Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.

Advertisements

Long Live the Short Stack

From puritanical health food to reviled processed junk and back again, granola has gone on a wild ride in terms of public perception over the years. Toasted whole grains, enriched with fruits and nuts, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of the basic concept, or why it’s had such staying power despite unpredictable shifts in nutritional decrees. Indulgence needn’t be linked to unsavory ingredients or wanton disregard for sound dietary advice, though. Granola can be smart way to treat yourself, without any sacrifice.

Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday suffers from a similar image problem. Pancakes were originally singled out as the culinary splurge of choice because the traditional inclusions of eggs, sugar, and fat would be forbidden during the Lenten fast to follow. Using them up to make fluffy, sweet short stacks would make sure they wouldn’t simply go to waste. Why can’t we have our [pan]cakes and eat healthfully, too?

Boost your breakfast with a sweet yet smart way to celebrate. Fluffy pancakes meet the unbeatable combination of toasted oats, crunchy nuts, and chewy dried fruits with the simple addition of ready-made granola. This satisfying morning meal proves that with the right recipe, any food can not only taste good, but be good for you, too.

Continue reading “Long Live the Short Stack”

Fresh Off the Boat

One of the most buzz-worthy restaurant openings of recent months, much has already been written about FOB Kitchen in Oakland, California. Filipino food is quickly gaining mainstream traction, but remains relatively rare in an elevated dining atmosphere, particularly in an accessible, approachable format. Given the circumstances, such breathless anticipation can be forgiven. Clamoring for something new, the dining public is absolutely eating this stuff up- And not just for the novelty factor.

In a culture ruled by pork, vegan options are rare at best, but not so on the menu at the Temescal treasure. FOB Kitchen goes out of their way to provide meatless eats for their diverse, discerning Californian clientele.

Tofu-mushroom adobo, the entree that earns the most critical attention, is the result of recipe testing for over a year to get the flavors just right. Garlic-forward in the best way possible, aromatic onions and peppers give this lightly stewed combination its essential character, enhanced by a generous hand with the coconut oil for a luxurious eating experience.

Ensalada talong, an unassuming eggplant salad, turned out to be the sleeper hit of the evening, dazzling with a bright vinegar dressing sprinkled across crisp jicama, tomato, with the surprising briny bite of sea asparagus woven among tender braised eggplant and shredded mango. Crunchy broken rice crackers crown the melange with a satisfying toasted note, essentially allowing eaters to indulge in forkfuls of chips and chunky dip without looking like brutes. This dish alone is worth a return visit.

Kabocha squash also dazzles with stunning depth, stewed in coconut milk alongside long beans and onions. Such simplicity belies the incredible richness of each melt-in-your-mouth soft orange cube.

Pancit sontaghon, simple glass noodles with a handful of colorful vegetables, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle, but still satisfies with its savory soy sauce-infused translucent strands.

Suman, a variation on mango sticky rice, presents the starch as a completely smooth cylinder on the plate that bears only gentle resistance to the fork. Topped with caramelized coconut crumbs, the lightly bitter notes contrast beautifully with the tropical fruit arranged on the side. Though I might personally prefer more sauce, it could probably be served in a soup bowl and I’d still have the same complaint.

Beginning life as a fledgling pop-up back in 2015, the name is an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat,” but I truly hope they’re dropping anchor to stay a good long while.

Of Cabbages and Kings

How many people are genuinely excited to find cabbage on a menu? Not stuffed cabbage rolls or cabbage with corned beef, but just cabbage, dense green leaves alone, sans modifiers. In the US, I’d wager that number would fall somewhere in the lowest possible percentile rank, but that’s only because of inexperience taming the brassica. Take a trip out to Taiwan though, and you’d see very different polling results. Elevating a more diverse range of lesser loved greens as some might honor fine cuts of meat, the dining scene treats vegetables with much greater respect simply by default. Every crop is treasured, allowed to shine in their own rights, and that’s where I first truly discovered my affinity for the humble cabbage.

Stir-fried on the hot teppanyaki grill that stretches in a horseshoe around mad scrambling chefs in the center, huge piles of shredded greenery wilt down into compact piles instantly. Intense heat sears the bottom, locking in a light touch of char, smoky and dark, while the upper leaves steam into meltingly soft submission. With a front seat to the full show, I watched rapt, the drama unfolding hot and heavy before my eyes. In a sudden plot twist, no more than five minutes after placing the initial order, the hot foil in front of me was filled with steaming strands of silky greenery, theoretically keeping warm for prolonged enjoyment but devoured just as quickly as it had been completed.

How could plain, ugly old cabbage taste so good? It was almost infuriating how delicious this completely ungarnished dish was. There were no tricks, not even MSG to bolster it, and yet I had never experienced anything like it before.

Everything comes down to ingredients, of course. Since there are so few of them, every last addition makes a huge impact, right down to the quality of the beans going into the soy sauce. Most essential is selecting Taiwanese cabbage, which is different from more common savoy, white, red, or standard North American green. Flat, smooth, and the size of a small kitchen appliance, it’s not uncommon for them to weigh in at 6 pounds a head or more. Much sweeter and more crisp than most drab coleslaw fodder, it has the integrity to speak for itself in such a bold feature. Head to your local international market and ask for Li-Sun cabbage or Li-Sun Sweet cabbage if you’re struggling to pin one down.

From there, season with a deft hand. Remember that everything else is used to amplify the greenery here, not cover it up. It’s hard to explain the incredible depth of this dish without actually placing a few sizzling strands of it directly into your mouth, but I’ll resist. For that first, doubtful attempt, it takes a bit of blind trust, but you’ll understand that magnetic attraction once that alchemical transformation happens right before your plate.

Yield: 4 - 6 Servings

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage

Stir-Fried Taiwanese Cabbage
Cabbage like you've never tasted before. Tender, rich, and almost buttery, this fast stir-fry will change the way you think about the humble green leaves.
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Avocado or Peanut Oil
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1 Pound Taiwanese Cabbage, Sliced into 1/2-Inch Wide Ribbons
  • 1 Tablespoon Light Soy Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Shaoxing Rice Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Sugar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for a few seconds until aromatic and lightly browned. Stir in the cabbage until all the pieces are thoroughly coated in oil before covering the pan. Let cook, undisturbed, for 1 minute.
  2. Sprinkle in the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes (if using) and salt all at once, increasing the heat to high, and cook until the cabbage is tender; 2 - 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 50 Total Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 276mg Carbohydrates: 6g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 3g Protein: 1g

Look Out for Lemons

Heads up!

If you’re not paying attention, there’s a real danger of being pummeled by falling fruit while walking the city streets of Berkeley. Woven in among the cozy cafes and compact apartment buildings, fruit trees flourish, exploding with fragrant citrus fruits that rain down like hail on the unsuspecting passersby below. Streets are littered with lemons, oranges, and other unidentified flaxen orbs, as if a fruit cart had overturned on its way to market. Some shatter upon impact, hemorrhaging precious sweet nectar in a macabre spray, but many others remain perfectly intact, perfectly viable for salvage.

Like any other compassionate cook, I’ve taken it upon myself to rescue any forlorn fruit. Given the conditions, you could understand why my fridge is overflowing with citrus, particularly Meyer lemons, which land in my direct path on the way to the bus.

Best practices for managing the surplus is expeditious disassembly, before they have time to spoil. Zest and juice all fruits, freezing liquids in ice cube trays and solids in little baggies. I’m not much for canning, but I like to think of my freezer as an icy pantry, extending the life of these abundant sweet and sour gems for later days.

Thrifty and measured as I am, don’t think for a minute that some of this gracious surfeit hasn’t been used for more immediate gratification.

Crisp, lightly sweetened shortbread cookies come to life with the bright acidity of fresh lemons, which also plays off the natural bitter edge of raw cacao nibs. Though undeniably buttery, their richness comes entirely from olive oil, adding a complementary grassy, peppery undertone. Irresistibly adorable spoon molds make them the ideal shape for dunking, but a regular old round cake pan will do the trick for simple, standard wedges.

Even if the urban landscape isn’t quite so generous in your locale, now is the time to enjoy citrus of all shapes and sizes, so stock up!

Yield: 16 - 18 Cookies

Lemon-Cacao Crunch Shortbread Cookies

Lemon-Cacao Crunch Shortbread Cookies
Crisp, lightly sweetened shortbread cookies come to life with the bright acidity of fresh lemons, which also plays of the natural bitter edge of raw cacao nibs. Though undeniably buttery, their richness comes entirely from olive oil, adding a complementary grassy, peppery undertone.
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/4 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1/2 Cup Confectioner's Sugar
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 Cup Cacao Nibs
  • 1/2 Cup Olive Oil
  • 2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
  • 1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 325 and set out (but do not grease) a spoon-shaped baking tray or a 9-inch round springform pan.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, and the salt. Add in the cacao nibs and toss to coat with the dry ingredients.
  3. Separately, mix the oil, lemon juice, and zest together before pouring the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry. Stir well to combine; you may need to use your hands, as it's a very thick, stiff dough.
  4. If using spoon molds, fill each indentation about 3/4 of the way to the top, pressing firmly to make sure there are no gaps. For a springform pan, gather the dough into one large ball and press it flat and even across the bottom. Score into thin wedges with a sharp knife.
  5. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, until lightly browned.
  6. For cookies baked in a springform pan, they may need to be re-scored at this point and baked for another 5 minutes, depending on spread and color.
  7. Let cool completely in the pans.

Notes

Both unbaked dough and finished cookies keep well in the freezer. Baked cookies keep for 2 weeks in an airtight container at room temperature.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

18

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 135 Total Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 2g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 31mg Carbohydrates: 13g Fiber: 1g Sugar: 3g Protein: 2g