It looks like some kind of Frankenstein-esque health food. Tofu and green peas, two foods that don’t often (ever?) inspire drooling or cravings, decide to join forces. Tofu is most commonly made with soybeans, but this is China, a land full of tofu love, and there are not only countless variations on soybean tofu, but tofu made from other beans as well. Here, in Dali, Yunnan, we encountered the green pea tofu (wandou doufu 豌豆豆腐). It looks like a corpulent hunk of cheese, has the consistency of an overly cooked flan, and little to recommend it by way of looks.
I actually detest peas, and even I found the little buggers more appealing fresh. Wan Doufu is sometimes used in Chinese soups, and I’ve found it
rather boring, without the enjoyment soybean tofu brings via comfort and familiarity. However, this is Yunnan, and I have complete faith that in this culinary fantasyland it would be impossible to be served bad street food. And the vendor of this new treat in this ancient town did not fail me. As you see, in the end, Chinese food is all about texture and The Sauces.
A large hunk of the tofu is whacked off the big tofu wheel, and then roughly sliced up and tossed onto a small bed of blanched chives and beansprouts. Then, without further ado, let the saucing commence!
There are no less than 10 sauces tossed with the Franken-tofu. The most amazing though, was the use of three separate but distinct chili oils: there is the hua jiao (花椒 chili oil flavored by Sichuan numbing pepper), regular la jiao (辣椒regular chili oil, thick with dried chilies), and fresh
la jiao (made with fresh chilies, and therefore a spicier but cleaner creature). It was the first time I’ve tasted the mix of this chili oil combination so clearly – the simplicity of the rest of the ingredients made it possible. The chili sauce trio alone would have been delightful enough, but in concert with the peanut, sesame and soy sauces, not to mention a hit of my beloved vinegar, it was a massive sauce party. Even after I was full from tofu, I found myself dipping and licking up sauce from my disposable chopsticks (shameless, I know).
To note, even her collection of sauce jars was amazing. There were giant enamel mugs containing nut sauces, earthenware pots for the soy, glass bottles for the different chili oils. Alas, her hands flew between the jars and spoons so fast it was nigh impossible to figure out the proportions, but some things are perhaps better left a mystery.
Final verdict? Rather fantastic. The sauces I’ve already garbled on (and on) about, but the tofu in this context is a winner as well. It’s texture is at once smoother and more paste-like than soybean tofu, and there is a bit of sticky in each bite. It’s mellow but has a hint of the fragrance of peas and springtime. I’d say soybean tofu was cleaner and more gelatinous, like Jell-O, and green bean tofu is waxier and more pudding-like, akin to flan or a custard. Texture-wise, it’s got an interesting mouth feel and is not so smooth that sauce doesn’t cling to it lightly. Thus, this hunk of Franken-food is nothing if not the perfect vehicle for the genius saucery concocted from that mad and wonderful collection of jars.
Location: Wet Market on Renmin Lu, Dali Old City, Yunnan