More a condiment than a dish, dofu ru is in-your-face salty-savory. True to its nickname, it's pungent and sticky in a firm-ish way, much like a well-aged blue cheese. I was a late adopter, but in recent years I've enjoyed it stirred into rice and congee, stir-fried with spinach and other leafy greens, as a dip -- mixed with lemon zest and chopped chilies and then drizzled with a wee bit of sizzling oil to really bring out its fragrance and flavor -- and spread on bread and crackers.
Until a few weeks ago I had no idea how this Chinese kitchen staple is made. (Dofu ru, by the way, shouldn't be confused with chou dofu/'stinky tofu' which, deep-fried and eaten with soy sauce and vinegar, is a justly beloved street food in Taiwan.)
Air-fermented dofu ru (fermented dofu)
Dofu ru comes in several forms. There's the plain air-fermented type, white and furry like a rabbit's tail -- like this batch, which we spied at a market in Chongqing. Bean curd is also fermented with yeasted red rice to make red dofu ru.
It should come as no surprise that in Sichuan the preferred version of dofu ru is made with heaps of fermented chilies.
A couple of days after arriving in Chengdu we hired a mianbao che ('bread loaf car' -- boxy mini-vans that really do look like big loaves of bread on wheels) with our friend J and headed about an hour outside of town to the town of Baihe, to visit a douban jiang (豆瓣酱 - bean sauce or paste) factory.
The factory consists of a compound of buildings arranged around a large courtyard, in the middle of which sit rows and rows of clay vats, some filled with fermenting black beans and others with douban jiang. The paste, a mixture of ground chilies, fava (broad beans) and salt, is mixed inside a huge trough-like tiled area and then transferred to the clay vessels. It's covered and left outside in the Sichuan dampness for a year to ferment.
We arrived just as a few workers sporting rubber boots stained with chili juice were circulating jar to jar, stirring the paste. The air was thick with the intoxicating scent -- or stench, depending on your feelings about douban jiang and fermented black beans -- of chilies and fermentation.
Then the factory's owner led us out of the courtyard, behind its rear building, and down a narrow lane to another structure: the dofu ru workshop, which consists of two room divided by a windowed wall.
On one side of the workshop three employees, enveloped in a swirling soy-scented fog splintered by ribbons of sunlight, turn out kilo after kilo of fresh bean curd.
At the back of the room one worker moves among vats of steaming soy milk, stirring and adding the coagulant that causes the milk to solidify.
Meanwhile, another uses a bucket to transfer soy curds onto shallow cloth-lined wooden trays stacked one on top of the other inside a wooden frame. When the frame is full the tofu maker weights down the trays from above with a hand-cranked press. He leaves the press closed about a half an hour -- just long enough to express moisture from the curds and mold them into firm cakes.
The third worker prepares the finished bean curd for fermentation by unwrapping the freshly made soy 'sheet cakes', flipping them onto a wooden board,
and using a knife and wooden measure to cut them into even squares.
The cubed tofu is then transferred to the other side of the workshop, where two women labor over a large work surface, gently mixing the dofu cubes to coat with douban jiang ladled up from a vat in the center of the floor, and then arranging the now-ruddy cubes in neat rows.
They then place the dofu in plastic crates.
Between each row of bean curd they spread a layer of fava beans to aid fermentation. The chili-fied bean curd is left to ferment for six months, and then packed into plastic bags.
When we left the factory we were gifted with bags and bags of fermented black beans and dofu ru. And though I can't claim to be a dofu ru connoisseur, this artisan product is of such higher quality than any jarred specimen we've ever tasted that it's difficult to think of the two as the same foodstuff.
It's creamy but firn and not as tacky/sticky (or prone to liquifying) as jarred specimens. It's gorgeously pungent, but in a more restrained, subtle way. Halved and whole fava beans cling to its surface; they've softened during fermentation and add another flavor and texture dimension. It's certainly the cheesiest (and I mean that in a good way) Chinese cheese we've ever eaten.
And it's very, very spicy, hot enough to leave your tongue buzzing after a taste.
The other day we opened a pack and used it much as you might use real cheese, spreading it on toasted ciabatta. Accompanied by roasted eggplant and green chili 'jam' dressed with sesame oil and herby balsamic-like Baoning vinegar (another Sichuan specialty that made it into our luggage) and tomatoes sliced and sprinkled with lajiao (sandy-textured chili oil) and salt, it made for a fantastic lunch, neither entirely Sichuanese nor Western but something intriguingly in-between.
Funky fusion, if you will.