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Soy Milk in Many Forms

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Summer Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page(s): 11, 12, and 35

Thousands of years ago the soybean was used as a grain or staple food. It was probably cooked as one would a cereal, congee style, and was one of the main food items in early China. Few doubt that the soybean was a principal part of many meals. Later, the use of this legume changed and changed even more when there were ways to grind it. That process followed by heating it, then filtering the resultant liquid made a milk. When the soy bean was ground fine, it could then be used as a flour. The soybean left whole could also be sprouted, or made into various pastes and sauces. Later still, the Chinese learned to coagulate the milk and make the curds into what we now call bean curd or dofu.

Some think that coagulated soybean milk began in Japan, but that is not the case. Rather, it was in the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1280 CE) that dofu was taken from China to Japan. Records show that it made the journey thanks to Buddhist monks. Once in Japan, however, they made it softer, whiter, and more delicately flavored. In Japan they called it tofu. There is little doubt that dofu’s original homeland was in China.

Dofu probably made its way westward from China in the 1600's. One gentleman, a friar from Europe, wrote about it saying: the Chinese turn the milk into great cakes like cheese. He also said that this food item is white as snow, eaten raw, also boiled and dressed with herbs, fish, and other things, and he said that it could be dried and/or smoked.

Long before that, when soy beans were made into milk, they had to be soaked, ground with water, then heated, filtered, and finally cooled. The Chinese drank the liquid made in this process and they drink it made in other ways. Some say they consume more soy milk now than ever before. They give it to the elderly. They give it to mothers that do not nurse. And, they give it to their babies, even to some of their older children.

When heating soy or any milk, if you let it stay a few minutes, the exposed surface gets a film on the top. This, the Chinese take off, usually with a stick, and hang it up to dry. These dried sticks are called dofu pi. When they cool the milk slightly, then add a coagulant, the milk curdles and the curd is called tohua. The coagulated milk is pressed into large or small blocks called soy bean cakes or dofu. Should the milk be cooked between layers of cloth, these white sheets of soy milk are very soft. They are called chien chang; you may have seen this spelled in various ways.

The pressed cakes of tofu can be frozen. There is an article about iced bean curd in Volume 9(1) on pages 12 and 18. Frozen, it is called tung tofu. When defrosted and used, these once frozen cakes are known as brainy tofu because the texture gets spongy and it looks a little like brains. Mostly unfrozen, the tofu cakes, called bean curd in English, can be purchased as is or they can be bought deep-fried (tofu phao). They can also be dried (tofu kan) or smoked (tofu hsun), or they can be fermented and known ad fuyu. Some people are concerned that these fermented squares are strong tasting, others adore the taste and deem it mild. Once, Irvin Beilin’s family served fuyu to westerners, namely two chaps in the military; those fellows loved it! He writes about that on pages 9 and 10 in this issue.

In markets, bean curd has many names, and in homes it has many uses. Dofu or tofu, it can be purchased somewhat akin to the way it developed in Japan as silken tofu. The coagulant is different than that used for Chinese beancurd; the Japanese use nigiri and the Chinese use calcium or magnesium chloride, or they use one or another sea salt. Chinese dofu is more firm than silken bean curd, and it is the least pressed of Chinese coagulated soy milk. Most bean curd including silken tofu can be found loose or packaged in plastic containers sealed with a thin film of plastic. Keeping out air in this manner helps the bean curd stay fresher longer. Some is found pressed a lot, its edges a lot thinner than the center part; this is usually called firm or hard tofu. Silken bean curd is best used in soups or steamed; and it is commonly used with a minced shrimp and egg white mixture placed in the center of the top, then steamed. It can also be had with half a hundred year old egg on the top.

Soft dofu or tofu is used in soups and in braised dishes. The firm varieties are most often stir-fried or stuffed and then braised, or shallow or deep-fried. Fried bean curd is most often found in bags of ten or more one-inch squares. They are light brown on the outside and light colored on the inside. Using them, one cuts them up and puts the pieces in soups and in braised dishes. These cubes can be cut in half and stuffed; they are often turned inside out before frying, and they can be braised when stuffed.

Extra-firm bean curd can be found after it was boiled with soy sauce and/or five spice flavorings. Called brown bean curd or five flavored bean curd or even spicy bean curd, it is primarily used in stir-fried dishes. It is found plain or boiled with soy sauce and seasonings, and there are markets that call it 'hard' bean curd. When you cook with this variety, cut it into thin slices or noodle-like strips. Actually, some manufacturers are now making this hard variety into noodles; and some call it ‘striped’ tofu. There is another common kind, called fuyu, or fermented tofu. Some call this type 'smelly;' it is found bottled, cut in one-inch squares in a solution of brine that may be clear or red, or another oolor, with or without chili peppers and/or other seasonings.

There is list of ten uses of soy milk, written in Chinese, in the hard copy of this magazine. They are but a handful of the ways you might find soy milk in an Asian market, and are: pressed bean curd, soft beancurd, wrapped beancurd, deep-fried beancurd, beancurd sheet, beancurd puff, dried beancurd, beancrd skin, beancurd sticks, seweet beancuird sheet, and five-spiced beancurd. These items can be on the shelves, in refrigerator cases, and in store freezers. Lest you think these are all that are a available, a group of college students in New York were challenged to see how many kinds they could find in a Chinese supermarket in Flushing, Queens. The winner located forty-three different varieties and won three Chinese cookbooks for her efforts. Can you find these and others in a market near you?

Below are a two recipes that use two different kinds of bean curd. The first is for the dried skin found on top of cooked soy milk, the other for the milk itself. You might want to try both and you should make up some others with any of the many other kinds your find when exploring a Chinese or Asian market.
Lamb and Beancurd Stick
1/4 pound beancurd sticks
4 Tablespoons corn oil
1 pound lamb loin, thinly sliced
6 slices fresh ginger
2 scallions, cut into two-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 teaspoon each of sugar and salt
1 teaspoon mushroom soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/4 cup canned water chestnuts, sliced
1/4 cup straw mushrooms, cut in half the long way
3 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with a like amount of cold water
1. Deep fry beancurd sticks in oil until crispy, then drain them and soak in cold water for one hour. Reserve two tablespoons of the oil and set it aside, Cut the beancurd into two-inch lengths, and set it aside.
2. Blanch the lamb in boiling water, then drain, and set the meat aside and discard the water.
3. Heat the reserved oil and stir-fry the ginger, scallions, and garlic for half a minute. Then add the sugar, salt, all three say sauces, and 1/4 cup water and bring to the boil. Immediately thereafter, add the meat, beancurd pieces, water chestnuts, and mushrooms. Reduce the heat and simmer covered for half an hour.
4. Add the cornstarch mixture and bring to the boil and stir until thickened and clear, then serve.
Swimming Shrimp Dumplings
1 quart soy milk
1/4 pound fresh shrimp, without shells and veins, minced fine
3 Tablespoons minced pork
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
24 wonton skins
1 Tablespoon fresh or frozen peas
a dash of sesame oil
1 teaspoon dry-fried minced red onions (optional)
1. Simmer the milk for fifteen minutes.
2. While it is cooking, mix shrimp, pork, and soy sauce. Put a scant tablespoon of this mixture on one skin and fold as you would a wonton, wetting the edges with water before folding them. Repeat until all the dumplings are made.
3. Bring milk to the boil, add the shrimp dumplings and after they have floated to the top, remove the pan from the heat and add peas and sesame oil. Pour this milk into individual soup bowls and sprinkle each of them with a little red onions or another tasty garnish, then serve.

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