In Shanghai I often didn't wear a watch. It wasn't necessary - in our neighborhood, the old French Concession area, I could tell the time of day by sight, sound, and smell.
Middle-aged and elderly people roaming the sidewalks, hitting their arms with clenched fists and occasionally stopping to rub their backs against tree trunks - 6:30 or 7am. On the street, a sea of bicycles accompanied by the tinkling of thousands of bells - 8am or 5pm (this was back when bikes still ruled Shanghai's roadways). Bicycles again, but this time, suspended from their handle bars, plastic bags sprouting bunches of greens and scallions, mounds of Mandarin oranges or apples, and a lump or two of pork - the 12 noon commute home for lunch. The hiss and spit of hot oil, quickly followed by an enveloping odor reminiscent of my gym clothes after a vigorous workout - 5:30 or 6pm, chou dofu for dinner.
Chou dofu - deep-fried fermented bean curd. When Shanghai was still made up mostly of old, thickly populated neighborhoods of low-rise apartment buildings instead of pockets of anonymous highrises, its repellent pungency permeated the streets before the evening meal. Put off by its odor - described once by Dave as something like a cross between a sweaty jock strap and well-worn tennis shoes - I never took to it. But that doesn't mean I eschew fermented soy bean products in their entirety.
I adore preserved tofu, sometimes called fermented tofu or 'Chinese cheese'. When aged in rice, with wine, in a salt brine, or with chilies, bean curd takes on an unmistakeably cheesy smell and dense, creamy texture. Tasting it side-by-side with a Danish blue cheese, one detects a few superficial similarities: saltiness, nose-pinching pungency, and smooth texture.
Unlike cheese, however, preserved tofu isn't meant to be enjoyed on its own (though I've no doubt there are preserved tofu fans out there who spoon it up plain). It's a flavoring agent, to be used and eaten in small doses with other ingredients. When dabbed onto the end of chopsticks and taken with a spoonful of bland rice porridge, tossed into a stir-fry of green vegetables, or added to a dipping sauce for soy-stewed meat and tofu, Chinese cheese's strong ammonia odor recedes, allowing its intriguing salty, zesty, and - yes - stinky qualities to shine through.
Stir-fried Spinach with Fermented Tofu
A little Chinese cheese adds savor and piquancy to stir-fried greens. Substitute choi sum or kangkung (water spinach; morning glory) for the spinach, and adjust amount of liquid and the final cooking time as needed to attain tenderness for the vegetable.
4 servings, with other dishes
2 lbs. (about 1 kilo) spinach, stems removed if you like, washed and mostly dried
peanut or other vegetable oil
2-3 Tbsp of fermented bean curd (plain or chile-preserved)
2-4 Tbsp Chinese rice wine, dry sherry, or water
ground black pepper and salt to taste
1. Heat a wok over a high flame and add the oil, swirling to coat the pan.
2. Add the bean curd, breaking it up into small pieces with the back of a spatula or spoon, and stir-fry a minute or two.
3. Add spinach and stir-fry a couple of minutes, then add liquid, lower the heat to medium, and braise till tender. Taste for salt, add ground black pepper if you wish, and serve hot.
Hot and Sour Fermented Bean Curd Dipping Sauce
Adapted from Ken Hom's Fragrant Harbor Taste. Nice eaten with with sweetish soy-braised tofu or pork, or other meat, or just mixed with plain steamed rice.
1-2 servings (it goes a long way)
3 cubes plain fermented bean curd
zest from half a lemon or 1 very finely shredded kaffir lime leaf, or a combination of the two
1 tsp lime or lemon juice
4 fresh red chile peppers - choose your chile according to your heat tolerance - seeded or not, finely chopped
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1. Mix all of the ingredients except the oils in a small dish.
2. Heat the oils together until smoking, then pour over the condiments. Serve immediately.