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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jianshui Roast Tofu: from factory to table

Despite Jianshui’s 1200 year history and prominence in the history of southern Yunnan, it remains largely anonymous. It is here, in this town of around half a million residents, with its large clumps of intact hutongs filled with pre-modern Chinese life, that inquisitive food enthusiasts can sample as well as learn the process behind “roast tofu,” a simple yet delicious snack unique to Jianshui, and eaten ubiquitously in homes and eateries throughout the town. A large grill slowly roasts the small, bitesize cubes to golden perfection as diners pick them off to dip into small sauce bowls, spiced with a combination of peppers, peanut sauce and MSG. Meanwhile, the house “roaster” tallies each customer’s tally of tofu cubes by throwing a single grain of corn into that customer’s counting bowl, constantly replenishing the grill with fresh cubes. At two mao per cube, Jianshui’s roast tofu makes for an affordable, nutritious addition to the bowls of noodles that they accompany.

A leisurely walk around Jianshui’s numerous hutongs will easily offer more quintessentially traditional sensory experience than entire months in China’s urban bubbles might provide. Rattan baskets, fried frogs and vegetables drying stand outside of crumbling wood and brick houses, narrow doorways tempt the curious into ramshackle courtyards. Down one street, just outside one of the town’s renovated gate towers, we discovered a series of Jianshui tofu cube manufacturers.

The process of making these cubes is quite remarkable to watch, similar in some ways to watching a skilled Hui noodle maker as he pulls his “la mian,” or observing miniature dumplings being kneaded and sealed. These are some of the more readily watchable (and often mesmerizing) skills of the Chinese culinary arts. Jianshui tofu cubes, handmade by women ranging from girls to the elderly, provide a similarly delightful spectacle, moulded with prodigious speed and uniformity using a simple cheese cloth.

Whilst wandering this lane, stopping regularly to peer in on more women at work, we spoke with a local who invited us to observe the process at his neighbor’s factory, located in a narrow building that, from the outside, could easily pass as another home. Outside, a leper was begging, a horse drawn cart was filled with leafy greens freshly picked from the fields behind the street. At Mr. Sou’s factory, we were shown the vats in which the soy beans, imported from Shandong, are soaked overnight. They are then ground into the soft tofu-like matter which we consumers recognize. From small buckets of this soft cooked tofu, the shapers take small handfuls, adding them into the cheesecloth, which they then wrap around and squeeze, removing excess water. The newly shaped cube is sat down on a tray, in eight by eight rows of 64. She then unwraps one of the previously wrapped ones, which have been left to set for a short while, before repeating the entire process. Shapers estimate that they can manufacture between three to four hundred cubes per hour.

I’ve been able to find Jianshui-style roast tofu in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city, but nowhere outside of Yunnan. If anyone has found restaurants elsewhere selling this delicious snack, let me know!

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