Savor the unique taste of fermented bean curd

Updated: 26 Jul 2012
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Two major varieties of salted bean curd are either eaten as pickles or used in dishes.
Only in China can you taste dishes that are seasoned with intensely flavored cubes of fermented bean curd. These pickled cheeses are delicious with both meat and vegetables, as Pauline D. Loh tells you.

My first taste of the little cubes of pure flavor was at my grandfather's dining table when I was a child. We were having plain white congee, but there was nothing simple about the spread of side dishes that had the table groaning.

In front of every place were little dishes of fried peanuts, salted sweet radish strips and a tiny saucer with a cube of cream-colored curd, speckled with pretty red chili flakes and topped with a heaping teaspoon of sugar.

It was the sugar that attracted my childish palate, of course, but I soon grew addicted to the sharp tangy saltiness of the jiang doufu, or furu. It went perfectly with the blandness of the rice congee and made it easy to gobble up several bowls between little chopstick pinches of the salted bean curd.

Later, I also discovered the red variety, the nanru or southern bean curd.

This is a much feistier version with a deep maroon skin that comes from the addition of red wine yeast. My grandmother used this lovely red seasoning to make a vegetarian dish called luohan zhai, or Arhat's Vegetarian Special, and served it during the Spring Festival. I remember loving the sauce because it turned my bowl of rice such a lovely pale pink.

Basically, both bean curd cheeses are made by fermenting little tofu squares and then soaking them in concentrated brine, chili flakes and sesame oil for the white variety or red wine must and salt for the red version.

As a result of the pickling, the soy protein hardens into a "cheese-like" state, earning both furu and nanru the nickname "Chinese cheese".

Unlike cheese, however, these are pure blocks of flavoring. The Chinese are known for their great love for economy, and a 2-cm cube of either nanru or furu will happily accompany many bowls of rice at the dinner table.

There are also many recipes taking advantage of the lovely pungency of these "cheeses".

And with the prevalent trend toward vegetarian and micro-biotic diets, tofu and tofu products, such as these, have stolen the limelight.

My grandfather would have been pleased to know that recent studies show that the peptides in the fermented bean curds have lots of amino acids. Japanese research also shows they have anti-oxidants and enzymes useful for preventing hypertension.

For me, the main attraction is still the flavor. Nowhere else in the world have I tasted such delicious pungency, and even the best cheese pales in comparison to these fermented tofu cubes. No respectable Chinese housewife would be caught without a bottle or two in her pantry.

Either white or red pickled bean curd will be an instant marinade for meat, and anyone familiar with the stir-fried morning glory shoots so popular in South China would remember the taste.

Chefs are always looking for new ways to use these as seasoning. But, best of all, just a little cube placed on a saucer and sprinkled with a dash of sugar or sesame oil is enough to make a meal. You cannot get better than that.

Here are some very standard fermented bean curd recipes for you to try. You can find these little gems on most supermarket shelves, but depending on where in China you are, you may have to look for either jiangdoufu, nanru or furu.

If you have anything to ask about the recipes, please e-mail me at

Recipe | Red phoenix wings
Ingredients (serves 4):

20 mid-joint chicken wings (about 800 g)

2 tomatoes, sliced

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cubes fermented red bean curd

1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine (or sherry)

1 tbsp sugar

50 g corn flour

50 g plain flour

Oil for deep frying


1. Wash the chicken wings. Remove any stray down or feathers and pat dry.

2. Break up the bean curd cubes, adding the sugar and wine to form a thick sauce. Marinate the chicken wings in this mixture and leave in the fridge for four hours, at least.

3. Lightly beat the eggs.

4. Heat up enough oil for deep-frying to about medium high heat.

5. Dip the chicken wings into the egg mixture and dredge in the flour mixture.

4. Deep-fry until a light golden brown.

6. Serve with tomato slices on the side.
Recipe | Vegetables in bean curd sauce
Ingredients (serves 4):

600 g morning glory shoots or water convolvulus (tongxin cai)

20 g dried prawns

4 cloves garlic

1 red chili

2 cubes white fermented bean curd (furu)

1 tbsp Chinese wine

Sesame oil, sugar and salt to taste


1. Wash and pluck the vegetables into segments.

2. Soak dried prawns to soften, drain well and chop them up.

3. Skin garlic and mince. Slice red chili into thin strips.

4. Break up the fermented bean curd and add sugar, wine and sesame oil to make a fine paste.

5. Heat the wok, add a little oil and brown minced garlic. Add bean curd sauce and fry until the fragrance rises. Add chopped dried prawns immediately and then all the vegetables.

6. Stir-fry rapidly until the vegetables wilt. Plate and garnish with chili strips
Recipe | Potatoes & Pork in red sauce
400 g potatoes

400 g belly pork

4 cloves garlic

1 red chili

2 cubes fermented red bean curd

1 tbsp Chinese wine

Salt, sugar, sesame oil to taste.


1. Peel the potatoes, and cut into thick slices. Rinse in lightly salted water.

2. Rinse the whole piece of belly pork and blanche in boiling water for five minutes. Remove and cool, then cut into slices as thick as the potatoes.

3. Break up two cubes of fermented red bean curd. Add sugar, wine and sesame oil to make a paste.

3. Mince garlic and cut the chili into strips.

4. Deep-fry potatoes in medium hot oil until they are lightly golden. Drain on kitchen towels to absorb excess fat.

5. Brown garlic and bean curd paste. Add the potatoes and pork belly pieces. Add enough stock or water to cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until the liquid is reduced and thickened, and both meat and potatoes are tender.

6. Plate and garnish with chili strips and coriander
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