Someone’s a few seconds away from being converted to doufu ru.
by Ernie Diaz
Wow, that’s quite a puddle of ketchup you’ve got with your French fries there. And what’s that – mayonnaise? Very continental. Ooh, and you put some A1 sauce on your burger, sophisticated.
No no, leave it on the floor, where it belongs. There are more heavenly flavors on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your western philosophy. Condiments are the best place to start, by switching the sweet and salty act with some Chinese talent, three dressings that will do for your palate what the Starship Enterprise did for mankind. That’s right, explore strange but tasty new worlds.
Doufu Ru 豆腐乳
What’s in a name? A whole lot of turn-off, if the name is “fermented soy paste”. But what if we called hot-dogs by their rightful name, “diced lips and bungs in cellulose casing”? Leave the linguistics to Noam Chomsky, and get with a product powerful enough to turn the blandest foods into complex culinary marvels. Yessir, a chopstick’s-end-worth of doufu ru makes plain-Jane rice porridge over into the sexiest breakfast since your honeymoon buffet-in-bed.
It’s sweet; it’s salty, but that’s just for starters. Pungent, acrid, umami – how to explain color to a blind man, or fermented tofu to a tongue crippled by high-fructose corn syrup? Words do not suffice, but it helps to know that the virginal tofu in doufu ru turns shameless seductress with the help of a little salt, sesame oil, vinegar, and generous lashings of rice wine. Oh, and the texture; you’re not gonna call this tofu mushy. A long brine soak leaves doufu ru creamy as blue cheese, not quite as stinky, and every bit as spreadable. If it’s red, you’re in for an extra treat; that doufu ru has been primped up special with some red yeast rice, rose essence, and caramel.
And health nuts, you want your soy fermented, dontcha know. Going halfway rotten brings out the best in the bean, making its minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, all that) more soluble, and spawning armies of probiotic bacteria to aid your gut in its never-ending battle against the evil forces you otherwise send against it: cola, for starters. Good tasting and good for you? The jingle writes itself! Someone call the good people at Heinz.
Back in the good ol’ days, before eyewitness news teams and nosy boards of health, Chinese hot pot restaurateurs would spike the broth with opium to ensure patrons were hooked. Once the jig was up, they turned to the second most addictive substance known to man – sesame paste. Get out of here with your tahini – wait; you’ve got shawarma too? Come back, and compare your paste of raw, hulled sesames, to our Chinese blend, fully toasted.
True, a tad more bitter, but then the ma jiang experience is as rich and full as life itself, with hints of both bitter and sweet, earthy and airy, tangy and mellow. No wonder a hot pot restaurant is still a cash cow, de-narcotized and all, what with ma jiang as the de rigueur dipping sauce for all those parboiled fish balls and lotus slices. By god you could eat an old shoe dipped in ma jiang, given a strong set of molars and a growling belly.
And what do you know, another virtuous yet utterly gratifying Chinese condiment. Trans-Asian traders of yore thrived on silk but survived on sesame, mini storehouses of essential minerals, replete with protein. Slather it on your noodles, drench your salads with it, anemic vegans. It can bring the sparkle back to your eyes faster than a pipe-load of opium.
Duo Jiao 剁椒
Contemplate, for a moment, the picture above. To your eyes, that chili pepper promises only a coughing fit, watery eyes, and a fiery sit-down the next morning. But to eyes with epicanthic folds, that chili pepper offers excitement, solace, a reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other when we all end up in the grave any old how.
See, the same compounds that give you a burning mouth and chili sweats (capsaicinoids, the white-coats call ‘em) also signal the brain to release a healthy squirt of endorphins. Maybe not healthy enough to rival the buzz of your morning Xanax and Friday-night snootful of toot, but hey, most of us Chinese must make do without better living through chemistry, and rely on what nature provides.
Now here’s the revelation: five-inch red chilies like the one pictured really aren’t that spicy. They have bite, to be sure, but nowhere near the fire power of the pinky-sized, attenuated devils best left to Sichuan ren and other masochists. So take two bristling fistfuls of five-inchers, and dice them down to scrap-size. If you live in China, chop them after eleven o’clock, in retaliation for all the neighbor’s 5 am jiaozi chopping that keeps you chronically fatigued (revenge is almost as savory as duo jiao).
Put the scraps in a jar. Add two teaspoons of salt, and two of peppercorns (substitute black pepper, those of you in the Land of the Free). Finally, drizzle in two or three tablespoons of alcohol. Those of you who want to get in touch with your inner fire-eater can dice in one or two pinky-peppers.
You can buy it, but then who’ll keep the neighbors awake?
Simple, much? Ah, but not the flavor – light years beyond Tabasco in both freshness and complexity. As with doufu ru, a little dab’ll do ya – with veggies, in your scrambled eggs, sprinkled on fish – heck, soon you’ll be wondering what it doesn’t improve. Ice cream? Depends what flavor.
And goodness gracious, if you thought the first two condiments were salubrious. Tons of vitamin C and carotene, oodles of those hard-to-find B vitamins, the ones that keep you from going postal when the receptionist leaves the cap off the toner, again. Gorge on your duo jiao without fear; most chili peppers are still off Monsanto’s diabolical agenda.
A word of caution, though: southwestern Chinese from teething to toothless cram down all those chilies because they balance a constitution compromised by too much humidity. If you live in Tallahassee, you can spoon down a jar a day. If you live in Taos, not so much.