Tofu Brains (豆腐脑 dòufu nǎo)

豆腐脑 dòufu nǎo (Tofu Brains)

It was a cold, rainy night in Yangzhou this past March. I was out walking in the old town section of Yangzhou looking for something quick, and hot to eat for dinner. When you are in an area that does not have central heating in its buildings, 40 degrees feels much, much colder. And after several days, the cold seems to wear you down a bit.

I passed a very small restaurant crowded with people. This is always a good sign that good, fresh food is being served. In fact, I would suggest that you avoid empty restaurants no matter how good the food looks. There’s a reason why restaurants are crowded. At the entrance to the restaurant, outside, was a table with dozens of white bowls arranged on it. In each bowl was a ceramic spoon with some broth in it, freshly chopped garlic, finely chopped chili pepper, cilantro, and a few other ingredients that I am not sure of.

Bowls waiting for tofu

I asked the woman working there what this dish was called. She looked at me like I was an idiot and replied, “dòufu nǎo (豆腐脑).” Her tone was like, “duh.” Well, I admit that as much as I love Chinese food, and have been eating it all over China for 25+ years, I had never seen or heard of this dish.

After diners paid for the bowl of Tofu Brains, the women would then take a large flat ladle and scoop out several thin layers of soft, hot tofu from a large crock and ladle it into the bowl. You then took your bowl, and found a place to sit down inside. You then gently stir the tofu up into the other ingredients to make a soup as seen in the first photograph.

Preparing the dish

Wow! It was amazing. The tofu was soft, silky, and hot, and the broth was deep and complex. The heat of the tofu gently cooked the freshly chopped vegetables, and it had just the right amount of salt. The wonderful thing about tofu is its ability to absorb the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. This dish was exceptional. It really hit the spot on this cold, wet night.

I admit the name of this dish, Tofu Brains, is a bit graphic, but who cares when it is so delicious (and the fact that there are no real brains in it). I was beginning to have recollections of a soft tofu dish sort of like this common in Southern China, called 豆腐花 dòufu huā or 豆花 dòuhuā for short. This dish uses the same kind of soft, silky tofu but it is sweet and eaten cold, particularly in the summer when it is hot. It is pretty refreshing. This can be translated as ‘jellied tofu’ even though it literally means ‘tofu flower.’

I wish I would have spent more time analyzing the dish to figure out exactly what was in it. I guess I could also have asked the woman working there what was in it. But I was cold, and hungry, and I gobbled down the bowl without giving it a whole lot of thought. I then scurried off in the rain back to my hotel.

If you don’t like tofu, you probably wouldn’t like this dish, but if you do, I highly recommend it. There are quite a few variations of this dish all around China. For example, in Sichuan Province, it will likely be spiked with lots of fresh chili peppers and be very spicy. The Yangzhou variety had a hint of spice, but like most Huaiyang Cuisine, tasted fresh with delicate flavors. This certainly won’t be my last bowl of Tofu Brains

One of my favorite Chinese dishes

I love Chinese food. Eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China once or twice or three times each year. Some of my favorite dishes are not the fancy stuff you get at banquets, but the simple everyday dishes that you can get at just about any restaurant.

In May I took a group of friends, most of them their first time in China, to a nice restaurant in  Beijing. I had eaten there before and it was a nice balance of well prepared food, cleanliness, without be too expensive. It is off a side street at the northern end of Wangfujing Street and is called Siji Minfu 四季民福 (sìjì mínfú). The dish is called 干煸四季豆 (gānbiān sìjìdòu). It can be translated as ‘dry-cooked string beans’. It is just a coincidence that the name of the restaurant and the name of the dish are the same. Actually 四季 (sìjì) means ‘four seasons.’ The dish is made with finely ground pork, dried chili pepper, and garlic and the beans are cooked in a lot of oil, almost deep fried, then stir-fried with the other ingredients. The beans are tender and chewy with a little crisp to them, and the meat and peppers give it a nice salty crunch. It is truly a wonderful dish. To really make you salivate, you need to click on the photo.

干煸四季豆 (gānbiān sìjìdòu); “Dry-cooked string beans”

Conversation with a Monk

Butter lamps (candles) found inside all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries

Back in May when I was in Tibet we visited quite a few Buddhist monasteries. I have always loved temples and monasteries as they are such a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of life outside, especially those in China proper. They are quiet and peaceful. I have always been drawn to monks as well. I’m interested in their stories, why they decided to become monks, and if they enjoy what they do.

While in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze I had an interesting discussion with the monk pictured below. He allowed me to photograph him with my iPhone.

Monk in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze

I had chatted with him briefly in the main prayer/meditation hall. I had asked him about some prayer beads that were in a glass case. We just exchanged a few words. A bit later as I was walking toward the door to leave, he approached me and softly touched my shoulder. I turned and he asked me if I had a few minutes to talk. It is a great blessing to be able to speak Chinese and talk with these people, even though Chinese is not their native language. Unfortunately my Tibetan skills are very rudimentary, and consist of a few phrases. He led me across the hall to the low padded benches where the monks sit in prayer, meditation, and chanting.

We sat on the low bench in the left of the photo. The benches are covered in wool carpets.

We sat down facing each other; then he asked me a question that totally took me by surprise. He said,

“There is a cell phone brand called Apple. Have you ever heard of it?”

I almost laughed. He said they are made here in China and they are very popular but also very expensive. I told him that I had heard of them and that they are very popular in the US as well and that Apple is an American company. I pulled out my iPhone and showed it to him. Then he pulled an iPhone from inside his burgundy robes and showed me his. I was not surprised that a monk had a cell phone as I had seen many monks talking on cell phones. I was surprised about his interest particularly in iPhones. He asked how much they cost in the US. Then he told me that they cost about 5000 yuan in China, which is about $800 US dollars. I was pretty surprised. I asked him if he liked his iPhone. He replied nonchalantly,

“It’s okay, I guess. But there isn’t much to do with it.”

Most of a monks income comes from their families and donations from others. I suspect someone probably gave him the phone.

I asked him about himself. He was 28 years old and had been at Pochu Monastery for the past 13 years. The monastery was built in 1418. He came from a small village about an hour outside Gyantze. One of his older brothers was also a monk and an older sister was a nun. His other brother was at home working the farm growing barley. He had another sister that lived in Lhasa. I asked him why he decided to become a monk. He told me that even as a young child he had always been attracted to the monasteries and temples in the area. He felt something different, something peaceful in these sacred places. His parents sensed this and encouraged him to become a monk. It is common for Tibetan families to have at least one family member become a monk or nun. It brings great merit and honor to a family. He said he enjoyed being a monk and had no intention of ever leaving. Another monk joined us and we chatted a bit longer. Their Chinese was not great, but good enough to communicate.

All Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have a prayer hall where all the monks can gather for instruction from the abbot, chant scriptures, pray, and meditate. The prayer hall at the Pochu Monastery was quite large. It consisted of rows of low padded benches where monks would sit crossed legged. At each of the these stations was their formal robes, a distinct gold colored hat shaped like a banana, their book of scripture, and a wooden bowl used at meal times. Below are a few photos from inside the prayer hall. These halls can be quite dark, but my Nikon P300 with it’s f/1.8 lens (on the wide end) did an okay job in these dim places, though they are not the greatest photos. The fastest lens I had on my Nikon D90 was a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5. This was not quite fast enough to get clear shots inside most monasteries. As usual, click on any photo for a larger and better view.

The main prayer hall.

Inside the prayer hall

Tools fo the trade—robes, scriptures, and a wooden bowl

Well-worn Tibetan Buddhist scriptures

Prostrating pilgrim in the main prayer hall.

Buddha figures at Pochu Monastery

In another smaller hall I met a group of teenaged monks chanting their scriptures under the direction of an older monk who was leading the group. When they took a break, they were very animated and I had a fun time teasing them. They asked where I was from and when I responded that I was an American, one of the boys pointed to another sitting next to him and said he was an American too. I looked at him and said,

“Really? He looks more like a Canadian.” Pointing to another I said, “And he looks like a German, and he a Frenchman.”

They were roaring with laughter.

Teenaged monks chanting scriptures in a smaller hall.

An older monk was leading them in their chanting with these leaves of scripture. Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are often loose-leaf like this.

Entrance to the main prayer hall at Pochu Monastery

Pochu Monastery buildings

Prayer flag pole and buildings

Pilgrims circumambulating the temple grounds

Pilgrim spinning her prayer wheel

Pilgrims exiting one of the prayer halls

The ancient Gyantze fortress rising above the city.