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.
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.
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