That’s not the case in China or other Asian countries. Soyfoods in myriad shapes and forms are embraced by all walks of life, including hardcore carnivores. Their versatility means they can be culinary superstars in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
When you cook soyfoods with meat or seafood, you have the opportunity to elevate the ingredients to a new level and create amazing dishes that manifest “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
A perfect example is Mapo Tofu, arguably the most famous tofu dish in the world. Who would have thought that silken tofu and minced meat, with a little help from fermented soybeans, could be so irresistible when cooked together?
The dish I’m writing about today, braised pork belly with tofu sticks, is in the same league.
Tofu sticks, called Fu Zhu (腐竹) in Mandarin, are produced from heated soy milk, on which a thin layer of skin is formed, lifted, and hung dry. You can find dried tofu sticks in Asian grocery stores. Those firm and brittle sticks need to be reconstituted by soaking in water before cooking.
Although tofu sticks are fantastic in stir-fries, soups, and salads, my favorite way of cooking them is braising. During braising, they will easily absorb the flavors from the braising liquid, and become soft and luscious while retaining their shape and slightly chewy texture.
Braising tofu sticks with pork belly is a signature dish from Jiangxi province of China, where the first tofu sticks were made over 1000 years ago. By the way, Jiangxi produces the best porcelain in the country. The recipe below is quite straightforward. Pork belly is first braised with dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, star anise, and Chinese cinnamon. The tofu sticks are added at the last 10-15 minutes, during which the flavors meld, and then, something magical happens.
Braised pork belly with tofu sticks
Makes 2 servings
10 oz (300 g) pork belly, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) squares
2 oz (60 g) dried tofu sticks, soaked in water for 1 hour
1-inch (2.5 cm) ginger, sliced
Small bunch of scallions, green parts thinly slices, and white parts cut into 2-inch (5 cm) sections
2 star anise
1 Chinese cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon Zhenjiang (aka Chinkiang) vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Remove the tofu sticks from the soaking water and gently squeeze out the liquid. Cut each stick into 2-inch (5 cm) sections.
- Heat the oil in a hot wok over medium heat. Add the pork belly pieces; brown all sides and render some fat, about 6-8 minutes.
- Remove most of the fat from the wok. Turn up the heat. Add the ginger and white parts of the scallions; stir-fry for 15 seconds. Pour in the Shaoxing wine, dark soy sauce, and vinegar. Stir and mix until the meat is well coated with the sauce, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook, covered, until the meat is tender, about 40 minutes.
- Stir in the tofu sticks, and keep a gentle simmer for another 10-15 minutes, or until the tofu sticks are cooked through and well flavored. Remove the meat and tofu sticks from the wok, and discard the ginger, scallions, and spices. Reduce the braising liquid to about a half cup. Return the meat and tofu sticks to the wok to mix and reheat. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with the sliced scallions and serve immediately.
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