Bend stubborn stones to your culinary will
In most Chinese-American restaurants, with the exception of General Tso’s chicken, the menu items are pretty straightforward – fried rice, beef and broccoli, sweet and sour soup. They describe the ingredients in the dish, which makes interpreting the menu easier for non-Mandarin speakers. If you could read the names in Chinese, it would be a completely different story.
China is a country that places great importance on the meaning of names, and food is no exception. In addition to fresh ingredients and artful presentations, the names of food are used to stimulate appetites and attract diners. Simple dishes are elevated when given a fanciful name. Fish cooked with orange slices becomes “powdered gold and minced jade.”
One of my favorite tofu dishes is named Stubborn Stones’ Obeisance. The name reflects the method used to cook the dish. Bean curd pieces are deep-fried until the outside becomes crispy and golden brown, while the center remains soft. The poetic name suggests hard but compliant rocks.
If the mention of bean curd makes you want to run for the curb, give fried tofu a chance. The qualities people find most off-putting about tofu — its color and texture — are transformed by frying. In Stubborn Stones’ Obeisance, golden nuggets of tofu are combined with umami-rich shiitake mushrooms and oyster sauce to create a dish that lives up to its poetic name.
Stubborn Stones’ Obeisance
- 6 medium-sized dried Chinese mushrooms
- ½ pound fresh spinach
- 1 package extra firm or firm tofu, well drained
- 6 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- Dash white pepper
- ⅔ cup mushroom soaking liquid
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Rinse the mushrooms and then simmer them covered in a small pan with 1 cup water about 10 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid, and slice the mushrooms into thin strips. Wash the spinach thoroughly, and drain well.
Cut the tofu in half horizontally and then cut each half in 9 pieces. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large frying pan over a moderate flame. Fry the bean curd in the hot oil until both sides are golden. Remove fried bean curd to a plate and sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
Remove excess oil from the frying pan and wipe clean. Heat 2 tablespoons oil over a medium flame. When the oil is hot, add first the ginger and then the spinach. Stir fry until the spinach is wilted. Then add the mushrooms, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, pepper and soaking liquid. Mix well and cook for 2 minutes. Add the bean curd, dissolved cornstarch and sesame oil. When the sauce becomes thick, transfer everything to a plate and serve hot with rice on the side.
— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at email@example.com.