Stir-Fried Yu Choy With Fermented Tofu (Furu Yu Choy)
Published Jan 21, 2023, Updated Feb 12, 2024
The Versatility of Chinese Cheese
Furu, or fermented tofu, is at first mysterious. Little cubes of noticeably fermented, yellowy beige or gray tofu come packed in shelf-stable jars with a flavorful brine. To the uninitiated, it can be scary. But those who have tried it know that furu is yet another in the vast Chinese cupboard of ultra-umami condiments.
Furu is a product and flavor that Fongchong introduced me to not long after she became my daughter in 2011. In the first few months of her life in America communication was rough, with my very basic Mandarin and her non-existent English. But we’d make our weekly outing to the Asian supermarket on the west side of Nashville, and she’d cruise the aisles, adding all kinds of stuff to the cart—stuff I had often never tried, even though I had traveled to China many times.
Fongchong was 11 years old then, and knew what she liked. And furu was something she liked, mostly eaten as a side dish with rice or congee. When we tasted it, this amused her dad and me to no end. This child, who abhorred the very thought of cheese and refused to even try it, nevertheless loved this creamy white fermented substance with a funk and tang that’s a match for blue cheese. In fact, fermented bean curd is often called Chinese cheese, so similar is it in look, texture and taste to aged cheese.
Fongchong is not lactose-intolerant (she could eat whipped cream by the bucket); she just plain doesn’t like cheese, having not grown up with it in any form. As we all know, delicious and disgusting are not objective descriptors but have more to do with what we ate at an early age. We ate cheese and Fongchong ate furu. But although I have come to love furu, a dozen years later and FC still won’t touch anything with cheese in it.
No matter how many times I tell her that feta cheese is not any stronger or weirder tasting than furu, she won’t believe me. Just like many of you will not believe me that furu is no stronger or weirder than feta. But to each his own cheese, and it is perfectly fine with us that while we top our pasta marinara with parmesan cheese, Fongchong tops her with furu.
The Mala Market’s Furu
As I said, I now love furu—so much so that I wanted to make sure we got a stellar example of it when we launched it at The Mala Market. Fermented tofu is made all over China, and as with most things, it can taste quite different depending on its provenance. It can be inoculated with varying microbes or ferment from airborne wild mold; it can be fermented once or twice; it can be aged a short time or long; and it can be fermented and packed in brines with greatly differing flavor profiles. Case in point: Eastern China’s red fermented tofu, which comes in a deep-red sauce spiked with red yeast rice, tastes quite distinct from the kind of white fermented tofu found in western China, which is usually packed in a light chili oil-type sauce.
I looked to Sichuan, of course, determined to find the province’s “Famous Brand,” which usually denotes the originator or the oldest and longest-loved maker of a particular product. That led me to Jiajiang Furu, made since 1861 in Jiajiang County, which is part of greater Leshan (of Giant Buddha fame) in central Sichuan. We chose the company’s “fresh-fragrant” flavor, a white furu in a mild chili oil, with just a hint of heat from the chilies and Sichuan pepper, and a touch of boozy rice wine, none of which detracts from the salty, creamy, tangy funk of the furu itself.
Stir-Fried Yu Choy With Fermented Tofu
Probably the most common way to eat furu in China is smeared on a steamed bun for breakfast. It’s similarly good as a spread for toast. A little plate of it often accompanies congee or rice. Others put that umami to use in a marinade, sauce or hotpot dip.
My favorite traditional use is as a mildly salty, slightly boozy sauce for Chinese greens. Taiwan and Guangdong bestow this treatment on ong choy/kong xin cai, or hollow-stemmed water spinach, which is Fongchong’s favorite green. But I cannot always get my hands on that green, so here I am using the furu sauce on yu choy/you cai, the most common green in Sichuan, and my personal favorite. It also works with bok choy—and even romaine lettuce.
But don’t stop with greens! Furu makes a tasty sauce for all manner of food, such as stir-fried cauliflower, deep-fried potatoes or steamed eggplant.
If you are cooking the delicate ong choy in furu, as our friends at The Woks of Life have done, you can simply stir-fry the greens in the sauce. But for more substantial greens like yu choy or bok choy, blanching them first makes for better texture and taste, leaving them more tender and less oily. It’s definitely worth the extra effort and pan. For elegant plating, look for young yu choy and simply separate the stalks, or baby bok choy (the tiny kind) and cut in half vertically. Alternatively, cut the greens in large bite-sizes pieces.
In the blanched version, the residual water from the blanching will dilute the furu sauce a bit and make for more sauce on the plate, while the stir-fried-only greens will just be coated with sauce and will taste more strongly of it.
Stir-Fried Yu Choy With Fermented Tofu (Furu Yu Choy)
- 1½ cubes white fermented tofu (furu) (Jiajiang preferred)
- 1 tablespoon chili-oil sauce that furu is packed in
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- ¼ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1 pound young yu choy/you cai or baby bok choy
- 3-4 cloves garlic, sliced
- In a small bowl, mash fermented tofu with a fork. Add the furu sauce, wine, soy sauce and salt and mix until smooth.
- Set a large pot of water to boil. Wash yu choy and separate any particularly large, multi-stemmed stalks into single stalks. Cut long stalks into large bite-size pieces. You can leave short stalks whole. (If using very small baby bok choy, cut in half vertically; cut larger bok choy into large bite-size pieces.) Add greens to boiling water for just 30 seconds. Remove with tongs and shake excess water off the greens. Rest them on a paper-towel lined plate or bowl to absorb additional water.
- Working quickly, heat wok over a medium flame and add 1 tablespoon neutral oil. Add sliced garlic and cook until it is lightly golden, stirring constantly so it doesn't burn. Add furu sauce and bring to a simmer. Add yu choy and gently stir-fry it in the sauce. Cook just until the yu choy is done to your liking, 1-2 minutes, depending on stalk size. Remove yu choy to a plate and pour sauce over the top of it. Serve hot.
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