Considering the food scandals that are ever-present on Chinese newsstands, is China ripe for the whole food, organic trend to gain popularity, and lift the country’s next generation of wealthy business people from the clusters of old style, merchant food makers? Maybe not, but consumers are eager to seek natural and non-chemical ways to grow and produce food, especially with the growing mentality that quality and texture of homemade products is far better than those mass produced, which is why traditional family workshops hidden among remote villages have had the chance to survive larger companies who employ industrial production techniques.
“Only because my education level is so low have I stuck to this job. It’s so hard and lasts so long,” Aunt Lan said. “We never add any chemicals, it’s completely pure. My neighbors, my neighbors’ friends and relatives from Dongguan, or even America and Australia, come to buy my stuff.” Aunt Lan rarely lacks customers in her homemade tofu skin shop.
The growing customer base is even stronger around the traditional festivals, but no more than ten families are left in Wanjiang’s historic Xincun Village still preserving the region’s most traditional techniques in making the tofu skin. In decades past 80 percent of the villagers made decent livings relying on the handicraft.
Every other day, Aunt Lan gets up at midnight to go to her workshop conjoined to her four-story dwelling and start the 18-hour process, which involves cleaning, grinding, filtering and a non-stop heating and collection procedure. Five tailor-made large flat-bottom woks above stone-paved stoves are filled with fresh yellowish soy milk. Every 5 to 10 minutes, Lan and her husband will take turns to collect the sheets that form on the liquid’s surface with a stick until it is all dried. According to her, the fire should be generated from unshaped coal, not the formed blocks, for a slow and even heat. “If it’s too high the soy milk will crust and if it’s too low it will fail to film,” she said. The bundles of soy milk sticks will immediately be sun dried on roof tops until crispy.
Among all the tofu varieties – soft, hard, thin or thick – tofu skin (豆腐皮 Dòufu pí or 腐竹 fǔzhú) contains the highest density of protein and other nutrition such as iron and magnesium, and serves as a mainstay in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine and meat alternatives. Tofu skin, which is actually collected from heated soy milk, is a versatile ingredient and a great sauce absorber that can be stir fried, steamed, stewed and braised with other vegetables and meat. Unavailable in regular markets, Xincun’s tofu skin costs RMB 38 per half kilogram, nearly twice that of normal mass-produced tofu skin.
“The texture is very important to tofu skin,” said Chef Justin Li from the Sugi Japanese Restaurant of the Sofitel Dongguan Royal Lagoon. He spent three years in Japan studying their culinary arts making him more than familiar with the ingredient widely used in Japanese cuisine. “Regular tofu skin will lose its chewiness after soaking, boiling or stewing, while the one made in the primitive way keeps the quality better.”
Chef Li’s Hand Crafted Tofu
- Half cup frozen shrimp, defrosted
- 2/3 cup dried black fungus (soaked 15 minutes)
- 2 bundles tofu skin (soaked half an hour, cut into thumb sized pieces)
- Ten snow peas, cut in half
- 5-6 cloves of garlic and a chunk of ginger, cut into pieces
- Thickening sauce (mix 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon, 1 teaspoon sugar, powdered pepper, corn powder and 50 milliliters water)
- Marinate the shrimp with salt and egg white, leave for 10 minutes.
- Boil tofu skin for one minute, drain.
- Boil snow peas until tender.
- Add two spoonfuls of oil in a wok under medium-heat until hot. Add shrimp and stir fry until cooked. Place aside.
- Add two spoonfuls of oil, garlic and ginger in a wok under medium- heat. Add tofu skin and black fungus, stir fry for two minutes. Add the thickening sauce and fry for one minute.
- Cover and cook for three minutes until sauce thickens.
- Add shrimp and peas, stir fry and mix for two minutes.
Serve with rice.