Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Skin & Fungus... Yum!

Okay, so that title may not have been the most appetizing way to introduce you to this next dish, but the taste totally makes up for it! What I'm referring to is Hong Shao Dou Fu Pi and Mu Er ("red-cooked" tofu skin and "wood ear" mushrooms). By far, one of my childhood favourites! Over the holidays, I headed down to DC and came home to my mom's amazingly veganized Chinese food. Little did she know I had been dreaming of tofu skins a week prior to going home. (That's actually an embarrassing fact. Right before falling asleep one night, I was said to have exclaimed "You know what I'm really craving? Tofu skins!" That is the depth of my obsession...)

Tofu skin (also known as a beancurd sheet or yuba) is the filmy skin that lines the top of your pot when soy milk is boiled (the same thing happens when you heat cow's milk). It's made up of the bean's protein and lipids and it's apparently quite a process to make. Instead of being tossed out after soy milk is heated, the film is collected and dried and turned into tofu skin. A lot of people claim that it's actually the healthiest part of the soy milk making process!

Tofu skin can be bought in sheets or sticks, and it has about a million and one uses. A lot of Chinese vegan and vegetarian dishes use tofu skin to simulate the layered effect of cooked meat. I prefer the sticks because of that "layered" texture (my mom also says they're way easier to handle than the sheets because they don't break as easily).

On the issue of "to eat or not to eat tofu," I really only eat it when I'm at home with family because my mom often uses it to make me life-altering yummy dishes. I also still think that organic soy can definitely be a part of a healthy diet as long as you eat it in moderation and that you make sure it's organic (over 80% of soy grown in North America is genetically modified). Soy does have significant health benefits... If you don't buy that it's good for you, the number of East Asian tofu-eating centarians might be able back me up on this one (them and my healthy 90 year old grandmother too)!

The next unusual ingredient I've mentioned is Mu Er, also known as black fungus. Mu Er is just about the coolest and tastiest mushroom on the planet. While my French heritage bias gives me a serious penchant for morels and truffles, when it comes to Asian mushrooms Mu Er places way above the rest. The mushroom is called "wood ear" because that's exactly what it looks like. I used to love the texture and chewiness of calamari, and wood ear is kind of like that, but vegan.. and awesome.

My mom relayed to me that Mu Er actually has some amazing health benefits. It's one of the best sources of iron, is very rich in protein, vitamin B1 and B2, and calcium. It's also one of the rare food-sources of Vitamin D. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it helps you live longer by keeping you youthful. It has also been found to improve blood circulation by acting as an anticoagulant, lowers cholesterol, maintains a healthy liver, helps prevent cancer, and actually neutralizes the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

Finally, Mu Er acts as a kind of sponge in your system, absorbing toxic substances in your body thanks to its pectin. It can do anything from absorb dust in your lungs to clean up your digestive system before its excreted. You can almost always find it in dried form at any asian grocery store. It does have to be soaked about 20 minutes to one hour before you use it but don't be fooled, when soaked, it actually expands to a couple times its size!

So now what do we do with these amazing foods? Put them together of course! This dish is fantastic. Hong Shao means red cooked, and is essentially a pretty term for slow braising. The flavours of the anise and cinnamon in this recipe make a rich, smoky, and delicious dish that doesn't make me think twice about the fact that it's been cooked. (And honestly, with those health benefits, how can you go wrong?) Sorry in advance for the very loose cooking instructions. As I've mentioned in the past, I love the way my mom cooks. She does things by feel rather than follow exact recipes. When I ask her how she makes something, she generally gives me instructions like "add this first, then throw everything else in, and you'll know when it's ready. It's easy. You can figure it out." I think you know where my kitchen confidence comes from... I wouldn't change her for anything!

Mom's Hong Shao Dou Fu Pi with Mu Er
(pic from and recipe adapted from Seriously Asian's Tofu Skin Recipe)

1/2 bag of tofu skins (about 5 oz.)
1/3 bag of black fungus (about 3 oz.)
1/4 C soy sauce
3 tbsp cane sugar
3 tbsp cooking wine
1 inch chunk of ginger, sliced
2-3 star anise (or more depending on your taste)
1/2-1 stick of cinnamon
1 C water
sesame oil, for frying
water, for cooking

Recipe Prep:
1. In a bowl, soak tofu skins in water for 6-12 hours (overnight works great).
You can let these sit for up to a day.
2. About 15-30 minutes before you make the dish,
soak the wood ear in water until it balloons in size!
3. When ready to make the dish, drain both the skins and fungus.

When the recipe is ready to be made:
(You can choose to cut the tofu skins into smaller pieces.
We didn't because I just like the big ol' strips.)
1. Over medium heat, add a teaspoon or two of sesame oil in a pot
and add spices to open up their flavor (stir about 2-3 minutes)
2. Add all the other ingredients except the black fungus,
and add enough water to the pot so it just covers the tofu skin
and let simmer for 20-25 minutes .
3. When the tofu skins are softer and juicy (they'll still be chewy),
add in the black fungus and let sit for another 10 minutes.
4. Turn off the burner, and let sit for another couple hours so the flavours seep in.
5. Taste great when it's ready and even better the next day!


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