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Fermented Red Doufu

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Fall Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(3) pages: 7 to 11

Soybeans, are one of the five staple grains of ancient China. They are used to make bean curd which the Chinese call doufu, which is made from soy beans, water, and a coagulant. Red doufu needs a starter, a colorant, and a mold to work. This becomes a flavor enhancer the Chinese love: doufu nai.

One story of how it originated is it took place at a teahouse. There, a bean curd seller stopped to watch a game of chess. Hours later when he went to get his basket, he discovered his coagulated bean curd had gone moldy. Thinking the two immortals he chatted with played a trick on him, he surmised they might be the ones responsible for the change in his bean curd. He then decided to confront them.

Sympathetic but not guilty, they assured him they did not do that. They told him to go home and marinate the moldy stuff with salt, spices, and cold water so it would go back to becoming what it originally was. Not believing but hoping against hope, he did as instructed. Because he was exhausted, he immediately went to bed. The next morning his bean curd was different, even better. It was aromatic and red, and tasted better than before.

The next time he made bean curd, he did repeat this with his ordinary bean curd as he was told to. It did produce the same great aromatic red doufu of that first batch. He gave it to many friends and all agreed it tasted great. They loved his new product called doufu nei.

During the Song Dynasty, Zhu Xi reported this red bean curd was not new. He wrote that years before it was so prepared by the Prince of Huainan (179 - 122 BCE) Others did agree that it was neither new nor original. Truth be told, no one really knows where, how, or when it began.

In a chapter in the ‘Economic Affairs of the Shih Chi’ or The Historical Records Book, it was called ‘mold ferment’. Elsewhere, it was reported as ‘salty fermented red soybeans’ or ‘preserved doufu’ Some, in English, call it ‘red tofu cheese.’ During the Qing Dynasty, around 1641, Wang Su-hsiung referred to it in the Food Encyclopedia as ‘superior’ bean curd calling it more beneficial than ‘firm bean curd, and better than other kinds of doufu.

This endorsement did help it become more popular than other renditions. Some say it was developed in the Henan Province. Some was found in ‘Tomb No. 1. carved in stone there; still not everyone does agree. Later, folks did see the carving depicted in an 1982 Agricutural Archeology volume where two people stand in front of a large basin near a rotary stone mill. They are holding a cloth in front of it and it does look like they are draining bean curd solids from liquid. Still, many refuse to believe it is as old as this carving indicates.

Some conjecture it could be made more recently with nigari or Epson salts, both trade products, or with alum, vinegar, lemon juice, or a mixture of them. We now know it as a coagulated fermented food. In Spring it takes five days, needs eight in Winter. We also know this moldy material dries in the sun after it is marinated in salt with or without an alcoholic liquid and spices. We also know it becomes red fermented doufu when made with red rice. Folks know it is easy to digest, has lots of B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and other nutrients, and that it is low in calories, its overall nutrient profile close to that of many milks, cow milk included. Chinese TCM practitioners tell us it benefits the lungs and large intestines, moistens dry conditions, relieves oral and stomach inflammations, neutralizes toxins, and heals many less than healthy bodily reactions. They also say that when mashed, it is a fine poultice, adds contrast to pungent, salty, baked, steamed, boiled, broiled, deep-fried, sauteed, and raw foods, and that most Chinese adore it.

Carved in stone, first found in the 1940s and then dated as made in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 20CE) historians believe it shows fermented bean curd available in Chinese markets that was made with ground regular, long or short red rice. Nowadays, anyone can purchase it made with chilli peppers, fermented or not. Perhaps it was also made in homes then and was quite salty. Do purchase some, keep it refrigerated until using it, and do store it in a covered glass container until you do. Asian markets sell different kinds with many spices or seasonings or none. It is shown on the cover of this issue and with this article on page 7. It does a fine job enhancing many different dishes, and is made mostly using ground soy beans, though there are some made with taro or other beans or other foods. Most are inoculated with bacteria or fungi spores before it ferments. Some call it tou ci or sufu, others do not indicate its main ingredient source. We buy ours most often made from soy beans or taro, and like it mixed with wine, sesame oil, vinegar, spices, and/red rice yeast. Some use Monascus purpureuc or another colorant or coagulant. Some old cookbooks say it can have high levels of a toxin or citrinin. Hopefully, most no longer do. If you make your own, you can color it with cranberry or another red juice.

Years ago, some sources said soy beans were inferior grains. We now know this to be untrue. In ancient times some did say they are hazardous to your health; that is also not true. In the Discourse on Nurturing Life book it does say ingesting soybeans makes one feel heavy. But that is not ill health. It may be a source of feeling bloated. That may be why they say that. Soy beans are a Chinese staple and a good source of protein. They can grow on land depleted of nutrients and produce good yields even in poor years. The Chinese love them and have eaten them for generations with no ill effects.

Raw soy beans are difficult to digest as their complex carbohydrate components such as raffinose stachyose, and alpha-galactosides do not hydrolyze with digestive enzymes in the gut. This can lead to flatulence for many folk, not ill health. Some say, they taste unpleasant and have a beany after taste. Many early Chinese worked to convert soy beans to processed foods making them into fermented doufu.

Below are several recipes using fermented doufu. Not well known nor popular in western cuisines, one can find many kinds in Asian markets. The recipes that follow can be made with white or red fermented doufu, and we do love both. They enhance the flavors of many dishes, and we suggest you try them in lots of them.

Hot and Sour Meatball Soup

3 one-inch pieces fresh peeled ginger, minced
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and slivered
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
½ pound fatty ground pork, ,made into small balls
3 Tablespoons dried sliced wood-ear mushrooms, soaked in hot water, then drained, the water discarded
¼ pound fresh shrimp, shell and veins discarded, each shrimp cut into eight pieces
½ square red fermented bean curd, mashed
3 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
8 cups chicken stock
1 egg, beaten
¼ pound soft regular tofu, cut into one-inch cubes
1 Tablespoon sesame oil


1. In a blender, pulse ginger and garlic coarsely.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, ginger, and the garlic and stir-fry them together for one minute before adding the balls of meat. Stir-fry them in oil for two minutes until the meatballs are no longer pink.
3. Add drained wood ear mushrooms, the shrimp, mashed red bean curd, black vinegar, and the chicken stock, and stir well.
4. Beat the egg and add it, the soft bean curd, and the sesame oil, and stir well, then serve.

Hakka Taro

¼ cup vegetable oil
½ pound taro, peeled, sliced, and deep fried
1 thin slice fresh ginger, minced
2 soaked Chinese black mushrooms, soaked until soft, stems discarded, caps thin sliced
2 cubes red fermented doufu, mashed
½ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
2 sprigs fresh coriander, one minced, one used for garnish


1. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, then fry the taro slices on both sides until a light tan, then remove and drain them on paper towels.
2. Add the ginger and the mushroom pieces and stir-fry these until golden brown before adding the mashed doufu and half cup of cold water, Stir-fry this for three minutes, then add the five-spice powder, sesame oil, sugar, rice wine, and minced coriander.
3. Return the taro pieces to the pan and simmer for three minutes, then put everything on a pre-heated plate or platter, and serve.

Water Convolvulus and Bean Curd

1 pound water convolvulus
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 squares red fermented doufu
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
½ seeded red piquant chili pepper, minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced


1. Rinse water convolvulus and cut into two- to three-inch pieces.
2. In small bowl, mash the red bean curd, and mix it with the sugar,, minced chili pepper, and the garlic.
3. Reheat the wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the bean curd mixture for one minute, then add the convolvulus vegetable and stir-fry just until wilted; and then transfer everything to a platter or bowl and serve.

Cabbage and Fermented Bean Curd

3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
3 slices fresh ginger, slivered
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
12 dried shrimp, soaked until soft, then chopped fine
2 cubes fermented red bean curd, mashed
1 Tablespoon soy bean paste
5 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked until soft in half cup of hot water, their stems discarded, caps thinly sliced
½ head shredded Beijing cabbage, shredded
1 ounce bean threads, soaked until soft, then cut into one-inch pieces
3 bean curd sticks, soaked until soft, then chopped


1. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, then stir-fry the sugar, ginger, garlic, dried shrimps, mashed bean curd and soy bean paste for one minute before adding the mushroom pieces.
2. Stir-fry this for two minutes and then add the mushroom water, shredded cabbage, bean threads, and the bean curd pieces. Stir-fry this for two more minutes, then serve.

Suzhou Pork and Fermented Doufu

½ pound lean pork belly with its skin, cubed into two-inch pieces
1 small square red fermented doufu, mashed
2 Tablespoons brown rock sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 scallion, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine


1. Put pork belly pieces in two cups of boiling water in a small pot then simmer for two minutes and then drain discarding the water.
2. Mix mashed bean curd with the crushed rock sugar, and salt. Toss this with the pork squares, and put them in a heat-proof bowl.
3. Steam the pork belly mixture with the scallion, ginger, and rice wine over simmering water for three hours.
4. Discard the scallion and the ginger, and put everything else, pork skin side up in a pre-heated bowl; and serve.

Braised Pork Ribs

2 pounds pork ribs separated and cut into two-inch pieces
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
5 slices fresh ginger
5 garlic cloves
3 cubes red bean curd, mashed
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese red vinegar
1 Tablespoon granulated or crushed dark rock sugar
1 cup chicken broth


1. Put ribs in large pot of boiling water for two minutes, then put them under cold running water for two more minutes and then drain them. Let them air dry on paper towels for one hour.
2. Heat a wok or large fry pan, add the oil, and then brown the ribs in two batches before adding the ginger and garlic. Stir two or three times, and then remove everything to a small bowl.
3. Mix the mashed bean curd, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and the broth and put this and the ribs in the pan and simmer covered until the meat is tender (about an hour).
4. Discard the liquid, turn the heat to high, and sizzle the ribs turning them for two or three minutes until somewhat crisp. Then serve them on a pre-heated platter.

Pork Belly, Taro, and Bean Curd

3 leaves cabbage
2 pounds lean pork belly, cut into half-inch slices
5 slices fresh ginger
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 pounds taro, peeled, and cut in half-inch slices
3 leaves cabbage or lettuce for bottom of the pot
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 squares red fermented bean curd, mashed
2 teaspoons liquid from jar of the red bean squares
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sesame oil


1. In a large pot, add the lettuce or cabbage leaves and stir well before adding the pork belly and all other ingredients. Then cover with one cup of cold water. Simmer them covered for one hour.
2. Now, put the pork belly, taro, and all other ingredients in a heat-proof bowl, and steam them covered over boiling water for one hour, checking often to be sure the water has not evaporated and the meat is tender. Continue until it is, then serve.

Roast Duck in Fermented Doufu

¼ pound soft white bean curd, mashed
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
2 squares fermented red bean curd, mashed
2 Tablespoons liquid from jar of red bean curd
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 four to five pound fresh duck, innards discarded


1. Mix all ingredients except the duck tossing them well, and then cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or for at least four hours.
2. Before removing them from the refrigerator, prepare a charcoal grill with a rotating spit allowing the coals to turn white.
3. Remove the duck from the refrigerator, discard the plastic wrap, pierce the duck skin with a fork on all sides, then set the duck on a rotating spit so it will turn for thirty-five minutes. Watch for flare-ups and douse as needed with a little water. Add more charcoal as needed.
3. Remove the duck from the spit, and cut into the duck breast to see if it is cooked through. When it is, remove it from the spit and chop it into two-inch pieces. Put the duck pieces on a pre-heated platter, and serve.

Vegetarian Lion's Head

1 pound soft bean curd, liquid discarded, cut into small cubes and mashed
1 square mashed red fermented doufu
2 large eggs
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 additional Tablespoons cornstarch, set aside
½ cup finely chopped carrots
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 cup Chinese black mushrooms, soaked until soft, stems discarded, caps minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 lettuce leaves
1 cup vegetable broth


1. Put mashed soft and red bean curd in a bowl and mix well.
2. Then, add the eggs, cornstarch, carrots, garlic, ginger, black mushrooms, salt, sugar, and the soy sauce and mix well. Form this into eight to ten balls.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and brown the balls on all sides before removing them to a plate. Discard any leftover oil.
4. Put lettuce leaves on the bottom of a clean pot or casserole, add the vegetable balls and the broth and cover and simmer for one hour.
5. Mix two tablespoons of reserved cornstarch with two tablespoons cold water and add this to the pot or casserole. Bring it to the boil, and stir until the sauce is thickened, then serve.

Steamed Pork in Lotus Leaf

5 Tablespoons raw rice
1½ pounds pork butt, cut into three-inch chunks
2 Tablespoons black beans, mashed
2 squares red soy bean cheese
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 egg white, optional
3 large dried lotus leaves, soaked in warm water until soft, about five minutes, their thick center stems removed and discarded


1. In a dry wok or fry pan, roast the rice stirring often, until brown and aromatic. Then crush it with the handle of the cleaver.
2. Mix mashed black beans and red bean cheese with the soy sauce and sugar, and spread this mixture on all sides of each piece of pork.
3. Wrap each piece with a double-thick piece of lotus leaf, and seal with water or egg white.
4. Put these wrapped packages seam-side down in a steamer basket in a single layer. Steam them over simmering water for three hours, adding more water as needed. If not using immediately, put them in the refrigerator. Twenty minutes before needed, steam them for the rest of the time, adding twenty minutes to it if needed; then serve.

Vegetables in Fermented Sauce

3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup canned oyster mushrooms, blanched for two minutes, drained, rinsed in cold water, stem ends trimmed off, and each one cut in half
1 cup canned sliced water chestnuts, blanched
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
5 slices fresh ginger, slivered
3 Tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed, then lightly mashed or chopped
1 square red fermented doufu
1 chili pepper, seeded and slivered
1 cup snow peas, strings removed and thinly angle-sliced
½ to 1 cup dry-roasted cashews


1. Mix soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, cornstarch, broth, and half a cup of water and set this aside.
2. Mix mushrooms and water chestnuts and set them aside, too.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil and stirfry the garlic and ginger for one minute before adding the mushroom mixture. Stir-fry this for two minutes, then set it aside.
4. Add both the garlic and ginger, then, add both fermented beans and the mushroom mixture and stir-fry for three minutes. Then add the diced chili pepper pieces and stir-fry for one minute.
5. Now add the snow peas and stir them for two minutes before adding the sauce mixture. Stir this well, then add the cashews and stir them well, too. Transfer everything to a pre-heated bowl, and serve.

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