In the weeks before lockdown, I saw a post by Nina Mingya Powles on Twitter which answered an urgent question I had about the state of London’s doufu hua scene. I was in the middle of composing a message to Angela Hui, food writer and voracious lover of douhua, but it turned out she’d already beaten me to it. So there was good douhua in Chinatown after all - right under our noses. We made plans to go there, separately or together, plans which were thwarted soon enough. I’ve had bad luck with douhua so far in London - if Far East opens again, you will find me there, soup spoon in hand, shoveling cold curds and syrup into my mouth.
An explanation of what douhua is for the uninitiated is forthcoming in today’s moving and unusual newsletter from Nina herself. It’s one of the world’s great breakfasts, based around the austere plainness of soy; a rhapsody in white, especially with a hot bowl of doujiang on the side and a youtiao to dip into it. It hits all the childhood pleasure points of a hot bowl of porridge swirled with sweet honey, even if tofu was never part of your childhood. It’s also possible to make yourself, as long as you can wait three days to soak the beans. And in this economy, why wouldn’t you?
Today’s newsletter is also much more of a collaboration that usual. Reading Nina’s piece you might be struck by the natural poetry of Mandarin, the way that words are composed of discrete building blocks (although their characters are themselves built from blocks of radical characters) meaning that even simple words rely on the juxtaposition of two or more ideas. Doufu itself is composed of the characters for ‘bean’ and ‘decay’; douhua shortens doufu and adds the character for flower; the soy bean is not soy but huangdou, the yellow bean. With this repetition of dou 豆 (bean) throughout like punctuation, artist Cai Zhang has provided beautiful calligraphy for each segment - a short glossary for those who wish to brush up on their characters is available at the end.
Tofu Heart, by Nina Mingya Powles (art and calligraphy by Cai Zhang)
It’s still dark when I wake. I feel for my phone and scroll through updates of lockdown life back home, which looks much the same as always: hot pink sunsets, home-baked hot cross buns.
My friend Rose posted a picture of a bowl of fresh dòufu huā and homemade yóutiáo. I hold my finger down on the screen to stop the image from disappearing, a pang of hunger in my belly. I can see the tofu’s wobbly texture; I can feel the shape of the soft curds in my mouth.
If I translate “dòufu huā” into English, it loses some of its taste, its shape. The direct translation is “tofu flower” and Beijingers call it dòufunǎo, “tofu brains.” In English you could call it “soft beancurd,” or even “jellied tofu” as my dictionary app suggests. “Tofu pudding” is the one translation that makes sense to me, owing to its custard-like texture.
When I was a student in Shanghai, I lived down the road from a small eatery that served breakfast all day: spring onion oil noodles, deep-fried sesame balls, dòufu huā. I went there often on my own. Their chilli oil glowed fluorescent orange, the colour of a Shanghai summer night. Tender layers of tofu floated in the bowl in the shape of a wide-open peony.
One of my last meals before lockdown was at Far East on Gerrard Street. I had been trying to get to Chinatown as often as possible; I’d heard from friends that the place had gone eerily quiet. Far East is a little cramped, cash only, and the only place I’ve found that serves hot dòujiang and dòuhuā at all hours of the day.
The air outside is sharp but no longer cold enough for my scarf and gloves, which I shove into the pockets of my coat. I’m served the biggest yóutiáo I’ve ever seen; I have to rip it with my hands before lifting the pieces with my chopsticks. I tuck my hair behind my ears with greasy fingers before lifting the bowl of dòuhuā to my lips. My ends are coarse and splitting from the dry winter.
Last week a white relative posted a racist meme in our family WhatsApp group. I was already exhausted from anxiety; I didn’t have the energy to respond. Some other family members scolded him privately. I am still interested in the question of how and why he decided to take a screenshot on Facebook, save it to his phone, upload it to WhatsApp, and hit ‘send’.
The Cambridge Dictionary definition of tofu reads: “a soft, pale food that has very little flavour but is high in protein, made from the seed of the soya plant.” I feel sad for the person who wrote this. Lots of white people wrinkle their noses at the mention of “beancurd” and I get flustered when this happens. My cheeks grow hot, I wave my arms in lieu of words.
“Beancurd” is one of my favourite words in English. It’s firm on the outside but soft in the middle, where the springy mouthfeel of bean blends with the warm liquid curd. In Mandarin, too, “dòufu” is composed of soft sounds. But to say the word requires a gentle bite, the tip of your tongue touching the back of your teeth.
Today I’m daydreaming about a particular dish: the jiācháng dòufu at Red Hill, a northern-Chinese restaurant on Manners Mall in Wellington, my hometown. When I was at uni we’d go there for the dumplings and the karaoke: Christina Aguilera’s first two albums interspersed with Canto-pop. Their deep-fried tofu has a chewy skin that absorbs the black-bean sauce.
There’s a famous Hakka dish of braised tofu cubes stuffed with pork: niàng dòufu. Mum says Po Po used to make it a lot. I remember Po Po placing it in the centre of the table in one of her blue-rimmed serving dishes with slender fish painted on the sides. The tofu wobbled strangely under the fluorescent lamp.
In my Mandarin class a few years ago we studied Chinese funeral practices, which are innumerable and still unfamiliar to me, since I’ve never attended a funeral of a Chinese family member of mine. The vegetarian funeral banquet is sometimes called the dòufufàn, the tofu dinner. We learned that tofu is left as an offering on graves because it’s soft enough to be swallowed by a ghost.
It’s Qīngmíng today, Tomb Sweeping Festival, but many families all over the world cannot gather to mourn their dead.
To make dòuhuā at home you need three ingredients: water, soybeans and a coagulant, most commonly gypsum powder, which sets the soy milk into tofu. According to Andrea Nguyen, the author of Asian Tofu, gypsum produces “loftier curds.” Normally I’d look on eBay, but I feel guilty buying non-essential things online, so I opt for one of Nguyen’s suggested alternatives: lemon juice.
In the background of my mind there’s that grinding pressure to create, to make good use of this time. But my body feels worn down, my nerves tenderized. The slow process of soaking, rinsing, blending and squeezing soybeans is the only form of creating that I’m currently capable of.
I have never held a soybean in my palm until today. It is round, smooth, and creamy pale gold in colour. Huáng dòu – yellow bean.
On the 18th day of lockdown, I put one cup of soybeans in a bowl to soak overnight. In the morning they had swollen, splitting cleanly in half when I squeezed them between my fingers. While the beans simmered gently for forty minutes, I rolled the dough for cōngyóubǐng – something crisp to dip in my dòuhuā.
To transform dòujiang into dòuhuā – from milk into flower – a few teaspoons of lemon juice is all it takes. This recipe tells me to cover the pot and wait one hour for the dòuhuā to set, but I can’t stop peeking. Eventually the skimmed surface of the milk begins to change: shimmering, wobbling.
Sitting on the kitchen floor waiting for my phone timer to buzz, I scroll through Twitter, where I see images of people in Beijing standing metres apart holding yellow chrysanthemums, their heads bowed.
There’s a well-known phrase: “刀子嘴巴, 豆腐心.” It means, literally, “knife mouth, tofu heart.” In other words, sharp-tongued but soft-hearted.
My dòuhuā’s curds are not lofty, nor do they float in perfect petalled layers. But they have set a little, which is something. The taste is more sour than regular tofu. There’s still that beany richness on my tongue.
I ladle the soupy pudding into a rice bowl and sprinkle it with dark brown sugar and a little fresh ginger – my lazy version of “ginger-infused sugar syrup,” which I’ve run out of energy to make. Today, I need something sweet and soft. I take a picture and post it in the family chat.
刀子嘴巴 Dāozi zuǐbā - Knife Mouth
豆花 Dòu(fu)huā - Tofu flower
豆脑 Dòu(fu)nǎo - Tofu brains
豆浆 Dòujiāng - Soy milk
豆腐 Dòufu - Tofu (soy beancurd)
豆腐皮 Dòufu pí - Tofu skin
豆腐饭 Dòufu fàn - Tofu dinner (literally, tofu rice)
豆泡 Dòu pào - Tofu puff
黃豆 Huángdòu - Soy bean (literally, yellow bean)
豆腐心 Dòufu xīn - Tofu heart
Nina Mingya Powles is a half-Chinese writer and poet from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her book Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghaiwas published this year by The Emma Press. She lives in London. She was paid for this newsletter
CAI is a visual artist, lecturer and a brand strategist based in London. https://www.linkedin.com/in/caizhang/ She was paid for this newsletter.